China Is Not the Hero of the Pandemic

When Chinese scientists identified a mystery virus in , they were ordered to stop tests, destroy samples, and suppress the news. When Chinese medical professionals began to sound the alarm, they were seized by police. For weeks, when Chinese state media went on air or to print, they ignored the virus’s spread. When government cadres heard rumors of some new SARS-like virus, they kept their heads down and continued praising party leader Xi Jinping.

China’s strategy to fight COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, though later praised by the World Health Organization and scientists worldwide, consisted of cover-ups, lies, and repression. It also miserably, exposing the world to this deadly sickness.

After claiming yesterday to have of the virus, China is now trying to take a victory lap, the strength of its response—and the United States’ —while spreading that the U.S. government manufactured the virus. And while U.S. President Donald Trump’s toward the outbreak merits criticism, China’s with its initial is certainly more to blame. Some of Trump’s fiercest public critics, however, have in their condemnations of the president remarkably ignored China’s faults or even praised the Chinese Communist Party’s response. In doing so, they are propagating falsehoods—and Chinese propaganda.

The details of China’s critical missteps are long-running and have been widely reported. When academics in and warned that a SARS-like virus could emerge from China’s wet markets, the CCP allowed these markets to stay open. A February Washington Post of Chinese statements, leaked accounts, and interviews with public health officials and medical experts concluded that China’s “bureaucratic culture that prioritizes political stability over all else probably allowed the virus to spread farther and faster.” A by researchers at the U.K.’s University of Southampton showed that if China had acted three weeks earlier than it did, the number of coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95 percent and its geographic spread limited significantly.

Wuhan health officials by the end of December had confirmed nearly three dozen cases of the virus and closed a market they thought was related to its spread. And yet Chinese authorities spent January could spread between humans—something doctors had known was happening —and allowed a Lunar New Year banquet involving tens of thousands of families to take place in Wuhan as planned. The Chinese government later let some the city without screening.

Remarkably, according to even the CCP’s own , Xi knew about the virus for two weeks before saying anything to the public. The CCP’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, mentioned the epidemic and Xi’s actions to fight it only on Jan. 21—the same day the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the first coronavirus case in the United States.

China’s failure to contain the virus can be explained by the divergence between the country’s modernized public health system and its outdated . The ills of the draconian latter negated the potential benefits of the former, allowing the virus to spread from Wuhan to Thailand and South Korea and beyond.

Trust for Xi’s regime is now waning within China and . Some global leaders are increasingly doubting the reliability of China’s data and the usefulness of its guidance on combating the virus, but others, like Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, continue to .

Seemingly hoping to preempt any potential loss of foreign trust, China’s propagandists have gone into overdrive, spectacularizing their country’s purported altruism and leadership: The Chinese Embassy in Italy, in a statement , claimed to be “” to that country; journalists reported that China is sending similar “aid” ; Chinese experts have carried out training sessions for 10 Pacific Island countries and dispatched medical experts, along with supplies of masks and virus detection kits, to .

This is all part of Xi’s wide-scale propaganda effort to gaslight the world into believing that China is not only not responsible for but is responding best to the pandemic, ultimately portraying his country as a magnanimous and trustworthy global leader.

But many of China’s claims are easily refuted. China did not stop the virus from spreading; Beijing’s negligence allowed the outbreak to go global. China is not donating but selling ventilators, face masks, and other goods to and . According to Italian media, an array of other European countries are also planning to purchase ventilators from China.

Xi’s regime, even amid a crisis it enabled, is just applying the same simple economic strategy as it does through the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s Marshall Plan–like state-backed global investment and marketing campaign: exporting domestic overcapacity abroad. China, home to too many unemployed workers and , generally sends both to the global south .

And now, as the world—thanks to Chinese state failure—gasps for air, China is there to sell us its excess and . These sales will both serve as fodder for propaganda and help the country rejuvenate its shellshocked business sector.

While China charges the world for its assistance, it is, in fact, Trump’s United States that has already provided of aid to China and other countries affected by the pandemic.

And yet, despite all of this, more than a few Western thought leaders have aped Chinese falsehoods to critique Trump’s apparent failures and praise Xi’s purported successes.

Rachel Maddow on her show hosted New York Times reporter Donald McNeil, who opined that China had “enormous success in beating down its epidemic.” Maddow then thanked McNeil for detailing the “distance between” China’s response and “what we’re preparing for.” Her show, highlighting Trump’s failures compared with China’s supposed victories, later shared a clip of the segment with the headline “How coronavirus testing works in a country that takes the problem seriously.”

A March 13 similarly proclaimed: “China Bought the West Time. The West Squandered It.”

In a that garnered some 50,000 likes, Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum wrote: “China has reacted to the outbreak of coronavirus in Italy by sending aid. The US has reacted by suspending flights. Who is the superpower?”

American have also broadly enabled China’s manipulation of concerns over racism to muddle the debate over who’s to blame for the virus’s spread. It is true that there’s no excuse for the use, including by Trump administration officials, of derogatory terms such as “” or suggesting the virus was grown in a Chinese lab, but there’s nothing inherently racist about stating that the virus originated in China.

And while there’s absolutely no excuse for the Trump administration’s to deflect criticism from its own failures, we also must not allow the Chinese regime—the same one holding Muslims in concentration camps—to weaponize claims of . Indeed, China’s new accusations of xenophobia reflect little more than the political inconvenience of pointing out the virus’s geographical source.

This is all part of the CCP’s disinformation campaign designed “to deflect attention away from the very well-documented fact that the Chinese government deliberately delayed ringing the alarm bell on the coronavirus,” , an expert on Chinese politics. This strategy “dovetails very nicely with the persistent message from the Chinese government over the past few years that all of humanity is a ‘community of common destiny’ in which China is a leading power.”

The CCP’s messaging has produced mixed success at home. Many Chinese social media users, encouraged by a Chinese regime seeking to restore its legitimacy, have ; others, however, are now , even though some prominent Chinese who criticized their own government have under mysterious circumstances.

It’s evidently in Xi’s interest to play up Trump’s missteps and cast China as superior. And although it’s understandable that American thinkers want to criticize Trump’s poor response to the crisis, this does not excuse their being duped into spreading outright falsehoods and gifting China’s appalling authoritarian regime—the same one that recently for numerous American journalists—praise of which it is certainly not deserving.

Our ideological arbiters, as they critique Trump, must engage more thoughtfully with the facts to avoid swallowing and spreading Chinese propaganda.

*story by Slate Magazine