April 8, 2020

IntelBrief: China’s Coronavirus Cover-up Campaign Continues

People walk by a giant TV screen broadcasting news of Chinese President Xi Jinping talking to medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province, at a quiet shopping mall in Beijing, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
  • China’s propaganda efforts to cover-up the true scale of COVID-19’s impact on the health and safety of China’s citizens is part of a larger effort to shield Communist institutions from criticism.
  • The Government of China and wealthy Chinese citizens have tried to rehabilitate China’s image during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing (or promising) medical aid to other countries.
  • China’s overt disinformation efforts regarding the origins of COVID-19 are indicative of a robust state-sponsored subterfuge campaign designed to shift blame away from the Chinese government.
  • Since the start of 2020, China’s covert disinformation activities over an array of social media platforms has expanded with an objective of heralding the Chinese Community Party’s approach to handling COVID-19.



COVID-19, first identified in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, has been reportedly contracted by, and killed, more Americans than Chinese citizens, although few, if any, serious analysts believe China’s numbers to be accurate. According to openly available data compiled the New York Times through several sources, as of April 7, 2020, there have been nearly 84,000 COVID-19 cases reported in China, approximately 50,000 of which were reported in Wuhan. China, like other authoritarian regimes, as a matter of policy suppresses facts to ensure that key power structures, chiefly the Communist Party of China (CPC), remain unassailable and beyond reproach. Therefore, Chinese apparatchiks have mimicked Communist Party data that artificially distorted the scale of COVID-19’s impact in China, although by exactly how much is unknown. Numerous credible reports indicate that Wuhan’s seven crematoriums were operating non-stop for weeks and produced more than 3,500 urns per day for multiple days. This and other eye-witness accounts over social media remain at odds with the Chinese official death-toll, 2,535 people, in Wuhan. Wuhan residents and reputable news sources are not alone in their skepticism of Chinese government accounting of COVID-19’s impact. 

According to multiple reports, since early February the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has warned that China’s COVID-19-related infection rates and death tallies are a fiction. China’s COVID-19 coverup is part of broader propaganda effort that includes overt and covert forms of disinformation. In addition to peddling a falsified account of the scale of COVID-19’s impact in China, the government has also launched an aggressive propaganda campaign to burnish its image to the international community. The pandemic has exposed a void in global leadership that has been exacerbated by the uneven response of the Trump administration and international organizations. In an effort to fill the leadership vacuum, China has provided aid, such as masks and medical equipment to countries like Serbia. Jack Ma, the CEO of Chinese multinational technology company Alibaba, and his philanthropic foundation, has joined the effort to rehabilitate China’s image by pledging that it would send masks, protective medical suits, and COVID-19 testing kits to every country in Africa. Not all of China’s efforts to improve its image have gone as planned, however. For instance, many European countries have rejected Chinese-made COVID-19 equipment because they were sub-standard or defective. Countries considering accepting Government of China related aid must rigorously test equipment to ensure it meets high-standards and recognize the propaganda-laden objectives that incentivize the assistance.

Overt Chinese government disinformation issues became more apparent when Lijian Zhao, China’s Foreign Ministry Information Department’s deputy director-general, publicly embraced a conspiracy theory that the United States Army created COVID-19 in a lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland and brought it to Wuhan. Stanford University’s Internet Observatory in a March 2020 study notably concluded that Zhao’s claim and similar variants had been circulating over Chinese language YouTube channels and other platforms like Twitter and Facebook prior to March 2020. In embracing a false narrative regarding COVID-19’s origin, elements of the Chinese government are trying to deflect blame for their mishandling of the pandemic while simultaneously disorienting the international community to shield the party from international opprobrium. 

More problematic are covert disinformation initiatives emanating from China. A ProPublica Report from late March details Chinese efforts to shape the COVID-19 narrative and shift blame away from the CPC by obfuscating its role in the spread of the virus. Thousands of Twitter accounts were hijacked by China-based cyber-criminals, and armies of Chinese troll accounts disseminated a cacophony of false information regarding COVID-19. According to ProPublica, many of the tweets echoed verbatim the Chinese government’s primary propaganda themes. China’s efforts to use social media to carry out a covert information war to spread conspiracies and aggrandize CPC leadership distorts the truth at a particularly dangerous time – a moment when much of the world is trapped at home and devouring online content about the pandemic. Social media companies should double-down on content moderation efforts by removing Chinese government disinformation from platforms. At this moment in the crisis, what is required is steady leadership that objectively disentangles falsehoods from fact and emphasizes transparency and honesty. 


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