Erin Jory | East Asia Fellow
Amidst the global pandemic, the Chinese government has been exerting influence over its online sphere to shape the coronavirus narrative and position itself as the global leader in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
In recent years the United States and China's growing rivalry have been fuelled by increasing competition for technological and military superiority and dominance of the global economic system. However, in the current global health crisis, China understands that perceptions of its mismanagement and response to the pandemic have the potential to fundamentally shift its position in global politics.
A study conducted by Chinese scientists in January 2020 suggested that the novel coronavirus had already started circulating in Wuhan, China, much earlier than officially reported. According to the research, keyword searches on WeChat related to the novel coronavirus saw "abnormal spikes and increases" weeks before the Chinese government officially confirmed the first cases. As early as 17 November 2019, the terms "SARS," its Chinese equivalent "Feidian," "coronavirus," "shortness of breath," "dyspnea," and "diarrhoea", saw increasing usage in WeChat posts and searches.
Despite these early signs, the Chinese government’s censorship on WeChat only increased in order to curb public fear and maintain the positive image of the government.
A recent report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab revealed that between 1-31 January, WeChat censored 132 keyword combinations relating to the novel coronavirus. As the outbreak continued between 1–15 February WeChat censored an additional 384 new keywords. The censored keywords include the name of the Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as neutral references to government policies on handling the epidemic, references to Dr Li Wenliang – the first Wuhan doctor to warn the public on WeChat of the coronavirus, and responses to the outbreak in Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Some examples of censored combinations include "Local authorities + Epidemic + Central (government) + Cover up" and "Wuhan + Obviously + Virus + Human-to-human transmission".
The censorship has been particularly damaging as WeChat is China’s main information-sharing platform and a crucial part of many Chinese people’s lives. Users not only use the platform to communicate, but also to book flights, hail taxis, transfer money, and pay bills.
WeChat is owned by parent company Tencent, one of China’s largest privately-owned multinational conglomerates. Tencent’s CEO Ma Huateng, who holds concurrent roles as deputy to the Fifth Shenzhen Municipal People’s Congress and servant of the 12th National People’s Congress, indicates that the distinction between Tencent as a private company and the Chinese government is blurred. In fact, WeChat has been subsidised by the government since its creation in 2011, indicating that the government aids in WeChat’s dominance.
WeChat has previously censored significant historical events, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. More recently, it also cracked down on posts about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and of Muslim containment camps in Xinjiang. According to a Quartz article, examples of blocked terms on WeChat as of March 2017 included “Bloody Tiananmen”, “Support Hong Kong + Occupy Central” and “Rights Organizations + Xinjiang’s Restrictive Policies”.
While the Chinese government’s distortion of data and strict censorship has encroached on citizens’ freedom of information and expression, the recent censorship amidst a global public health crisis is particularly alarming. The removal of general discussion, factual information and access to vital public health information on WeChat misleads people about how to best protect themselves and further spreads fear, uncertainty, and misinformation.
Amidst China’s recent public displays of material assistance, such as the donation of ventilators, masks, and medics to Italy and France, WeChat has remained central to directing the coronavirus narrative in China. In a statement to Buzzfeed News, a Tencent spokesperson said, “We have rolled out a variety of tools and features on the platform to help users stay safe and protect themselves against the ongoing Coronavirus epidemic. Importantly, this includes debunking false rumours.”
While conspiracy theories of Wuhan’s P4 virology lab and its connection to the virus were quickly censored, rumours that the US army might have brought the epidemic to Wuhan surged early March. The increasing prevalence of anti-American sentiment and rhetoric on WeChat is significant, given the sophisticated measures in place to detect and remove misinformation, especially about the Chinese government.
China has been quick to endorse the narratives on WeChat on the international stage. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian has come out and promoted a conspiracy theory that the United States military could have brought the novel coronavirus to China. China's ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian also took to Twitter on 8 March to say that “although the first epidemic was recorded in China, it didn't mean the virus originated from China."
The Chinese government’s efforts to deflect international condemnation of the outbreak by shifting blame onto the United States reveal Beijing’s attempts at reshaping the coronavirus narrative in its favour.
Through its censorship of WeChat, the Chinese government has thus far been able to position itself as the global leader in the pandemic response and on the global stage.
Erin Jory is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs