Chinese president Xi Jinping has a new slogan: “Zero” — the goal of reducing to zero the number of cases of the Wuhan coronavirus, aka COVID-19. Reaching zero is crucial to achieving his broader goal of global leadership and domination. Xi must show the world that the totalitarian Chinese political system is vindicated by the defeat of the virus. The truth about COVID-19 inside China is the greatest obstacle to his ambition.
For years now, Beijing has tried to position China under the Communist Party as the champion and leader of a new, emerging, post-American global order. At the Davos conclave in 2017, Xi spoke of his government’s determination to play a responsible role in defending and contributing to multilateral efforts to “secure peace and reduce poverty.” He was applauded for opposing protectionism. All states, he intoned, should “view their own interests in a broader context” and “refrain from pursuing their own interests at the expense of others.” China has assiduously asserted influence in global institutions, especially United Nations bodies, where Chinese nationals lead four of 15 specialized agencies. In his speech at the special summit of G20 leaders on March 26, Xi showed his determination to build his own image as a world leader.
For him to succeed in his long march through the international community, he needs to have a reputation for success at addressing challenges such as COVID-19. As two veteran China watchers, Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, pointed out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, one’s legitimacy as a global leader depends on domestic governance, the provision of global public goods, and the ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises. To lead the world response to the pandemic, China must set an example for the rest of the world to follow.
The long-term plan hit a large speed bump with revelations about the regime’s malfeasance in covering up COVID-19, and the Communist Party’s efforts to turn the story around, making itself heroic, are well documented. But the plan could run aground if a second outbreak, which some experts warn is inevitable, occurs in China. In this situation, the regime is turning reflexively to traditional Communist tactics: propaganda and the control of information.
Neutralizing Independent Media
China has expelled reporters for the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, sources it cannot control. The regime has clamped down increasingly on independent journalists as its domestic practices have become increasingly inhumane, especially with respect to its repression of religious minorities, including Uighur Muslims, who have been subjected to mass internment.
China ranks low in international measures of press freedom. Last year, in a survey of 180 countries with respect to media independence, media pluralism, and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, Reporters Without Borders ranked China 177th. In “Control, Halt, Delete: Reporting in China Under Threat of Expulsion,” a new report from the Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC), foreign journalists document practices that Chinese authorities have employed that have severely affected their reporting.
Beijing has delayed and placed restrictions on visas for foreign journalists. While the standard length of a long-term journalist visa, J-1, is one year, many foreign correspondents who have reported critically about the Chinese regime have received curtailed visas. In 2018, five correspondents received curtailed visas. In 2019, at least a dozen received visas for six months or less. Truncated visas require frequent renewal, and Beijing has made that process more arduous not just for the journalists but for their families as well. This practice is called out in the FCCC report.
Three correspondents from Wall Street Journal were expelled on February 19 over an opinion piece critical of Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” the headline read. In announcing the expulsions, a foreign-ministry spokesman called the article “racist.” It was the first time in more than two decades that journalists holding valid credentials had been ordered to leave China, although since 2013 others have been expelled in effect, through non-renewal of their visas.
Beijing has also established red lines for foreign correspondents. In particular, anything critical of Xi Jinping and his family is forbidden. Last year, Beijing declined to renew the credentials of another Wall Street Journal reporter, who had reported about investigations, in Australia, into the activities of one of Xi’s cousins, who was suspected of involvement in organized crime and money laundering. In the FCCC report, the bureau chief of an English-language news organization is quoted as saying that the Chinese foreign ministry had explicitly told them that they would face the “anger of other arms of the government,” and not just the foreign ministry, if they wrote the “wrong pieces about Xi.”
Criticism of the treatment of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang has also drawn the ire of the authorities. In 2018, Megha Rajagopalan, the Beijing bureau chief for BuzzFeed News, was unable to renew her visa. During her six years in China, Rajagopalan had reported extensively on human-rights abuses, including the detention of Uighurs and others in Xinjiang province. The Committee to Protect Journalists considers the government’s refusal to renew visas in such cases to be “acts of retribution.”
Last year, CNN’s Beijing correspondent Matt Rivers reported extensively on how, during his trip to Xinjiang province, he had been subjected to repeated visa checks, harassment by local officials, attempts by the authorities to block his reporting, and physical trailing. The FCCC report adds that Chinese authorities, through intimidation and explicit warnings, regularly pressure people to avoid speaking to foreign media representatives. Journalists and their sources are monitored by facial recognition and other surveillance techniques.
Of course, China also extensively censors new media. A Harvard University study found that Chinese authorities block as many as 18,000 websites, including many standard, independent sources of international news. Among the terms censored on the Internet are “human rights,” “oppression,” and references to Tiananmen Square and the dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. The BBC, which had often reported critically on the Chinese government, is blocked in China. All books published in China are censored. The extent of censorship and control over the media by the CCP cannot be better described than by Xi Jinping himself, who in 2016 said, “All the media must bear the Party’s surname.”
Breaking the Media Blockage
The Zero campaign depends on censorship and makes it a universal political obligation for Chinese citizens to collectively deny their own public-health crisis. That China’s health statistics are manipulated for the Communist Party’s political benefit is not news. Local officials, medical personnel, and, indeed, the entire society need to participate in the deception. It is the newest of a string of impossible tasks that the Communist Party has demanded of the Chinese people, reminiscent of Mao’s absurd productivity quotas, and of his often-lethal punishments for failure. As Roger Scruton observed, “it takes infinite force to make people to do what is impossible.”
The government, which claims that virtually no new COVID-19 cases have appeared recently in Wuhan, has begun to relax the lockdown in Hubei Province. But while the Chinese regime tries to control perceptions of events inside the country, widespread anger and intensified distrust at the government’s moral and administrative failures is giving rise to a groundswell of citizen journalists attempting to break through the official propaganda machinery of CCTV, CGTN, People’s Daily, and Global Times and to expose what is happening.
The evidence they present about COVID-19 contradicts official narratives. Stories on Chinese social media, censored or removed almost as soon as they appear, reveal how local governments cover up new cases and how hospitals are ordered to report new cases as normal flu or pneumonia.
The stories indicate that Hubei Province, far from moving toward normality, is being locked down again by people and police in the surrounding provinces who know the real situation in Hubei. One video showed a riot that occurred when Hubei police tried to open the border with Jiangxi — people and police in Jiangxi revolted because they would be exposed to Hubei. The government brags about mass recoveries from the virus, but independent media have reported that up to 14 percent of those have tested positive again. The regime appears to be cooking the books on epidemiological statistics, to be not counting cases in which tests indicate infection but people are asymptomatic. Censors almost immediately removed a photo from the Caixin website showing a truck delivering 2,500 urns filled with the ashes of cremated people. Censors removed as well as an accompanying report that a truck had made another such delivery the same day.
In the past, the Chinese Communist Party’s restrictions on the free flow of information seemed to Americans and others in democratic countries to be a matter mainly concerning the freedom of the Chinese people, important as a matter of upholding the universal right to freedom of expression. But the regime’s distortions of the truth are now more than abstract problems for the international community. They are threats to global public health — indeed, matters of life and death.
Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. Aaron Rhodes is the human-rights editor of Dissident magazine and the president of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe.