Several administration officials told me the public cooling off with Beijing is beneficial for both sides in the short term. Reports that Trump was persuaded by Xi’s “aggressive flattery” to stop saying “Chinese virus” miss the larger context. There was an interagency decision to push back on claims by Chinese officials that this coronavirus originated in the United States, a necessary but also costly effort.
Trump was routinely accused of inciting racism against Asian Americans. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence on using the term “Wuhan virus” was one factor that prevented the Group of Seven from issuing a joint statement. The issue of blaming the Chinese Communist Party got conflated with blaming Chinese people and politicized by both sides.
The United States is now in dire need of medical supplies, many of which are coming from China. If China’s leaders are willing to stop telling lies about us, we can pause pointing out the most embarrassing truths about them. But the detente won’t last long.
This is chiefly because the coronavirus crisis has revealed that Beijing’s propaganda and political interference strategy has entered a new era. The Chinese government’s official public diplomacy organs, large corporations, state-controlled media and a new army of social media bots and trolls are now working in seamless coordination all over the world.
Last week, ProPublica released a report tracking more than 10,000 fake or hijacked Twitter accounts connected to the Chinese government that have been engaged in coronavirus-related propaganda worldwide. Twitter had frozen an additional 200,000 accounts before they went active. The Alliance for Securing Democracy now tracks Chinese information operations, along with Russian ones, in real time. Its research shows Chinese government propaganda efforts online are more extensive, confident and sophisticated than ever.
Beijing is fusing its coronavirus propaganda and aid distribution. Chinese tech giant Huawei has been focusing donations of equipment and support on countries where it is competing for 5G contracts. After the European Union’s de facto foreign minister Josep Borrell suggested Beijing was playing the “politics of generosity,” Huawei announced it would scale back sending masks to Europe, essentially proving Borrell’s point.
Countries around the world are suddenly waking up to the real dangers of depending on China for aid or information. Chinese medical equipment sent to the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Spain and Turkey turned out to be defective. There are reports that Britain’s leadership is so furious about Beijing’s coronavirus-related mischief and lies that legislation to allow Huawei into their 5G networks now risks failure.
“The attitude in Parliament has certainly hardened. It’s exposed what many of us knew, which is that the Chinese Communist Party is quite willing to prioritize its own survival over anybody else’s interests,” British member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat told me.
Beijing is now showing a bit more transparency, this week revealing there were large numbers of asymptomatic coronavirus cases previously omitted from their public accounting. As White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx said Tuesday, Beijing’s manipulation of the numbers caused delay and cost lives.
But calling out Chinese government propaganda is not enough. The United States needs to lead the world in a coordinated strategy to compete. And in Congress, Republicans and Democrats need to work together to help educate the public and bolster our system’s resilience to Beijing’s tactics.
This week, a group of Republican lawmakers is introducing a bill that would authorize sanctions against any foreign officials who suppress or distort information about public health crises. The legislation, led by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), is named after Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor in Wuhan, China, who was at first punished for his revelations — and later praised by Beijing before he died of coronavirus.
When Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) introduced a similar measure last month in the House, some Democratic lawmakers accused him of fueling racism; the lone Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), withdrew his support under pressure, blaming Trump. Part of the CCP’s strategy is to exacerbate divisions inside our political system and dismiss any criticism of Beijing’s actions as racist.
Republicans must be more sensitive to the real racism Asian Americans face, and Democrats must not reflexively accuse anyone who criticizes the Chinese government of racism. The Trump administration must devise a longer-term anti-propaganda strategy that includes reform and investment in the competitive tools we have, such as our international broadcasting apparatus. The U.S. media must remain aware that Beijing’s words and numbers can’t be trusted.
For Beijing, the propaganda war is just one aspect of the greater competition between China and the United States (and its partners) over values and governance. In fact, the values of truth, transparency and accountability are much better for our collective health. That is the greater struggle we are in, and it’s just beginning.