The coronavirus pandemic is the breakthrough Xi Jinping has been waiting for

Terry Glavin: The Chinese state is committing vast resources to a hybrid strategy of intensified propaganda and information control in lockstep with an aggressive Russian-style disinformation effort
Chinese President Xi Jinping visits an industrial park, which produces high-end auto parts and molds, in Ningbo, east China's Zhejiang Province, March 29. (Yan Yan/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire)
NINGBO, March 29, 2020 Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, visits an industrial park, which produces high-end auto parts and molds, in Ningbo, east China’s Zhejiang Province, March 29, 2020. Xi on Sunday inspected the resumption of work and production in Zhejiang. (Credit Image: © Yan Yan/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire)

The plague that broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan last December has now spread to the four corners of the earth, and its coming ravages can only be glimpsed in the limited forecasting capacities of epidemiology. It’s a science that relies on predictive analytics and models that can be skewed by any number of confounding variables, so there’s little certainty about what’s in store for us all.

As the geopolitical upheavals set off by the pandemic shudder with a force without precedent since the Second World War, some things, however, are clear and plain. China’s most draconian lockdowns have been lifted. Beijing is claiming victory over the plague. And the Chinese Communist Party is seizing what its senior officials are calling the “opportunity” of the pandemic to realize the party’s long-game objective of fully eclipsing North America and Europe in the global order.

Battered by the worst first-quarter economic performance since 1976, the Chinese economy is now being shifted into hyperdrive. Production is already back on track to achieve Beijing’s goal of making 2020 the year the country’s annual Gross Domestic Product doubles in size from 2010 to $13.1 trillion. But Beijing isn’t just doubling down on its usual methods, which involve constraining access to China’s growing markets while securing technological and global supply-chain dominance in critical trade sectors, and otherwise resorting to crude foreign-policy strong-arm tactics to get its way.

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What’s new is that the Chinese state is committing vast resources to a hybrid strategy of intensified propaganda and information control in lockstep with an aggressive Russian-style disinformation effort. Aimed almost entirely at western audiences, the effort takes its cues from several Kremlin-backed operations, most obviously the barrage of fabricated “news” unleashed on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Experts in the field say Beijing isn’t just selling a “narrative” anymore. The new strategy is intended to spread chaos and confusion and incite mistrust of governments in democratic countries. According to an analysis undertaken by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Beijing is adopting “increasingly aggressive tactics and techniques” and rapidly ramping up its messaging on social media platforms, often cross-pollinating with Russian and Iranian disinformation efforts and amplifying conspiracy theories from fringe third-party websites.

“China’s more confrontational posture on COVID-19 represents a clear departure from its past behavior,” the ASD analysis concludes. “We have been able to see, in near-real time, Chinese state-backed media and government interlocutors borrowing a page from the Russian playbook in an attempt to influence global public opinion.”

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is the breakthrough Xi Jinping, China’s all-powerful paramount leader, has been waiting for. And he’s making his move.

While the Chinese government’s internal statistics are routinely questioned by outside analysts, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology credibly reports that roughly 75 per cent of small and medium-sized businesses across the country have already resumed production. According to MIIT deputy minister Xin Guobin, even Hubei province, which had been hit hardest by the COVID-19 outbreak, is already back up and running. Roughly 95 percent of companies with annual industrial revenues of at least $4 million have resumed production.

Meanwhile, most of the world’s advanced economies are being sequestered in a state of suspended animation that is expected to last at least several months, or until a vaccine for the COVID-19 disease is developed, which is expected to take at least a year.

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The world’s liberal democracies are scrambling to “plank the curve”—a necessary public-health strategy to flatten and drive down the rate of infections so that hospitals are not overwhelmed to the point of collapse. In order to enforce and maintain the social and physical isolation the curve-planking strategy requires, most western governments are devoting hitherto unimaginable resources to the building of economic life-support systems.

The House of Commons has authorized $107 billion in emergency aid and economic stimulus, and cabinet has been granted the authority to borrow up to $350 billion to cope with the pandemic. The White House signed off on a US$2 trillion relief bill. France has committed €350 billion ($547 billion) in direct relief, tax refunds and bank loan guarantees. The United Kingdom’s bailouts, wage guarantees and tax deferrals rack up to £458 billion ($812 billion).

According to an analysis by Horizon Advisory, a consultancy that investigates Chinese policy on behalf of corporations, investors and government agencies in the U.S., China’s central planners are taking every advantage of the democratic world’s predicament. “Beijing intends to use the global dislocation and downturn to attract foreign investment, to seize strategic market share and resources—especially those that force dependence, and to proliferate global information systems,” the Horizon Advisory analysts conclude.

“Beijing used the opening presented by the 2008 economic downturn to reach parity; to position itself as an alternative world leader. In COVID-19, Beijing sees the chance to win.”

With a GDP still at least 25 percent larger than China’s, the United States is still the world’s preeminent superpower, but the COVID-19 crisis “accelerates the process” that Beijing has put in place to overtake the U.S.—it will allow China “to claim market share across the globe and across strategic sectors as the rest of the world shuts down.”

A key focus of Beijing’s strategy for global dominance is an information technology infrastructure that is already being exported around the world, mostly through Huawei Technologies, China’s “national champion” telecom giant.

So far the “Five Eyes” security partnership of the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada has mostly resisted Beijing’s moves to assert dominance in fifth-generation (5G) technology infrastructure. But just barely. The U.S., Australia and New Zealand have barred Huawei from their 5G internet connectivity systems and the U.K. has tentatively decided to allow Huawei to take up only a third of its 5G outer edges. But Canada remains paralyzed.

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A decision was supposed to be forthcoming from Ottawa before the last federal election. But Beijing’s hostage-diplomacy imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, to punish Canada for acting on a U.S. extradition warrant and detaining Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, has left Ottawa fearful of Beijing’s wrath.

And now, Beijing is planning an end-run around the “Five Eyes” alliance altogether.

China’s Communist Party leadership and Huawei have teamed up to effectively take over the architecture of the global internet with a proposal to the International Telecommunications Union, one of four major UN agencies that China now controls. Backed by Russia, and with support anticipated from several African countries that have benefited from Huawei’s largesse, the Huawei plan is co-sponsored by two of China’s state-owned telecom corporations and China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

The proposed new system would be more centralized, top-down and readily controlled by authoritarian UN member states, according to an analysis prepared for NATO by the cyber security company Oxford Information Labs. Obtained by the Financial Times, the analysis warns that the Huawei plan poses grave threats to national security and raises human-rights implications for all internet users. Beijing hopes to push the restructuring through at the ITU, currently headed up by Chinese telecommunications engineer Houlin Zhao, by November.

In the meantime, Beijing is relying on its multi-pronged, multimedia propaganda and disinformation campaign to achieve two immediate purposes. The first is to dismiss, deny and deflect away from the irrefutable evidence of the Communist Party’s catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. The second is to portray China, in contrast to Donald Trump’s divided and dysfunctional United States, as the world’s saviour, rushing to the rescue of plague-afflicted countries with expertise, money and medical equipment.

It has been widely reported that on March 12, Zhao Lijian, a senior spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, began circulating an insinuation that the U.S. military somehow smuggled the coronavirus into Wuhan. In subsequent posts, Zhao directed his Twitter followers to Montreal’s Centre for Research on Globalization—a crank website notorious for trafficking in outlandish “anti-imperialist” conspiracy theories—which had been circulating the claim. The ministry’s senior spokesperson, Hua Chunying, followed suit, as did several Chinese “news” organizations and diplomats.

But less widely noticed is the origin of President Trump’s scandalously reckless claim during a February 26 press briefing that COVID-19 is comparable to the common flu, and “we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” This is the deadliest piece of disinformation about the coronavirus in circulation. It was given its earliest boost on February 3 at a formal press briefing in Beijing convened by the Chinese foreign ministry’s Hua Chunying.

Hua made the claim that day in the course of praising Canada for allowing flights from China to continue arriving at Canadian airports. Hua singled out Health Minister Patty Hajdu for breaking with the U.S., which had shut down air traffic from China the day before, as had several other countries. “Canada believes the ban of entry has no basis, which is a sharp contrast to the U.S. behaviours,” Hua said, citing statistics intended to illustrate that “the U.S. flu” was far more lethal than COVID-19.

Trump repeated what might have been the single most devastating piece of disinformation on coronavirus: that it is comparable to the common flu (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On Feb. 6, Hua continued to downplay the presence of a lethal virus in Wuhan, claiming that “the current pneumonia outbreak in China” was nowhere near as serious as the “seasonal influenza in the U.S.,” and that travel bans were unnecessary, and opposed by the World Health Organization. The travel bans had “sowed panic among the public” and “gravely disrupted normal personnel exchanges, international cooperation and order of the international market of air transportation.”

It was in these first two weeks of February—when China was still circulating disinformation to the effect that COVID-19 was comparable to the seasonal flu—that Canada dug in its heels, insisting that there was no cause to stop incoming fights from China. For being so agreeable, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne were treated to a flurry of flattering commentary in the Chinese state media and in Beijing’s official foreign ministry statements.

