The Search for Alternate Truth
The Chinese Government has done a stupendous job in containing the COVID19 in their Country. They have saved a lot of lives and need to be complimented for that. They mounted a military type of response and mobilized all their resources to contain the outbreak and deal with it. However, there are huge gaps between the actuality and what is being projected now. They say that truth is the first casualty in any war. It has been no different in the current war against the Chinese/ Wuhan COVID. While the world is fighting a war against the disease thrust upon it by China, wittingly or unwittingly, there is a serious effort on the part of China to search and paint an alternate truth. The motives of this alternate truth are reflected in the efforts by an authoritarian system which seeks to control its people and the rest of the world. The simple tool they have employed is propagating a narrative which suits China. The narrative has been shaped either by cloaking the truth or by aggressively promoting an alternate truth. In old terms it is called propaganda. The Chinese propaganda as it has played out needs understanding.
Sustaining the Barrel of the Gun
Government governs the people. In democratic societies, the governments are chosen by the people and for the people. When the governments fail to live up to the expectation of the people, they are changed liked diapers. New governments are brought in from the best available options by the people and asked to carry on. Democratically elected Governments accept the accountability of the hustings and move on when voted out of power. However, in the authoritarian one-party system of China which captured power through the ‘barrel of a gun’, it must be sustained by convincing the people that the system the Communist Party offers is the best. If that conviction is not conveyed in a way people understand it, then it is back to the old maxim – ‘power flows through the barrel of a gun’. There is no question of giving up power and moving on. Hence the internal dimension of security is as important if not more than the external threat.
The Need for a Superiority Narrative
From a different perspective, China has progressed to be a rich country. Its people are no more the poor peasant followers of the Mao era. There is a prosperous and burgeoning assenting Chinese middle class. It has driven the economic change to prosperity. This middle class has been outbound. It has seen democracy and accountability at close quarters. It demands answers. The danger is that sooner or later the influenceable and huge mass if unsatisfied, could turn into a dissenting middle class to drive a political change. There is also a poverty segment in China which is experiencing inequity. That segment must be an aspirational/ dissatisfied lot. These people cannot be handled by the gun anymore in this interconnected world. The other issue is that China wants to be a superpower. In its mental construct, a superpower is not only superior but infallible. After all it is the middle kingdom and it must project itself and behave accordingly. The external and internal issues need to be taken care of through its propaganda machinery to covey an overall conviction of being the best and only choice.
Best for the People
The conviction to be conveyed is two faceted. The first facet is to internally convey and convince the Chinese people that all actions taken by the government is the best for them. The second facet is conveying a message indirectly to the people through the external world. It must be conveyed that the methods adopted by the international community are inferior to those adopted by the Chinese. This will keep them in a state of disadvantage forever in any future negotiation. In doing so it must be shown to the people that other international or democratic alternatives are inferior. Ever since the Virus surfaced in Wuhan in mid Nov these themes have been clearly visible either through censorship or propaganda by the Chinese State. The narrative has been played out in different stages as per the timeline of evolution of the crisis. The detailed time line of the outbreak up to 21 Mar 2020 is available @ https://www.devex.com/news/covid-19-a-timeline-of-the-coronavirus-outbreak-96396
Unfolding the Narratives
Early Stages – Ignored and Cloaked. The outbreak started in mid Nov. It was reported to WHO on 31 Dec. The Wuhan Sea Food market was closed on 01 Jan 20. The Chinese Media were busy with the China Media Project activities and gave it only cursory coverage. This was the time when China missed the ball. Its focus was elsewhere. If at that stage there was enough focus on the outbreak, it is possible that it could have been stopped in its tracks as mentioned by President Trump. Further, the origins of the outbreak are still hazy. It is not known if the outbreak was from the Seafood Market which was closed or the Wuhan BSL laboratory. It is also not known if the pace and scale of the outbreak was due to negligence of Wuhan Authorities or the Chinese Government itself. The entire issue is shrouded with lack of focus or clarity till the third week of Jan. Activities of the Chinese Government of this critical period have been cloaked out.
Local Outbreak Stage – Leadership Loss. The Chinese really started responding around the third week of Jan 20. However, Xi Jinping made a disappearing act and was not seen for about two weeks. Reasons not known so far. Did the fightback effort lack leadership? Probably. Were international authorities taken on board? No. At this stage, leadership, transparency or inclusivity of international expertise was lacking in varying measures. That has been covered up. Overall, it seems loss of leadership was compounded by some incompetence.
