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While the world struggles to cope with the spike in the number of people infected with the coronavirus, China’s ruling Communist Party has turned to its massive propaganda machine to rebrand itself and its leader Xi Jinping as humanity’s only hope.
China has launched a three-pronged attack using its network of state-run newspapers, television and radio stations to change the narrative that Beijing covered up cases of COVID-19 when they first surfaced in Wuhan — a catastrophic error health officials say pushed a once-containable situation into a global crisis.
However, that’s not the message getting through to Chinese citizens.
Instead, they are fed feel-good stories about Beijing beating the virus as well as data that doesn’t add up.
It’s nothing new.
China has been accused for years of using the media to manipulate the news to enhance its legitimacy.
Tensions between China and the United States started to escalate in early March. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it would kick out the majority of American journalists working for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Voice of America and Time magazine. Beijing claimed it was retaliation for the Trump administration limiting the number of Chinese citizens from five state-run news organizations operating in the U.S.
Since then, the State Department and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have traded nasty jabs accusing the other of denying the press access to information. As the tit-for-tat continues to play out, here’s a rundown of some of Beijing’s biggest propaganda pushers.
Zhao Lijian is a Chinese diplomat who is easily identified by his combative tone on social media, which has gained him star status.
When he returned to Beijing upon finishing a post in Pakistan, a group of young fans gathered at his office to clap and cheer him, Reuters reported.
Zhao made a name for himself following a Twitter war with Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser. Zhao and Rice accused each other of being a “disgrace” and “ignorant.”
Zhao represents a new generation of diplomatic hawks in China — ready to go toe-to-toe with foreign adversaries and stake China’s claim. The assertive rhetoric has put China at odds with the United States multiple times during the Trump administration, something President Xi Jinping seems to support.
“This is the first time since 1949 that the ‘new hawks’ have the power to reshape China’s diplomatic policy,” Qin Xiaoying, a former director of the Community Party’s international propaganda department, told Reuters. Qin is now a researcher with the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies in Beijing.
Zhao’s aggressive pushback on the U.S. as well as stances by other diplomats that have nationalistic undertones have proven to be popular with China’s citizens. Earlier this month, Zhao raised eyebrows when he claimed to his 535,700 Twitter followers that the United States military brought the coronavirus into Wuhan – the first epicenter of the global crisis – and unleashed it on unsuspecting Wuhan residents. Shortly thereafter, China’s and U.S.’ top diplomats began a terse blame game as each jockeyed for cyberdominance.
Geng Shuang is the deputy director for the Foreign Ministry Information Department of China.
Born in 1973, he’s the 30th spokesman since the ministry was created in 1983 and has not held his tongue when it comes to calling out the United States. He got his bachelor’s degree in 1995 from China Foreign Affairs University and his master’s degree in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 2006.
Geng started his career as counselor of the embassy of China in the United States, a position he held from 2011-2015. He returned to Beijing and was appointed the counselor of the Foreign Ministry’s International Economic Division. He was promoted twice in 2016 — first when he was bumped up to deputy director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department and again on Sep. 26, 2016, when he became a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Geng has always forcefully defended China.
Most recently, he’s been at the center of the press war between the two nations. When asked during a March 23 press conference if China kicked out U.S. journalists because their reporting was critical of China, Geng strongly denied the allegations.
“The measures taken by the Chinese side against The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, among other U.S. media, are all necessary countermeasures against U.S.’ unreasonable oppression of Chinese media in recent years. The U.S. side provoked China first and China was only responding in legitimate self-defense.”
He has also claimed that America has a “long-standing ideological bias against China, has continuously escalated its political oppression and has placed unreasonable restrictions on Chinese journalists. He also lashed out at The Wall Street Journal for publishing “an insulting article with a blatantly racist headline, which is unacceptable in any country.”
The Xinhua News Agency, founded on Nov. 7, 1931, is the single most powerful arm of China’s the state-run media.
The Communist Party and its leaders have relied on it to report on sensitive issues with a pro-China slant. While its headquarters are in Beijing, Xinhua has more than 30 bureaus across the country as well as in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. Overseas, it’s got thousands of reporters fanned out across 180 bureaus, including New York and Washington, D.C.
In early March, the Trump administration announced it would limit the number of Chinese citizens who work at five state-controlled Chinese news organizations in the United States to 100 from about 160. Xinhua was at the top of the list.
