Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Chinese State Media: A Shift in COVID-19 Coverage
Chinese State Media: A Shift in COVID-19 Coverage

Chinese State Media: A Shift in COVID-19 Coverage

Post by Rachel Chernaskey

March 25, 2020

Foreign state-sponsored media has disseminated plenty of disinformation about the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. In February and early March, while Iran and Russia pushed out conspiracies about the virus, Chinese state-sponsored media outlets appeared less inclined to do so. Content published on the Global Times and Xinhua outlets during that same timeframe featured strong anti-U.S. sentiment, bemoaned the U.S.’s alleged weaponization of the coronavirus for political leverage and criticized U.S. officials repeating debunked COVID-19 conspiracies. Pro-China nationalist sentiment was also prevalent in articles, praising Chinese resilience in the face of the virus and China’s global response effort where the Global Times said the U.S. had responded selfishly. Since March 12, however, the Chinese state media has changed its tune on conspiracy theories.

On March 12, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted a video from the Global Times and added commentary suggesting the U.S. Army brought COVID-19 to Wuhan, China. The same day, after his initial tweet, Zhao tweeted out a conspiratorial article titled “COVID-19: Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the US” published on a fringe site. While the article concedes that “a less sinister alternative is possible,” it suggests that the virus originated in the U.S. and may have leaked from a military laboratory before spreading to Wuhan’s food market. As of March 17, these tweets saw considerable reach on Twitter: The first post garnered more than 7,800 comments, 7,100 retweets and 14,300 likes; Zhao’s second post received more than 10,200 comments, 12,300 retweets and 19,500 likes.

Days later, on March 16, then-Chinese Ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian, retweeted Zhao’s post pushing out the article and added his own commentary: “More evidence suggests that the virus was not originated at the seafood market in Wuhan at all, not to mention the so called “made in China.”” On the official Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of South Africa website, a statement published on March 8, 2020, once again reiterated the suggestion that COVID-19 may have originated outside of China, possibly in the U.S. In the wake of these suggestions from Chinese officials, the Global Times and other state-sponsored outlets highlighted the conspiracies and further propagated them.

On March 13, the Global Times published an article with the headline “Origin of COVID-19 in dispute; US accusations on China opposed: FM,” which recounted Zhao’s tweets and highlighted his suspicions about the origin of the coronavirus. Zhao “urged the US to disclose further information, exercise transparency on coronavirus cases and provide an explanation to the public,” the article wrote. By omitting information from health officials about COVID-19’s spread and focusing on Chinese government official statements critical of the U.S., the article attempted to shift opinion in favor of the conspiracy theory.

Another Global Times article, published on March 14, again advanced the conspiracy that COVID-19 is U.S.-made, restating Zhao’s comments and criticizing the U.S. health-care system in the wake of the coronavirus. The article also said that the U.S.’s mishandling of COVID-19 thus far “raised public suspicion on whether the virus had surfaced in the US earlier” and attempted to misrepresent statements made by Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield to sow doubt about amount of time COVID-19 has been spreading in the U.S.

A Global Times article published on March 15 titled “US urged to explain military lab shutdown” also urges the U.S. government to release information about “an infectious disease research lab under the US Army” at Fort Dedrick in Maryland, questioning again whether the U.S. military was involved in the origins of COVID-19. Despite widespread reports that the virus is believed to have originated in a food market in Wuhan, China, the article reiterates that the “the origin of the novel coronavirus is still unknown.”

On March 17, the Global Times published an article discussing disinformation spread about COVID-19 and tensions between the U.S. and China over the handling of the virus. The article notes that “according to the facts, it was the US politicians who started the rumor offensive and began spreading baseless conspiracy theories,” referencing the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory repeated by Senator Tom Cotton. Though the article writes that some Chinese analysts “thought Zhao [Lijian] was repeating ‘the wrong conspiracy theory’ similar to what US politicians use to smear China,” it goes on to recount and justify Zhao’s statements via an interview with a Chinese academic, writing that Zhao’s tweets represented “a reasonable query that is totally different from US politicians’ groundless rumors and insults against China.”

Chinese state media will continue its attempts to shift public opinion in a more favorable direction for  China and an unfavorable direction for the U.S. as social and economic disruption continues due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Global Times and other Chinese state-sponsored outlets will attempt to control the narrative on COVID-19, an opportunity to seed global perception of China as a world leader.