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Since 2009, the Chinese government has spent around 6.6 billion USD to improve its global media presence. I can only imagine the allocated resources domestically. «Totalitarianism», summarizes Christopher Lebron, Professor of Philosophy at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, «is an arrangement of state power in which the ruling elite control the conditions of political and social existence while subverting the authority of individual citizens.»1 Lebron’s definition neatly applies to China, where disinformation is a crucial part of the state’s organization. And when COVID-19 began its spread in December 2019, disinformation efforts in China were supercharged.
Controlled stream of information
While Americans depend on their smartphones for social contact, often speaking of it as a progressive tool, as helping bridge the «digital divide» between rich and poor, a Chinese smartphone is a vehicle through which the Chinese government spreads false information in order to curb transgressive behavior and shore up social control. Since China has a recorded 1.3 billion mobile users (out of almost 1.5 billion citizens) the potential is vast: nearly everyone is directly susceptible to disinformation. «Never let a good crisis go to waste», Churchill once said. The Xi Jinping Administration seemed to have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity that COVID-19 presented. Still, like so many have stressed, total control was more aspirational than real.
In the early days of the pandemic in early 2020, there were articles and announcements via groups on WeChat – that ubiquitous Chinese social media app which, thankfully, has an in-built translation feature – and posters on campus explaining prevention and control measures: wear a mask, wash hands, distance socially, and, do not listen to or spread rumors. As the months progressed, however, the announcements began to be matched in frequency with a curious phenomenon: WeChat articles about how happy foreigners were in China. According to reports, these expats were blissfully free of the dangers of infection due to the country’s stringent measures. What’s more, they were embracing the many economic and relationship opportunities that China continued to offer – even though most economists believe that the economic numbers the Chinese government releases do not reflect actual growth rates.
One propaganda piece, I recall, was replete with photos of a smiling white British man, maybe in his early sixties, with his Chinese wife. This expat extolled the Chinese way of life and governance; he even joined the Chinese Communist Party and relinquished his British citizenship in favor of a Chinese passport. A bit over the top—but there was some truth there for us expats in the early days of COVID. In the very early days, from around March 2020 until around February 2021, China’s strict, top-down pandemic management seemed effective, justified as a policy of concern about the wellbeing of its citizens and residents. Later, maybe around mid-2021, we foreigners, as conditions improved in our home countries and restrictions remained in place in China, began to seriously question China as a positive role model.
The timing of positive news articles in China tends to be suspicious; they appear quickly on the heels of negative domestic developments. Misdirection and half-truths thus play a large role in shaping a political atmosphere in which disinformation is not recognized as such. While in China the overall immigration growth rate rose by more than 40 percent from 2010 to 2020—according to the 2010 National Census of China, there were 410,550 immigrants; in the 2020 Census, 845,697 foreigners were recorded—those numbers not only collapsed during the pandemic but were also used as proxy for the worrying hemorrhaging of high-skilled foreigners in 2021 and 2022 from China. Meanwhile, WeChat articles emerged about how in America, denial, delays, and incompetence had left over 360,000 Americans dead from COVID by the end of 2020. Having the public focus on the government’s zero COVID policies and the virus’ reputed extraordinary deadliness would shift attention away from a patchy vaccination drive, a drive that relied on domestic COVID vaccines which have shortcomings – although the official propaganda of course does not acknowledge that. So effective has the misdirection campaign been that, today, many elderly Chinese, who are at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 and who, perhaps experienced the Mao-era Cultural Revolution, do not trust and thus resist any vaccine. I’ve heard that the Communist party, fearing great and dramatic resistance, does not dare to direct the elderly to vaccinate. Consider this disinformation blowback.
«Misdirection and half-truths thus play a large role in shaping a political atmosphere in which disinformation is not recognized as such.»