The news agency has been repeatedly accused of exploiting the First Amendment.
“China’s reporter-agents collect and analyze critical information about the United States and other countries,” Markos Kounalakis, author of “Spin Wars & Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence Gathering, wrote in a Miami Herald opinion piece. “Bureaus then package and deliver it to their masters back home. In the process, they also repurpose it as a quasi-journalistic propagandistic product for a mass foreign audience in their newspapers and broadcasts. To audiences, it looks and feels like real news, but it’s really just a byproduct of intelligence gathering.”
China has denied allegations it uses journalists as spies. Xinhua also has China’s largest photo archive with pictures dating back to the last days of the Qing Dynasty at the end of the 19th century, as well as the largest multilingual databank in China’s media history. By the end of 2012, it had stored 120 million text messages, more than 19 million photos and graphics, as well as 650,000 hours of radio and video broadcasts, according to China General Chamber of Commerce – USA.
People wearing face masks wait to cross a street in Beijing, Tuesday, March 31, 2020.
The People’s Daily is the largest newspaper group in China and has more than 3 million readers. It’s the official newspaper of the Communist Party and boasts 7.1 million Twitter followers. Its recent tweets include one about the United States passing a $2 trillion stimulus bill amid the coronavirus pandemic and another about a dog fishing.
The paper was first published on June 15, 1948 in Pingshan, Hebei, but has been operating out of Beijing since March 1949.
The People’s Daily gives readers a glimpse of what the government is doing. All content, however, even the opinion section, must be approved by the Community Party. In October 2017, it launched an English-language news app, aimed to reach a more diverse international audience.
“China has never been so close to the center of the world stage,” Yang Zhenwu, the paper’s president, said at the launch in Beijing. “A stronger China needs to present itself to the world, and the changing world is eager to know more about China.”
During a March 18 U.S. State Department briefing, a senior official cited People’s Daily as a propaganda-driven government mouthpiece that’s “become more and more fantastic and fictional.”
China Daily is an English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party. It’s got an overseas circulation of 600,000 and is pretty clearly anti-American.
When media outlets around the world were reporting on the violent Hong Kong riots in 2019, China Daily decided to go another route. It focused on a 30-person march to the U.S. consulate and ran a headline that read: “HK parents march against US meddling.”
The story quoted a person saying it was “despicable that some U.S. politicians repeatedly interfered in the extradition law matter.” More recently, its stories have been on what it claims as President Xi Jinping’s heroic efforts to battle the coronavirus as well as his diplomacy prioritizing “solidarity, cooperation.” Another headline from March 27 reads, “Xi’s G20 speech shows China’s commitment to cooperation in COVID-19 fight, experts say.” More praise for Xi’s can be found in the paper’s “Xi’s Moments” section.
The Guangming Daily was first published in June 16, 1949 and has a readership of about 490,000. The paper was originally the official newspaper of the China Democratic League but transitioned into a newspaper for the Communist Party’s educated elite. During its heyday in 1987, its circulation hit 1.5 million. However, as independent publications started to pop up in China in the 1990s, the paper’s popularity dropped. To stay competitive, Guangming Daily pivoted somewhat from political and economic coverage to cultural news.
Despite the shift, it still ran a healthy dose of overly cheery Chinese news. On March 1, 2016, amid a barrage of economic indicators signaling China’s manufacturing sector was slowing, Guangming Daily ran an article titled, “China’s Economic Development Prospects Are Entirely Bright.”
Liberation Daily, also known as Jiefang Daily, is the official newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Communist Party and has a daily circulation of 700,000.
In August 2019, the Chinese government dispatched reporters from regional state-run media outfits like Liberation Daily to Hong Kong to control the narrative coming out of the massive months-long protests over plans to allow extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China.
Clashes between police and protesters were common and on several occasions became violent. Like other communist-led publications, the newspaper has worked to push the accomplishments of Xi during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
China Radio International is a state-owned broadcaster committed to pushing out positive Chinese news around the world. A comprehensive investigation by Reuters in 2015 found that Beijing had bought up radio stations around the D.C. area and blasted what it wanted about tensions around the world.
For example, when the heads of 10 countries lashed out at China for building artificial islands in the South China Sea, stations linked to China Radio International recast the story and claimed tensions in the area were due to unnamed “external forces” trying to “insert themselves into this part of the world using false claims.”