Since the first cases of Covid-19 appeared in Wuhan, China in late 2019, politicians, epidemiologists, armchair scientists, and conspiracy theorists alike have speculated on the original vector of the disease. The simplest and most likely explanation involves transmission from an animal host to a human, similar to the 2003 SARS outbreak in southern China. Just as they did after the 2003 outbreak, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has obfuscated their government’s mismanagement of this current pandemic and stymied attempts by outside investigators to examine the origins of the virus. The CCP has also tried to sow doubt as to whether Covid-19 did in fact first appear in Wuhan as all currently available evidence would indicate. The Chinese government’s attempts to cast doubts on the origin of the virus aligns with strategies of creating and disseminating propaganda commonly used by totalitarian regimes. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) preliminary investigation in Wuhan last month offered the medical professionals an opportunity to provide the global public with factual details on how this pandemic began and combat Chinese propaganda, but they instead delivered the CCP with a significant rhetorical victory.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt claims the first step for totalitarian regimes to create successful propaganda lies in crafting a compelling mystery or conspiracy around which to build their narrative. There has been no greater global mystery in the past year and a half than the origins of Covid-19. After deciding on a suitable mystery, the propaganda totalitarian governments create are successful to the extent that they emphasize a theme of victimization, harness latent prejudices in society, and, perhaps most importantly, tell a consistent internal story, even if it is one that bends or is untethered from reality.
Shortly after China brought its initial outbreak under control, the CCP began to portray their country as hapless victims of the novel coronavirus. At an April 2020 press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang lamented that the “virus is a common enemy to all mankind and may strike anytime, anywhere…China is also a victim, not a perpetrator, even less an accomplice of Covid-19.” Though a pandemic can certainly start in any region or country in the world, China’s lax wildlife trade and history of covering up or delaying the reporting of novel diseases saps Geng’s statements of much credibility that the Chinese government was blameless in failing to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Instead of heeding the warnings of medical staff treating patients with severe cases of pneumonia in December 2019, the officials silenced doctors and local CCP cadres neglected to inform superiors within the government of the mysterious new illness circulating in Wuhan. The structure of the CCP and fear of recrimination that pervades totalitarian regimes hampered an effective response to the virus and allowed it to quickly proliferate beyond the borders of the city.
The CCP has also weaponized the current nadir in Sino-U.S. relations as a tool in their propaganda efforts. State officials have offered outlandish claims that it was in fact the United States that created and released the virus in China. In March of last year, another Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, suggested that American military personnel competing in the 2019 World Military Games in Wuhan brought the virus to China despite there being no evidence to indicate this was the case. Chinese state media has also pushed the equally unlikely story that the virus entered China by surviving on a shipment of frozen food long enough to be viable and infect a Chinese host. These efforts by Chinese government officials and state media demonstrate the country’s attempt to use the current geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. in their favor and shift the blame away from them and their slow response to the virus.
The narrative of victimhood and activation of prejudices work in tandem to fulfill the final condition Arendt says is critical to effective propaganda: internal consistency. China has been inculcating a sentiment of victimhood via its education system for decades by emphasizing its “Century of Humiliation,” the period from about 1850 to 1950 when the Empire collapsed and the civilization laid low by foreign powers. After nearly thirty years of domestic turmoil during the rule of Mao Zedong, China and its government were humiliated once again by the global bankruptcy of Communism following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the political fallout in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. To regain legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens, the Chinese government made the calculated decision to alter the curriculum in its schools from one that extolled the history and virtues of Communist ideology to one that emphasized a resurgent sense of Chinese nationhood and superiority with the CCP at the helm. This endeavor involved a “reformulation” of history by emphasizing the very real subjugation China faced at the hands of foreign powers while simultaneously rehabilitating the image of Mao Zedong and thereby the authority of the CCP. With generations of Chinese primed to accept a narrative of victimhood and the centrality of the CCP to the country’s success, the tensions between the U.S. and China provides fertile ground for these anti-foreigner narratives to take root in the minds of a populace fearful of their present circumstances and an uncertain future. Arendt captures this sentiment in saying propaganda “conjure[s] up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself” (Arendt 351). When the world feels as if it is in chaos as it so often did during 2020, the fiction of propaganda provides an escape from the trauma of the present and an avenue to make sense of unbelievable events.
Given the strategies the CCP has used to try and undermine public confidence in discovering the origins of the virus, the WHO fumbled an opportunity to undercut the Party’s message and provide the public with accurate information free from political bias. At a press conference announcing their preliminary findings the WHO team denounced the notion of a lab accident as the cause of Covid-19 (this conspiratorial explanation was favored and promoted by the Trump administration) but left open the possibility that the virus could have entered China as a stowaway on imports of frozen food, a theory eagerly advanced by only one entity: Chinese state media. Even if the frozen food transmission hypothesis is the true source of Covid-19, the WHO’s endorsement of the theory combined with their general acquiescence to China’s obfuscation of the severity of the disease and stonewalling of outside investigators since the early days of the pandemic creates serious gaps in the credibility of an organization the world needs to trust in this moment.
The WHO certainly did not have to lend any credence to the Trump-preferred “lab escape” theory, but to disavow the United States’ narrative only to embrace the equally unlikely Chinese theory undermines the one thing that can combat the propaganda erupting from both nations: the truth.