How China is using Covid-19 backlash to push propaganda

Aakash Athawasya
7 min readMar 14, 2020

In late December, a virus began spreading through Wuhan, a city that would soon become ground zero for a contagion that will eventually kill over 5,000 people in over 35 countries. Emerging in the capital of the Hubei province, the disease, according to scientists has its roots in either pangolins or bats. Regardless of the animal source, this novel form of a coronavirus or Covid-19 came from China.

As things stand, much of China after being in a virtual lockdown for weeks is slowly heading back to work, but for the rest of the world, the problem has just begun. Italy has over 1,200 fatalities, health ministers in the UK and Iran are infected and the United States has suspended all air-traffic from Europe, to ward off the disease, which has already killed 50 Americans.

While much criticism can be directed towards the American government’s lack of preparation and poor measures to test and combat the spread of Covid-19, on the other side of the globe China is far from sympathetic. In fact, the Chinese are hitting back at the Americans for associating the virus to China.

Conrad Hackett | Source: Twitter

Last week, as the confirmed cases and deaths in the United States, began increasing to alarming proportions, several American media personnel and partisan figures referred to Covid-19 as the “Chinese coronavirus” or the “Wuhan virus,” much to the disgust of two very interesting groups, those that lambasted the comments as ‘racist ’ and the official Communist Party of China.

While the intent of those that denoted the geographic origin of the virus to China cannot be inferred directly, the need to label this as some sort of ‘racism’ is weak at best and plays into the hands of the Chinese at worst.

Every elicitation of China as a victim fans the flames of an integral period in Chinese history, the ‘Century of Humiliation’ which the ruling Communist Party never fails to bring before its people to claim empathy towards the state and seek vilification against foreign powers. The ‘Century of Humiliation,’ began in the 1840s following China’s loss in the First Opium War to the United Kingdom, beginning the China’s tryst with, what they refer to as, a number of ‘unequal treaties.’ It continued through to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and the Sino-Japanese War, which concluded after World War 2.

China, despite being larger in size and populace than both the United Kingdom and Japan, succumbed due to the internal strife between various conflicting groups like the Nationalists and the Communists each vying for control of the country. During this time, China lost every war it was involved in, was forced to open up ports to the British Crown, endured the Nanjing Massacre, and ceded many of its territories to western powers.

In modern times, this period is often remembered less in disgust and shame and more in a bid to engage the often disconnected populace back to the roots of China. The Chinese Communist Party often recalls the ‘Century of Humiliation’ to present a unitary, one-dimensional view of Chinese history and present an ‘us versus them’ stance. With China’s model of a “People’s Dictatorship,” this allows the party to reinforce their leadership, while at the same time build the ideological support to pursue state objectives of wealth and power, through the legitimacy that this ‘humiliation’ brings.

Not just for matters involving external western rivals, China has often recalled the past to espouse nationalistic tendencies in the current day and even employs it in diplomacy involving territorial disputes, especially with Taiwan and Tibet.

For the American media to label the virus ‘Chinese’ and, in effect, shift responsibility on Beijing for thousands of deaths all over the world, and in the United States, in particular, while China is struggling from the virus themselves, was akin to humiliation. And China did hit back, using the same “racism” thread.

On the 11 of March, as the death toll from Covid-19 surpassed 4,000, an op-ed was penned in the state-run daily tabloid, The Global Times. The author, and editor of the Times, Wang Wenwen choose a rather bold featured image screaming “RACISM” in stark red, suggesting, with the headline, “the American way.”

Source: Global Times

Right from the off, Wenwen revealed that Covid-19 has “ exposed the deep-seated bigotry and substandard manner of some American elites.”

The piece opens with labelling China the victim, stating that the country has made “enormous sacrifices to contain the spread of the epidemic,” and instead of praising China, some Americans “see xenophobia and finger-pointing to generate more fear and anxiety,” labelling the approach as “very American.”

Signalling out Tucker Carlson, a political commentator for right-leaning FOX News, Wenwen stated that he “ spares no effort in rolling out xenophobia and racism.” Further, she uses him as a barometer to gauge the social sensitivities of other Americans.

Playing to the tune of the ‘Century of Humiliation,’ she used this opportunity to invoke the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of labourers from China, due to economic and racial reasons. The author likens this Act stating that even after 200 years the “arrogance and ignorance still linger in American minds.”

From connecting the historical humiliation of the Chinese to the current day, the author then switches to the economic might of China, one that, she suggests, the United States greatly benefits from. With China being the manufacturing giant that it is, “ American families cannot do without made-in-China goods for a day” and it is due to Chinese goods that a significant number of Americans can “afford a middle-class life.”

America, Wenwen states, is using the virus as “an excuse” to criticize the Chinese while doing little to avert the crisis in “a timely and serious manner.” While there is much to be desired from the Trump Administration’s approach to Covid-19, it doesn’t dismiss the fact that China, so quickly jumped on the “racist” bandwagon and used it as an opportunity to recall past humiliation, while revelling in present-day dominance, all while a pandemic which originated in China, is spreading throughout the world.

Incidentally, Global Times themselves have used headlines like the ‘Wuhan virus’, as recently as the 17 of February but hit back with vicious propaganda when foreign independent media refers to Covid-19 as the “Chinese coronavirus.”

Double Standards? | Source: Global Times

If you thought the CCP stopped there, you’re wrong. On March 12, Lijian Zhao, the deputy director in the CCP’s Foreign Ministry Information Department, insinuated via a tweet, that it “might be [the] US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” adding in quite a demanding manner that — “[the] US owe us [China] an explanation!”

According to The Guardian, one theory emerging from China suggests that a Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan said “in a passing remark,” in February that while Covid-19 first emerged in China it “may not have originated in China.” However, Zhong later clarified,

“ But neither can we conclude that the virus came from abroad. Only through investigation and tracing can we answer that question.”

Using this unverified theory, Chinese diplomats have both used it to justify their attack on the United States and to obfuscate responsibility. China’s ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian using the same rhetoric stated that it is not certain that the virus “originated from China.”

Now as normalcy is returning to the country, much of the world has declared the virus a domestic ‘epidemic’ and is reeling with internal cases and spread. At this time, China is not only casting blame on the United States and pedalling conspiracy theories but is referring to Covid-19 cases brought into the country from offshore patients as “imported cases.”

China Xinhua News | Source: Twitter
Global Times | Source: Twitter

While China is sending aid to the worst affected countries like Italy and Iran, it is still not willing to take responsibility for the origins of the pandemic which originated in the wet-markets of Wuhan. Rather, China is using an understandable backlash against them to reinstate a tool of national propaganda to fuel its devastated citizen’s hostility to the west and, in turn, gain sympathy as the victim of hegemonic powers that have humiliated China for centuries.

Even a pandemic, one that has killed over 5,000 people, sent stock markets to record lows, bringing the world to its knees, can be used by China as propaganda.



Aakash Athawasya

Writing as opposed to keeping the thoughts locked in my head.