The novel coronavirus pandemic, which has spread beyond the borders of mainland China has brought the world to a screeching standstill, with the global infection count swelling to upwards of 9.5 million people having already left 4,85,740 dead.
During the initial reports on the virus, which emerged in China last year, the nation’s government attempted to place a blanket cover on the flow of such information that has led to delaying the international response to the virus as the Chinese health officials declared the outbreak as “preventable and under control.”
Only in January, when news of the epidemic could no longer be kept under wraps, Beijing admitted the existence of the coronavirus, which it had earlier described as being an “unusual pneumonia.”
Yet the censoring of information as well as the suppression of voices critical of the government’s policies continues to this day.
The most indicting of events occurred in January when whistleblower, Dr Li Wenliang was interrogated by the authorities for posting about the COVID-19 pandemic in a private WeChat group.
His subsequent death due to the virus has reignited outrage over the Communist Party’s lack of transparency and accountability.
China’s Propaganda Network
The Chinese government has one of the most comprehensive propaganda networks in the world, aggressively working to disseminate misinformation and influence how it is viewed outside and within its borders.
Even in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has moved from mask diplomacy to influencing the WHO to accusing Europe as the site of origin for the virus. Similarly, a month ago, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lijian Zhao actively sought to push forward the unverified claim that the US military has actually brought the virus to the Wuhan region.
Ironically, even if Twitter is banned inside China, its foreign diplomats have been actively using it as a platform to vent the official narratives of the state, painting it in a positive light while accusing criticism levelled against it as “western driven propaganda.”
Similarly China’s state-controlled media networks such as Global Times, Xinhua, etc have been persistently attempting to change public opinion on the state policies and actions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hence, China’s propaganda serves both a domestic as well as an international purpose. Towards achieving its said purpose, Beijing employs the use of a vast network of surveillance technology to stifle any criticism for its policies as well as control its vast population.
Surveillance and Propaganda
An analysis by PropPullica shows that 1,70,000 Twitter accounts have been blocked by Twitter for “spreading geopolitical narrative favourable to the Communist Party of China” including deceptive narratives around the Hong Kong protests, COVID-19, and other topics, and were removed for violating its platform manipulation policies.
Within the country, the state media and internet companies have eliminated numerous messages that pertained to spreading news about the pandemic.
One of the significant aspects of the recent state-driven control of the internet in China has been the emergence of whistle-blowers like Dr Wenliang on social media platforms and the subsequent suppression that followed.
Tencent, which owns WeChat, announced it had closed down 2,500 accounts for “misleading content” and shut another 20,000 accounts for fake news since the coronavirus outbreak began.
The dismal state of freedom of expression in China is represented by its position in the RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
A ranking of 177 out of 180 counties is evident of the near absence of freedom of expression in China with the RSF urging Beijing to free three defenders of press freedom who have been detained by the authorities. The 2016 Cyber Security Law of China effectively criminalises all such forms of online dissent, based on the very ambiguous legal clause of “subversion of state power.”
The 50 Cent Army
One of the lesser known entities responsible for maintaining the state’s control over internet content has been the infamous ‘50 cent army’.
They are government-employed internet propagandists, reportedly numbering from five hundred thousand to two million. They have been hired to post comments on the internet, praising the prestige and integrity of the Communist Party of China.
They are employed across multiple government propaganda departments, private cooperations, and news outlets with the intention of fabricating facts as well as removing unfavourable content.
China deletes approximately 488 million comments on social media annually. Unfortunately, China has long been denying this unscrupulous operation in the cyberspace.
Recently the 50 cent army are rumoured to have been given a pay increase to 70 cent per word that they write or delete during this pandemic, the purpose supposedly being to cover up any posts that run counter to the state narrative on the COVID-19 pandemic as well as bolster Xi Jinping’s image as the saviour of the country from the pandemic.
Recently the WHO has come under increasing global scrutiny for its tacit as well explicit support of China’s policies with regards to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, visited China in January and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, where he exclusively praised CCP’s leadership for setting a new standard for outbreak response and hailing the regime’s commitment to transparency.
Ironically. Xi’s centralised regime has been accused of covering up the origin of the virus, its initial spread as well as intimidating other countries for demanding independent inquiries into the same, laying evidence of the success of China’s propaganda efforts.
The Future is Beyond Beijing
Although China’s control over the internet and its surveillance network is formidable, the outbreak of the COVID-19 saw an emergence of content, narratives and expressions of online criticism against the government at a level never seen before.
From media posts about the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic to the lack of spaces for freedom of expression along with the state-led suppression of the same, netizens of China have come forward to vent their desires and frustrations.
Chinese human rights advocates boldly expressed concern over the severe internet latency in China and appealed to all overseas Chinese to help create public pressure on Beijing.
Moreover, Chinese netizens have begun using images, and memes in particular, to spread information about the outbreak and also to overcome China’s highly advanced censorship regime.
There has been a flood of photos, videos, and witness accounts from Wuhan hospitals that undermine the state’s narrative of having the situation firmly under control.
The authorities, equipped with law and technological surveillance, have tried to tighten control over what citizens can see and say online.
China guards its internet sovereignty through the largest and most rigorous IP blocking and content filtering system in the world.
Many prominent scholars believe that the Chinese government sees the trends of the internet as a constant threat to the state and not as a potential resource.
However, today in the age of social media with a global network of online supporters at disposal, protests are no longer ‘local’. This fast and unpredictable reach of activists certainly has Beijing worried.
With the abundance of information and channels to disseminate it in society, people have the resources to access these sources of information as well as verify government’s claims and policies.
Subsequently, the digital media has provided pockets of spaces beyond state control for the voicing of the people’s concerns and criticism.
China and its citizens are no different and the COVID-19 pandemic along with its spillover effects remains a strong testimony of this “freedom”.
(Tenzin Dalha is a research fellow at The Tibet Policy Institute, Central Tibetan Administration, studying social media’s prevalence, implications and impacts on Tibetan communities both in Tibet and exile. His research interest also extends to exploring Chinese cyber security policy.)
This piece was originally published in The Quint on 27 June 2020.