Relatedly, the Chinese government has effectively mobilized nationalist sentiments to cast foreigners as causes or potential harborers of imported COVID-19 cases. Last year, ahead of the release of a United States report on the Wuhan Lab Leak theory, the Chinese government launched a disinformation campaign. I read articles published on WeChat by the official organ of the CCP that claimed that COVID-19 originated from an American military base in Maryland.2 The article drew deceptive correlations: «Two months after the global pandemic exercise Event 201 [a 3.5-hour pandemic tabletop exercise in NYC] was carried out by multiple American organizations in October 2019, the first case of COVID-19 was spotted in Wuhan.» The article also insinuated: «The U.S. has kept its mouth shut about the functions, uses and safety of the biolabs it has established in former Soviet states, which brings deep concerns for local people and surrounding countries. What are these labs doing?», and so on. More recent Chinese government nationalist deployments of half-truths about events and crises include those by Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In a post widely shared across social media, on his official Weibo page on September 18, 2022, he wrote: «To prevent possible monkeypox infection and as part of our healthy lifestyle, it is recommended that you do not have direct skin-to-skin contact with foreigners.»3
Almost immediate censorship
An important lesson I have learned about information in China is that its value is reflected in how quickly is gets censored. For example, following my move to Germany in March 2022, I experienced, in real time, the Chinese government’s control of WeChat to erase history. One afternoon, I noticed a specific video spreading like electronic wildfire on the social network, only to be immediately flagged for violating WeChat policies and then removed, presumably by bots. Something big, perhaps revolutionary, was happening: I saw that someone had posted the video on a mirror site. I took a screen recording of the video, as it could disappear from social media at any moment. Soon after, I learned that the video was The Voice of April (四月之声), a collection of audio extracts from residents’ exchanges recorded in Shanghai throughout April 2022, emotional snippets of what Shanghai’s people had gone through since China’s most infamous citywide lockdown. Eventually, the social media event disappeared into the digital void, however. The video was taken down almost as quickly as COVID containment fences were put up—it was a matter of hours at most before WeChat, itself monitored by Chinese government, disabled every posted link to the video.
«An important lesson I have learned about information in China is that its value is reflected in how quickly is gets censored.»
In such an environment, access to information a couple of hours early could mean the difference of having food before a sudden lockdown – or escaping a lockdown altogether. A good friend of mine left his university apartment with his wife and son just shortly before we went into a total isolation – despite the fact that there were no COVID cases on campus. Because there is no delay between government decision and implementation, rumors therefore become a precious source of information, even though most know these rumors could be half-true or totally false. But in my six years in China, I found that rumors tend to be the best source of information. Keep one’s ears open to the buzzing rumors – as official announcements on COVID-related issues, especially these days, are most often disinformation that has been completely exposed as false.
Rumors are a way to share true information informally and without repercussions—unless you share them too publicly, that is. A taxi driver and friend we trusted would privately tell us that, despite what the government said, the economy in Shenzhen was quite bad. In contrast, other Chinese I knew fully embraced government-endorsed representations of America as violent and xenophobic, emphasizing Americans’ anti-Asian hate crimes and the nation’s out of control gun culture – all nicely wed a fear of foreigners to pride in China’s chosen path.
Closer to home, rumors had a role in our escape from Shenzhen. When it came time for me and my family to leave China, the campus where we lived was still in lockdown. Terrifyingly, we heard rumors that regular car traffic in and out of Shenzhen had been halted; that an aunt and uncle of a Chinese friend had been unable to leave the city. The option of traveling by rail to Shanghai to catch a flight went out the window as well; we feared—and justifiably so, based on more stories that emerged months later—that our QR codes could suddenly go from «green» to «red» while en route, thereby alerting authorities, who would send us to quarantine. Thankfully, we listened to the rumors that reached us, doubted official announcements about the «opening up» of our campus, and eventually found our way out after several foiled plans and canceled flights. But we were eventually permitted to leave on the basis of a necessary international flight and a promise not to return to the city, receiving authorization from the local government less than 48 hours before our departure. We scheduled an official city-to-city taxi through university administration to ensure the legality of our trip, travelling from our university housing in Shenzhen to the local hospital where we retrieved our official, stamped negative COVID test results to Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport; there, we boarded our flight to Schiphol. We were on one of just two international flights that day from the «world’s busiest airport.»
In November 2022, a member of a WeChat discussion group devoted to expats in China announced that his wife had heard from a friend that Guangzhou would, by Friday night, be in total lockdown due to COVID outbreaks. Another group member chastised the churning rumor mill; another pushed back, expressing thanks for the sharing of inside information and asking members to simply judge and take action accordingly. «Leave while you still can», I thought. The next day, Guangzhou’s local government issued a statement to not believe such rumors and that the city would not enter lockdown. The reality turned out differently: about 85 percent of neighborhoods did.