The role of the World Health Organization in recirculating Beijing’s self-exculpating propaganda has come under particular scrutiny. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has lavished praise on Beijing’s handling of the outbreak, going out of his way to support Xi Jinping’s insistence that any precautionary travel restrictions would be an unacceptable encumbrance to China’s economy. John Mackenzie, a member of the WHO’s emergency committee, has called China’s conduct—its delays, its suppression of data—”reprehensible.”

The WHO’s disinformation deference to Beijing went to such absurd extremes that its own official guidance against resorting to traditional herbal remedies to treat COVID-19 was quietly ditched to assuage Xi Jinping, who had been instructing Chinese health officials to speed up tests of drugs that combine Chinese traditional herbal medicine with “western” medicine. The Chinese version of the WHO’s list of ineffective remedies was amended to cut references to traditional medicine, while the English version remained intact – and later, reference to traditional medicine was struck from the English list as well. An online petition calling on Tedros to resign has gathered 702,498 signatures.

Canada also went to some extremes. In a Xinhua news service account of his February 14 meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference, Champagne is quoted as saying that Canada would stand firmly with the Chinese people in the fight against “the novel coronavirus pneumonia epidemic,” and this: “Unlike some other countries, Canada has never stopped normal exchanges with China and opposes any discriminatory practice.”

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In return, Wang Yi praised Canada’s “rational, calm and scientific attitude” and promised better days to come in the fractured Canada-China diplomatic relationship. “China is willing to take this opportunity to enhance communication with the Canadian side and jointly solve existing bilateral problems so as to bring China-Canada relations and cooperation in various fields back onto the track for sound and stable development at an early date,” Wang pledged.

Early on, Champagne was upbeat about Beijing’s polite tone. There was some “healthy diplomacy” in play, Champagne said. Canada was raising the matter of Kovrig and Spavor, and China was raising the business about Meng Wanzhou. “At least it allows us to talk more often.”

Nothing has come of it. Canada had served Beijing’s propaganda purposes. Canada attempted to impose effective screening measures at Canada’s airports, but they consisted mostly of requesting voluntary declarations from travellers about where they were coming from and how they were feeling, and having Canadian Border Services Agency keep an eye out for anyone who looked ill. Canada did not join 80 other countries in banning travel from China until a blanket ban on almost all foreign arrivals was imposed March 16.

But while Champagne and Wang were exchanging pleasantries, a massive new propaganda machine involving at least 10,000 Twitter accounts kicked into gear. Most of them are fake. Many of them are hacked accounts. All of them have ties to the Chinese government. And all of them are devoted to spreading the word about Beijing’s gallant struggle with the coronavirus, and Beijing’s generosity and solidarity with all those countries that had been waiting in vain for leadership from Trump’s America.

The machine was brought to light last week in a lengthy investigation undertaken by the independent American journalists’ consortium ProPublica. The machine had been assembled last year to do Beijing’s propaganda bidding during the mass uprising in Hong Kong, but on January 29, the network shifted its focus to propaganda and disinformation about COVID-19.

It was the Wall Street Journal that first reported the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. That was January 7, two days before Chinese authorities publicly confirmed it. An estimated five million people left Wuhan after the virus first appeared in December, and before Wuhan was locked down January 23.

China revoked the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters on February 19, on the pretext that the Communist Party leadership had taken offence at an opinion essay the newspaper had published. A month later, Beijing announced that it was revoking the credentials of journalists with the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times—the largest expulsion of foreign journalists since the days of Mao Zedong. The pretext was the Trump administration’s payroll cap on four Chinese state-owned media platforms in the U.S., reducing their staff from 160 to 100.

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The Chinese Human Rights Defenders Organization has documented 452 cases of citizen journalists punished for “spreading rumours” about the coronavirus. The CHRD reports that by February 21, the feared Ministry of Public Security had handled 5,511 cases involving “fabricating and deliberately disseminating false and harmful information.”

During an hour-long interview on the program “Fox & Friends” on Monday, President Trump said he wasn’t at all worried about the Chinese, Russian and Iranian disinformation circulating in the United States. “Every country does it. They do it, and we do it. And we call them different things. . . Hey, every country does it.”

Ottawa doesn’t seem to worry much, either. The job of paying attention to “online disinformation in the Canadian context” falls to Dominic LeBlanc, president of the Privy Council. LeBlanc is supposed to be working with Bardish Chagger, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, to keep an eye on things. The file is apparently dormant.

Canadians are now moving through a wholly unfamiliar landscape. We may be stumbling headlong into an uncharted realm of social breakdown and mass graves. We could be destined for something else, somewhere dark and foreboding, where Xi Jinping calls all the shots. Or we might be traversing an excruciating social and economic terra incognita towards some eventual semblance of normalcy.

The models the epidemiologists look at can’t tell us.

We just don’t know.