COVID-19: Beijing’s political warfare operations

COVID-19: Beijing’s political warfare operations

The Party’s attempts to reshape the narrative to cast itself as a global saviour have had mixed results.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

The significant economic and social disruption caused by the spread of the COVID-19 disease has contributed to a ramping up of political tensions between Beijing and Washington.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Increased distrust of Beijing is causing some Western leaders to rethink their political and economic relationships with China
– Beijing’s psychological operations are aimed at mitigating the negative impacts the virus is having on its domestic and international image
– Any attempt to ‘decouple’ from China would likely result in an increase in protectionist policies and investment in domestic manufacturing capacity in strategically important industries

POINTING FINGERS

Lijian Zhao, the spokesperson and Deputy Director-General of China’s Foreign Ministry, has publicly blamed the US military for introducing the SARS-CoV-2 virus into Wuhan during a visit in October 2019. To support his unsubstantiated claim, Zhao posted a link on Twitter to a conspiracy website that purports that the virus originated from a US military lab.

Apparently in response to Zhao’s claim that the virus didn’t originate in China, US officials including President Donald Trump have repeatedly referred to SARS-CoV-2 as the ‘Chinese’ or ‘Wuhan’ virus, drawing significant criticism and accusations of racism. US public figures and officials have also stoked rumours that the virus was engineered by Beijing.

Despite elevated tensions around the origin of the virus, some Chinese officials have made efforts to back off from the blame game. Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the US, stated in an interview that spreading rumours was ‘crazy’ and that it was the job of scientists — not politicians — to determine where the virus originated. At the same time, Beijing has launched an international ‘charm offensive’, highlighting its provision of medical supplies to hard-hit nations like Italy, among others. However, these attempts to reframe Beijing as a responsible global leader in responding to the crisis have been complicated by concerns about the quality of medical supplies being purchased from Chinese manufacturers.

REFRAMING THE CRISIS

Photo: Markus Spiske/Pexels

Beijing’s early handling of the virus has been extremely damaging for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) image both domestically and abroad, with a number of commentators suggesting that the party’s initial response to the outbreak is directly responsible for the current global pandemic. To shift the focus, recent English-language stories featured in state media outlet Global Times have advocated international solidarity against the virus as a ‘common enemy’ over ‘political bias’, condemned ‘buck-passing’ and offered a warning that “if the COVID-19 outbreak continues to worsen in the US, it could become a global issue.”

These psychological operations are aimed at ensuring domestic order and shoring up Beijing’s standing in the international community whilst undermining Western liberal models, like the EU, as ineffective through ‘spinning and the politics of generosity’. However, Beijing’s tight control over information has also fuelled the proliferation of counter-narratives amongst CCP critics. This includes the belief that an early cover-up caused the global pandemic, and that it could have been avoided if the CCP had taken immediate preventative action. Meanwhile, the politicisation of the virus in US politics is playing to the CCP’s strategy of disrupting its liberal democratic competitors by engaging in information warfare through mainstream media and online environments.

Linked to these operations is the expulsion of journalists from China, a move designed to ratchet up CCP control over the flow of information in and out of the country. In February, Beijing expelled journalists from the Wall Street Journal due to offense over a piece that referred to China as ‘the real sick man of Asia’. Washington subsequently named a number of media outlets as agents of the Chinese Communist Party and limited the number of Chinese journalists at publications in the US. This was followed by further tit-for-tat action as Beijing expelled a dozen more foreign journalists and accused the US of prejudice in the midst of the global crisis. As some conservative critics of Beijing have asserted, the presence of foreign reporters could complicate the CCP’s attempts to control and rewrite the narrative around the virus.

STRATEGIC DISTANCING

Photo: SISTEMA 12/Wikimedia Commons

The crisis has increased distrust between Washington and Beijing, and the CCP’s tight control over information has called into question the validity of official COVID-19 reports coming out of China. Additionally, the virus has added to the CCP’s list of historical mishaps regarding deadly outbreaks of respiratory infections affecting the international community. The country’s track record means that perceptions about Beijing’s role in exacerbating the problem may give cause for nations around the world to reconsider the extent of their relationships with China. This could extend to Beijing’s partners outside of the West, given suggestions that Iran’s economic links to China are partly responsible for the early outbreak of the disease there. However, Tehran is unlikely to rethink its relationship with Beijing; the isolated state has little choice in trade partners given continued US sanctions.

If widespread decoupling from China does occur, this would probably coincide with a surge of policies in Western countries aimed at increasing domestic manufacturing capacity in strategically important industries. Such policies may include the introduction of increasingly protectionist economic regulations, tariffs and subsidies, as nations recognise the strategic vulnerability of relying on global supply chains and imported pharmaceuticals.

How the US handles the rest of the crisis and the effectiveness of its economic recovery will have significant implications for Washington’s ability to resist China’s growing influence in Asia. If the US enters an economic recession or depression, Washington’s plans to accelerate shipbuilding and force modernisation aimed at maintaining military equilibrium in the Asia-Pacific may be abandoned. Furthermore, such severe economic conditions could lead to increasingly isolationist policies in the US, just as it did during the Great Depression. As the crisis has unfolded, the Trump administration has been enjoying relatively high approval ratings, but if they drop significantly, Trump’s insistence that Beijing is ultimately responsible for the pandemic could serve to solidify the president’s ‘America First’ instincts. Trump’s criticism of the ‘very China-centric’ WHO and suspension of funding, tied to the organisation’s supposed Chinese bias in the crisis, is emblematic of this type of blame game politics. If such rhetoric continues, the war of political narratives between US and Chinese officials will likely intensify. On the back of that, the US–China relationships could be in dire straits, especially if Beijing is seen to be using the crisis as an opportunity to push the US out of Asia, through actions like increasing its hold on the South China Sea.

As for Beijing, its maintenance of a strict lockdown response across the country seems to be working in curbing the spread of the disease. However, attempts to reframe the crisis and assume a responsible stakeholder role appears to have had mixed results. Apart from the US, Europe is also experiencing an increased distrust of Beijing during the crisis, in part because of perceptions of an early cover-up and the emotional toll it has taken on millions of people. This has been compounded by news stories about faulty medical equipment arriving in Europe from Chinese manufacturers. If Beijing’s diplomatic and public opinion efforts fail to steer the political narrative away from these negative stories, there is a possibility that it will invigorate anti-Chinese sentiment, facilitating an economic ‘decoupling’ from China. This kind of sentiment, combined with worsening economic conditions, could lead to a renewed rise in economic nationalism and the ‘populist challenge’ to internationalism seen in America and Europe in recent years.

Whilst these trends are unlikely to fully negate the gravitational forces that drive global interconnectedness, there will undoubtedly be a slowing down in the short-term. Nations around the world have been closing their borders and international travel has ground to a near halt. Deep and prolonged economic suffering appears to be on the horizon and the efficacy of international organisations in managing global crises is coming under attack.

As resentment over Beijing’s perceived role in the crisis grows and as anxiety over the future intensifies, there very well may be a circling of the wagons in the West, shutting China out.