Beijing prepares for a propaganda, if not medical, victory over COVID-19

Foreign Affairs

SupChina illustration by Derek Zheng

The COVID-19 epidemic continues to spread, but mostly within China’s Hubei Province, according to official data.

Outside of China, the Diamond Princess cruise ship near Tokyo was associated with 450 confirmed cases, but no other location has more than 100 cases.

The confirmed death count stands at 1,775, and the number of cases declared cured has risen to 11,396. Five deaths have been reported outside of mainland China, per Caixin: One each in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, and France.

Meanwhile, half of the entire country is on some form of lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. The New York Times reports (porous paywall) that “residential lockdowns of varying strictness — from checkpoints at building entrances to hard limits on going outdoors — now cover at least 760 million people in China.” Hubei Province, the epicenter of the epidemic, barred practically all of its approximately 60 million residents from leaving their homes as of February 16, SCMP says.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the unprecedented disruption on people’s lives that the government has ordered in response to the epidemic, Beijing is dialing up the propaganda in an attempt to build confidence in the central leadership.

A key piece of the public messaging hinges on an unusually swift publication of a speech  made by General Secretary Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 (in Chinese), made on February 3 to the typically secretive Politburo Standing Committee. In the speech, Xi says that he was aware of the alarming epidemic and personally directing actions to address it as early as January 7. According to Bloomberg:

Perhaps the simplest explanation for the speech’s release is to show that Xi has been actively engaged in handling the crisis from an early date, contrasting with what the party has portrayed as the slower response of officials from Hubei province, the center of the outbreak.

However, as some scholars pointed out, for example, per the New York Times:

“It seems like he’s trying to indicate that ‘we weren’t asleep at the wheel,’” said Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But it comes off like ‘we knew this was a problem, but we weren’t sounding the alarm.’”

Other parts of Beijing’s new PR push include: A report (in Chinese) on Premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强 chairing a leading small group on the government’s response to the epidemic, claiming that their work had achieved “positive results” (积极成效 jījí chéngxiào), and a short readout (in Chinese) from a State Council press conference emphasizing that the number of cases declared cured had surpassed 10,000, and that outside of Hubei Province, the official number of new cases of COVID-19 had declined for 13 days in a row.  

This new messaging is perhaps designed to encourage companies and workers to resume normal operations as much as possible, after the economy sluggishly regained motion last week after the extended Lunar New Year break.