China has long sought to shape the narrative and influence public opinion by putting a tight rein over the flow of information domestically, a trend that has accelerated in the recent times, especially following the coronavirus pandemic whose origins were linked to the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
The Chinese Communist Party has studiously kept a firm grip on traditional media. With the advent of new-age media and amidst a proliferation of social media websites that have served to democratise information sharing that made it difficult to curb the untrammelled dissemination of news and information, the CCP’s resolve to control what its subjects access and discuss has only grown stronger.
A prospect of a free and unbiased media has been an anathema to the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) which views it as an early indicator of the subversion of its authority. To avert this potential threat on its hegemony, the CCP has institutionalised ‘Censhorship’—strict media controls using monitoring systems, surveillance and firewalls, closing down publications and websites that publish dissenting content against the Communist regime, jailing dissident journalists, bloggers, whistleblowers and activists who expose the Chinese state’s treachery.
Where its intimidations do not work, it employs cajolement and censorship to limit access to the information. It uses its power and authority to provide plum postings to journalists, activists and other dissidents to turn them into allies and please them into acquiescence. On occasions, it uses the whip of censorship to block the information which it deems subversive and against the interests of the Communist Party.
The emergence of social media platforms has definitely increased the problems facing the Chinese Communist Party. But, it has also provided an opportunity to the CCP to reinforce its control of information flow, both for its domestic as well as global users. One of the tools that the CCP has added to its quiver is—’Disinformation’. When thwarting free information is counterproductive and risky, the CCP employs ‘Disinformation’ to run its ‘Propaganda’ and undermine the facts and reality.
Of late, the Chinese state and its diplomats have been vigorously involved in peddling Propaganda to weave an alternative reality. With the world raising its fingers towards China for bequeathing the coronavirus that has affected 78 million and killed 1.72 million in its wake, the Chinese diplomats have been remarkably pugnacious, aggressively fending off the criticism but at the same time playing the victim and accusing others of indulging in racism.
Censorship, Disinformation and Propaganda—Three pillars of China’s strategy against fighting truth
Censorship, Propaganda and Disinformation are the pillars of the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy to control the narrative domestically, as well as globally. China has one of the world’s most restrictive media environments and it relies heavily on these three pillars to add ballast to the growing dominance of the CCP and Xi Jinping over the Chinese people.
‘The Great Firewall’ is the fulcrum of the CCP’s Censorship, disinformation and propaganda campaign. It plays a crucial role in helping CCP monitor news and information that the domestic Chinese population consume. The fact that websites like Twitter, Google, Facebook and other such platforms are banned in China signifies the extent of the control exerted by Beijing over what is accessed by the Chinese population.
The hermetic media environment and bans on foreign websites have only served to bolster the proliferation and consumption of fabricated or false stories peddled by the different propaganda arms of the Chinese Communist Party. These concocted stories are purveyed in local Chinese language, making its dissemination easier and sweeping.
Though the Freedom of Speech and Press are enshrined in the Chinese constitution, the lack of transparency over its media regulations grants enough powers to the authority to clampdown on news stories by citing that they pose a threat to state secrets and sovereignty of the country. The laws concerning what constitutes state secrets remain vague, providing enough latitude to Communist authorities to take coercive action against those they deem ill-disposed towards the regime.
China’s iron-fist censorship policy to suppress the dissenting voices
This was most notably evident during the initial phase of the coronavirus pandemic that had its roots in Wuhan. Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang had tried to warn his friends and associates about a strange SARS-like virus affecting the people of Wuhan. He used the ubiquitous Chinese social media app WeChat to express his concerns with his friends. However, the Chinese Communist Party, with its tools of surveillance detected the messages and chastised the Doctor for spreading “rumours”. It swiftly moved to remove any references made to coronavirus on the app.
As early as January 1, China had censored keywords related to coronavirus and criticism of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. The report probing the censorship in China also found that as the outbreak swelled, WeChat, owned by Chinese firm Tencent, blocked more words to block Chinese people from knowing facts about the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, the authoritarian control over the information regulation is so sweeping in China that barely days after thousands were reported to have contracted the coronavirus, China censored all inconvenient information related to the disease and its adverse fallout within the country. It stopped reporting the number of coronavirus cases altogether.
However, reports from some journalists and activists revealed that the number of coronavirus cases in China was significantly larger than what the CCP was claiming. But, CCP not only threatened and intimidated the whistle-blowers, but it also pulled down all the reports that challenged CCP’s utopian view of the COVID-19 outbreak.
After CCP pulled brakes on the adverse information surrounding the surging coronavirus crisis domestically, it presided over the ‘Disinformation’ and ‘Propaganda’ campaign to reinforce its credibility among the Chinese population. The Wuhan coronavirus, by now, was rampaging the countries across the globe, leaving thousands weak and infirm in its wake. The CCP used this opportunity to flood its people with information on how the western countries had failed in handling the crisis and how Chinese regime, under the leadership of Xi, had been remarkably successful in blunting the pandemic.
When the pandemic hit the United States, it elicited sharp reactions from the political class and the US citizens, who consistently referred to the virus as “Chinese virus“, a name derived from the location where it was first found. However, the Chinese diplomats, known for their “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” stridently opposed the virus being branded as Chinese and accused the United States of endorsing racism against the Chinese people.
China’s “Three Warfare Doctrine” to control and influence the media narrative
China then proceeded on to what American journalist Joshua Philipp described as the “Three Warfares Doctrine’ which included psychological warfare, media warfare and legal warfare, to restrict the flow of information. As the virus emerging out of the central Chinese city of Wuhan was called “Chinese Virus”, the CCP swung into action and activated its psychological warfare to twist the news by claiming it to be a racist reference discriminating against the Chinese people.
The domestic Chinese population were fed with the news that Americans had been engaging in racism against the Chinese people by referring to the virus as Chinese. This disinformation and propaganda campaign was aimed to incite nationalist feelings amongst the Chinese and enhancing the reputation of the CCP by portraying them as a regime fighting against the alleged racism meted out to the fellow Chinese outside China.
The media warfare, according to Joshua, is the ability to control and manipulate outlets of information, not just news outlets, but social media, online platforms, the power of speaking freely. Anything that would enable people to communicate to a larger audience that could galvanise trouble for the CCP would be a target of the media warfare.
Elaborating over the media warfare waged by the Chinese Communist Party, Joshua cites the document accessed by him which said that the propaganda arm of the CCP had hired 1,600 operatives to sweep the internet and clean potentially incriminating information against China on social media platforms. He also added that the CCP hired the services of 50 cent Army which go on the comments section of websites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other Chinese social media websites and firehose them with lies and disinformation.
CCP’s misinformation campaign against the United States and source of coronavirus
A case in point is the disinformation campaign surrounding the origins of the coronavirus attributed to the US military. A senior Chinese spokesperson publicly called the US military as the source of the coronavirus. Soon after the Chinese spokesman ascribed the virus to the US military, all the arms of the media warfare coalesced to amplify the disinformation that the US military was responsible for unleashing the pandemic.
Thousands of activists, journalists, social media users and bots started attributing the virus to the United States and within no time Chinese social media platforms were replete with articles and posts that said that the virus had originated from America. Many in China started believing that the virus had indeed come from the United States.
Ever since Trump came into power, he has been calling out Beijing’s preeminently unfair trade practices, its initial reticence and opacity about the coronavirus outbreak, abominable human rights violations of its Uighur Muslim minority and deplorable repression of free media and foreign journalists.
Beijing remained unfazed by the mounting criticism directed towards it by the United States. Instead, its truculent diplomats tried to exploit the fault-lines within the American society to tackle the US condemnation. As racial reckoning gripped the United States in the aftermath of George Floyd’s unfortunate death, touching off widespread ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, Chinese diplomats and CCP leaders used this opportunity to inundate domestic media with a narrative that reinforced its authoritarian model of governance as against the vagaries of chaotic democracies.
Chinese social media replete with posts that describe US Secretary of State as a Hunanese
Trump’s trusted aide and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been at the forefront of the United States’ wrangling with China. Pompeo has pulled no punches in attacking Beijing, imposing punitive sanctions against Chinese authorities for it what it called Chinese authoritarian rulers’ draconian suppression of the Chinese people’s freedoms of expression, religion or belief, association, and the right to peaceful assembly.
On the other hand, China has responded with equal belligerence against Pompeo’s actions. The CCP has not only criticised the American Secretary of State but it has also commissioned a massive disinformation campaign against him to discredit his accusations against Chinese authorities in the eyes of the Chinese people. State-run organisations such as WeChat, Weibo and other big organisations help CCP in its nefarious designs of flooding the media with disinformation and conspiracy theories.
A piece of particularly misleading information that was doing the rounds on the Chinese social media was about Mike Pompeo being a Hunanese, his father being a renegade bandit and a landlord which stemmed his hatred for China. Of course, these assertions were all fake. But, that did not stop people from consuming and circulating the deceiving reports on social media. Such propaganda and conspiracy theories have become the norm, and not the exception of the Chinese social media.
China fuels disinformation about Australia after the latter demands inquiry into origins of coronavirus outbreak
China has also stepped-up efforts to fend off criticism it faced following its botched up initial response to the coronavirus pandemic. When Australia tried to spearhead the demand to bring China to reckoning over its lack of transparency over the coronavirus crisis, Beijing turned to disinformation to attack Australia. Chinese diplomats shared fake images of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s neck. The aim, here again, was to tarnish the moral authority of Australia in questioning China’s human rights violations and galvanising an anti-Australian sentiment.
Recently, experts who came together in a webinar organised by Usanas Foundation on 9th December revealed the dangerous methods of propaganda used by China to influence elections globally, spy on other nations using their educational institutions and other methods, weaponise Chinese apps and essentially, how their espionage activities have intensified in the past few years.
Grove Human Rights Scholar Teng Biao, who was a speaker at the Webinar, revealed the modus operandi of China in trying to influence elections in other countries. “Chinese government meddles in elections of many countries like Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, United States, etc. During Taiwan elections, Chinese government launches a disinformation campaign through its social media and uses it to defame the Party that is anti-China or hostile to it (such as the Democratic Progressive Party).
This pattern of censoring hostile information, flooding a tightly controlled media environment with contrived narratives, running propaganda campaigns against inimical adversaries is ossified as an instrument of China’s media policy. Every time the CCP encounters an unfavourable piece of information against itself, it first moves to block its people from accessing it, its diplomats go all guns blazing against it, and its media arms converge to spread disinformation and launch a propaganda campaign to sow confusion and weave a fiction undermining the information.