International Outbreak Stage - Censorship. By the third week of Jan 20, cases started proliferating outside China. It was clear that this was a pandemic. WHO delayed declaring this outbreak as a pandemic till end Jan. Reports have appeared that WHO was pressurized to delay the declaration since it would have shown China in poor light! It was all about saving Chinese ‘Face’ over ‘Lives’. However by this time China was in military response mode. China had imposed censorship to ensure no news went out of Wuhan and the world knew very little as to what went on there. It is felt in international circles that the censorship imposed by the Chinese and not allowing news to go out turned the virus into a pandemic of this proportion. Early in this stage other countries started putting restrictions on Chinese travelers. The Chinese were bellicose and called such restriction as an ‘overreaction’. It caused the other countries to take a deep breath and step back. This reflexive ‘underreaction’ probably delayed international reactions to combat the virus early. Also, the data being turned out by China was suspect since news from social media and evacuated personnel which was filtering out painted a different picture. The credibility of Chinese official reports was always poor, and it remains so. The general view is that China has vastly under-reported its numbers. In very simple terms it is called fudging or lying.
Chinese Containment Stage – Fightback Propaganda. Between early Feb to early Mar 2020, the Chinese were able to contain the outbreak within the country. Immediately the Chinese tune changed, they started portraying their workers as heroes. That is perfectly ok since there was real effort by the people in the fightback. However they used the positivity so generated to coverup the major slip ups of initial delayed response. In this period they sacked all errant officials of Hubei and Wuhan seemingly to punish them. They shifted the blame to local officials and absolved the main leaders of their culpability or responsibility to ensure their longevity. All in all, the deficiencies of the Communist Party and the Central Government have been covered. Some dissenters have disappeared. They very clearly muzzled to block all negative reporting or communications. They also started a theme to say that China absorbed the initial impact of the outbreak and bought time for the rest of the world to react. They even released a book titled A Battle against Epidemic: China Combatting Covid-19 in 2020. This book presents the Party in terrific light as saviors of the masses.
International Outbreak Stage – Superiority Projection. In this period when the Chinese Virus from Wuhan started going from bad to worse in the international arena. China started a new theme to suggest that the Virus came into China through the US contingent in the world military games and did not originate in China. Now the Chinese are aggressively portraying as if the origin was USA and that they had no clue about it. It appears that they want to bury the truth of the origins of the virus in acrimony so that their image is untarnished and high. Any mention of ‘China Corona Virus’ or ‘Wuhan Virus’ is off limits now even though early in the narrative, their tabloids called it the ‘Wuhan Virus’. Off late the Global Times has been critical of USA and Europe in their failure to contain the Virus and the inefficacy of their democratic counter measures vis a vis the Chinese authoritarian methods. They are portraying the weaknesses of democracies aggressively. This theme is being replicated through other national media channels which are aligned to China. China now seeks global gratitude for its efforts to contain and fight the virus. The latest is that China is reaching out to the weaker countries and offering sops as a savior since the western world is busy fighting its battles with the virus. Chinese embassies around the world are actively propagating narratives of Chinese superiority. Slick videos have started appearing in social media explaining the ‘balanced’ Chinese point of view.
Information Warfare Campaign
Overall, it is very clear that no one except the Chinese believe that the Virus was imported into China. There is also a strong view that China did not focus when needed nor did it share its knowledge with the rest at the appropriate time. China is also now focusing on superiority of its actions which shows the rest of the world in poor light. Put all this together and one sees the outlines and effects of a classic Information Warfare campaign which is painting an alternate truth. Whether the alternate truth will be believed or not is a different matter. Say what you might, the fundamental issue is that people have no doubt that this is a “China Virus” or a “Wuhan Virus”.
The Greek Tragedy of Pakistan
While all this is going on, a Greek tragedy is unfolding in Pakistan. This impoverished nuclear country is heading towards an unmitigated disaster. The virus propagation rate is galloping. It has little or no resources. Their PM has no action plan other than saying ‘Ghabarana nahin hai’ , refusing lockdown and appealing to the international community to write off its loans. It is a different matter that even amidst this crisis, Pakistan keeps raising the Kashmir issue and the conditions in the UT of J&K where there are just 4 virus affected cases as of today as against 72 in POK. Significantly it borders Iran and China – two of the worst affected nations by the china virus. It has deep ties with China - its all-weather ally. There is a significant Chinese population in Pakistan, thanks to the CPEC. It has open borders with Afghanistan where the virus is not even acknowledged by its ally – The Taliban. It has a significant nonresident population which will get back as they went out – through porous routes. All this forebodes a clear influx and spike in the disease from all directions. The military of Pakistan runs a multi- billion-dollar business empire. It has not lifted a little finger to open its purse. Knowing its track record, this little nest egg is for their Generals to live in luxury and safety when common Pakistanis ail. So far Pakistan’s ‘Iron Brother’ has not responded except perfunctorily. The real test lies ahead. How will the Pakistani people react to the Chinese? After all the Jewel in the Crown of BRI, the CPEC is in Pakistan. It is likely to be an unmitigated disaster. The real test of Chinese leadership will come if it can bail out Pakistan. Let us see.
I am posting two videos here. One from China a slick one which gives out the Chinese version. The other is from Pakistan. It is crude and gives out the view of a common Pakistani at grassroot level. These videos have been doing the rounds in social media and convey certain perspectives. Juxtapose it with what I have put across and draw your conclusions. Develop your own alternate truth.
This analysis is not a figment of my imagination but a distillation of international views from links below -