China: A Nation with no Memory

  • On February 6th, citizen journalist Chen Qiushi disappeared after posting videos to YouTube that both criticized the CPC and showed how dire the situation was in Wuhan. The CPC could not allow people like Chen to give an unfiltered view of what was happening in Wuhan if they were to successfully control public perceptions of the outbreak.
  • On the same day, Li Wenliang succumbed to the virus he tried to warn people about. His time of death was altered from approximately 10:00 PM on February 6th to 2:58 AM on February 7th. My friends speculated this alteration was made for two reasons. First, it allowed the government to say that they spent five hours making every effort resuscitate him. Second, by waiting until most people were asleep to declare Li dead, they reduced the chance of people taking to the streets in anger. People were furious about his death.
  • On February 8th, a picture of a young woman in Shanghai holding a sign demanding freedom of speech circulated on social media. At this point, I had been in China for three years and had not once seen or heard a single person publicly make this demand. Within days, this image disappeared from the Chinese internet.
  • A February 21st report from Japan’s Asahi News stating that some of America’s 14,000 flu deaths may have actually been Covid-19 was used within China to cast suspicion on America as a potential source of the virus.
  • On February 22nd, a Chinese Academy of Sciences research institute in Yunnan said that the virus didn’t originate at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. Although this conclusion may be true, it was used to push a narrative that the virus didn’t originate in China altogether.
  • On February 27th, infectious disease expert Dr. Zhong Nanshan went on TV to tell the country that the virus may not have originated in China. Dr. Zhong is well respected and trusted because of the role he played in the 2003 SARS outbreak.
  • On February 28th, a false translation of a CNN news clip was shared ad-nauseam on social media. The translation indicated that the American CDC admitted the virus originated in the US. Because there are hundreds of millions of people in China who do not speak English well, these types of false translations are surprisingly effective.
English caption: CDC confirms first case of “unknown origin” in the US, indicating community transmission is occurring in the US. Chinese translation: The American CDC admits that the first case of the novel coronavirus originated in America.
  • On February 29th, Dr. Zhang Wenhong stated during an interview that the virus most likely originated in Wuhan. After this, he all but disappeared from his increasingly regular television appearances. Dr. Zhang was a rising star in the early days of the outbreak, respected for his no-nonsense attitude. He won people’s hearts by publicly demanding that members of the CPC deploy to the front lines to relieve overworked nurses and doctors.
  • On March 1st, the CPC enacted a new internet security law giving them broader authority to silence discussion about the virus on social media platforms. Under the new rules, only people that had the government’s blessing were allowed to discuss the virus on certain social media platforms.
  • Next, while any expression of doubt over the official narrative was muted, they allowed and encouraged conspiracy theories to flourish.
This example barely scratches the surface of the ways in which the Chinese internet is manipulated, but at least gives you an idea of the tactics employed. On the popular video streaming platform Bilibili, a user with 51 followers had uploaded a total of 13 videos, 12 of which had an average of less than 200 views. One particular video, released on March 1st, had over 245,000 views. It was short clip of a Chinese-language narration explaining that Italian experts had determined the virus came from America. Given the small number of followers and low view count for the other videos, it is an understatement to say that such viewership is virtually impossible without a rankings boost from the country’s propaganda organs. It would be like YouTube promoting to its front page specific content that the US Government wanted people to see. This video was deleted after I complained to Bilibili’s censorship department.
  • On March 3rd, I tried to publish a video on Bilibili discussing America’s response to the virus. I was at first told that the content of the video was too negative and therefore could not be published. I revised the video, giving it a more positive spin. After the video was rejected a second time, I called the censorship department and was told that they are no longer allowing people to discuss the coronavirus outbreak. This is not to say that all coronavirus content disappeared from Bilibili; rather, only approved voices got to post such content.
  • On March 11th, Chinese officials and diplomats began pushing a conspiracy on Twitter that the US military brought the coronavirus to Wuhan (despite the fact that another branch of the Chinese government had already debunked this conspiracy theory). Because Twitter is banned in China, only bits and pieces trickle back behind the Great Firewall. Chinese netizens are forced to draw conclusions based on both false and spotty information. Generally speaking, they tend to side with their government’s version of the narrative.
  • On March 16th, a petition was started on Whitehouse.gov that condemns the term “Chinese virus” and says it is unacceptable to blame China “especially under the circumstances where the origin of COVID-19 is not scientifically definite yet.” While I agree that it is wrong to blame China and Chinese people for the virus, it is necessary to hold the CPC responsible for allowing it to spread unchecked from December 30th, 2019 until January 23rd, 2020. If the CPC had acted earlier, the global spread of Covid would have been dramatically reduced.
  • On March 20th, China Central TV (CCTV), the most influential broadcaster in the nation, interviewed an expert about America’s progress fighting the virus. The expert stated that America’s speed in developing a vaccine was an obvious indicator that American scientists had the genetic sequence of the virus in their hands well before the Wuhan outbreak. In other words, the virus is likely a US bioweapon that was used to attack China.
  • On March 21st, Global Times and others begin to point to the possibility of cases existing in Italy in November. This tactic of muddying the waters about the origin of the virus gives consumers of Chinese news the impression that it is simply impossible to know where it originated.
  • On March 22nd, the Chinese Ambassador to the US disowned the conspiracy theory propagated on March 11th. However, he continued to paint the question of where Covid-19 started as something unknowable, stating it is “very harmful” for journalists and diplomats to speculate about its origins. At this point in time, there were no serious scientists outside of China who thought the virus originated anywhere but China (and so it remains today, in mid-July, at the time of publishing).
  • Around March 28th, CCTV misquoted Western researchers and broadcasted false translations claiming that the virus did not start in Wuhan.
Images 1 & 2: An article in Nature Medicine, in which Dr. Robert Garry of the Tulane University School of Medicine states that the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan was likely not the origin of the virus. Within China, this was portrayed as: “America admits that the virus did not come from Wuhan.” Image 3: A Twitter user in China parroting this talking point.
Image 1: Two articles about the tragic death of Li Wenliang which were subsequently censored (Image 2). Image 3: A post from a WeChat friend with a quote attributed to John Stuart Mill on the importance of freedom of speech: “All countries that censor speech will end up making mistakes.”
Image 1: A portrait of Li Wenliang hanging on a neighbor’s tree (March 2nd, 2020). Image 2: The portrait has been removed (March 5th, 2020).
The police are depicted wearing face masks, evoking the early days of virus control.

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Kevin

Kevin

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Lover of languages. 中文 / 日本語 / español. Hoping for a better future for US and China.