Monday, April 6, 2020


China and Russia are not among the commonplace coronavirus panic-peddlers. They are also the principal sources of disinformation on the pandemic. From infection rates to fatalities, from the origins of the virus to casting blame for its global spread, China and Russia have spun webs of disinformation worthy of the Soviet Union.

The outbreak of the virus began last December in the Chinese city of Wuhan. On Dec. 30, 2019 two Wuhan doctors, Li Wenliang and Xie Linka, messaged colleagues about a possible SARS-like outbreak. Two days later, Wuhan security officials summoned eight people, including Dr. Li, and forced them to sign statements that they had lied about the outbreak. Ever since, China has consistently lied and suppressed and censored information about what can properly be called the Wuhan virus. 

(Dr. Li has since died of the Wuhan virus disease. Another dissident, Dr. Ai Fen, director of emergency management at a Wuhan hospital, has reportedly disappeared.) 

The Chinese regime claims fewer coronavirus infections than the United States, Spain or Italy. It also claims that, at least over the past two weeks, there have been very few infections — fewer than 50 new infections per day — and no new deaths due to the Wuhan virus. 

Because of China’s history of outright lies and well-spun propaganda, we can’t rely on those data. The government data is further challenged by the empirical evidence at hand. It appears, for example, that the number of deaths must be vastly higher — especially in Wuhan itself — because of social media photos showing about 5,000 burial urns delivered over two days to just one Wuhan mortuary. 

Statements by Wuhan residents to Radio Free Asia have said that the death toll in their city alone is vastly higher than the national total reported by Xi Jinping’s regime. 

Mr. Xi’s regime’s propaganda has been picked up by most of the Western media as proof of China’s claims. That disinformation is the basis for media claims that the United States has the most coronavirus cases on Earth.

China has also claimed that the virus was the product of the U.S. military and somehow spread in China by American athletes. Fortunately, the U.S. media haven’t swallowed that whopper, at least yet. Another bit of Chinese propaganda alleged that the virus originated in Italy. An Internet hashtag making that allegation has reportedly been viewed half a billion times. Meanwhile, China has expelled several U.S. news organizations in its attempt to block accurate reporting of coronavirus infections and deaths.

Mr. Xi’s regime claims that it has beaten the coronavirus after its citizens suffered fewer than 4,000 deaths and 85,000 infections. It ordered Chinese citizens back to work on March 16, but quickly again ordered businesses such as movie theaters in Wuhan to close. 

The aims of China’s disinformation campaign are at least twofold. First, the Chinese disinformation is principally for home consumption. By claiming victory, the Chinese government is attempting to justify the “return to work” order by assuring people that it is safe to do so. Second, by that same victory claim, China seeks to change the media narrative from “China bungled the outbreak” to “China the leader” that deserves accolades and emulation. 

China has asserted its scientific leadership by, among other things, sending coronavirus test kits to Spain and the Czech Republic. But those test kits proved ineffective in reliably detecting coronavirus infections and have been discarded. 

Some among the Western media are proclaiming China the new global leader in fighting the virus, displacing the United States.  

At this point, because China’s reports on the virus are taken at face value by most of the media, and because many Europeans insist on sneering at President Trump, China’s disinformation campaign is succeeding. 

Russia’s expertise in conducting disinformation campaigns goes back to the czarist era. Post-Soviet Russia takes great pride in its disinformation skills. Among Russian government apparatchiks, disinformation is probably the most popular indoor sport.

According to a Reuters report on a nine-page document authored by the European Union’s European External Action Service, the EU found that Russia is engaging in a massive disinformation campaign. The report quotes the document as stating, “The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries … in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies.”

The EU document recounted that, in almost 80 incidents, Russian disinformation attempted to magnify Iranian accusations that the virus was created in the United States.

Russia’s disinformation campaign has, so far, been far less successful than the Chinese campaign. It hasn’t measurably exacerbated the spreading panic that is consuming nations such as Italy and Spain. That only means that Russia will try new and different disinformation strategies to achieve its goal.

There are many ways to defeat disinformation campaigns such as those being pressed by China and Russia. The best way is to achieve a solution that overwhelms the problem the disinformation seeks to compound. The United States is leading the free nations of the world to solutions such as drugs to treat the Wuhan virus and a vaccine to immunize against it. It’s a safe bet that we will achieve those solutions sooner than Chinese and Russian despotisms will. 

China is indeed a global leader in the pandemic. But only in regard to disinformation. 

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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