Not being an epidemiologist, I’ve generally tried to avoid talking about the Wuhan Coronavirus (go piss up a rope, Uncle Xi). And the current disruption has got me wondering just how I’m going to continue the Maelstrom Rising series after this, when it comes time to pick it up again. But that’s not what this post is about. There are far more knowledgeable people to talk about the Wuhan Coronavirus itself (and how incomplete and inconclusive much of the data is). I’m going to talk about the comprehensive Chinese Communist Information Operations campaign related to it.
The Wuhan Coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, China, sometime in December, 2019. It was not initially identified as such; there were inexplicable cases of pneumonia, and they were increasing rapidly.
Communist countries being what they are, the initial response was more geared toward keeping word from getting out. After all, everything is always perfect in the Workers’ Paradise. So, on January 1st, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau summoned Dr. Li Wenliang and accused him of “spreading rumors.” Dr. Li publicly repented of his “misdemeanors” and promised not to commit further crimes, presumably after being worked over a little. He wasn’t the only one, either; there are several known Chinese doctors and journalists who have gone missing, and are presumed either imprisoned or dead. Furthermore, testing of the virus was ordered stopped, and all samples destroyed.
During this time, with the State authorities denying that there was any human-to-human transmission happening, hundreds of thousands of people continued to move in and out of Wuhan, and across international borders. Japan’s first case was confirmed on January 15. The first US case was in Washington State on January 21. The Chinese finally started to quarantine Wuhan on January 23, but by then the cat was out of the bag.
We all know roughly what has come after that. National Review has a much more comprehensive timeline. But Beijing will not–cannot, given the Communist mindset–take any responsibility for denying the problem, suppressing research that could have headed things off before it got too bad, and allowing the infected to carry the Wuhan Coronavirus around the world. Nothing is ever the Communists’ fault. This goes clear back to the bad old days, when every problem in the world was due to “Western imperialism.” Or starvation was because “the kulaks are hoarding all the food.”
So, we come to the Information Operations and propaganda (the latter being a facet of the former, but more blatant than some of what we’re seeing).
It has been noted by some in the field that Chinese online IO has shifted gears, taking cues from Russian efforts. Russian IO tends to be geared toward creating confusion and chaos in the target population, while Chinese efforts have been somewhat more centralized, aimed at constructing and controlling a particular narrative. Whether it’s embracing the chaos or simple desperation, the Chinese appear to be pointing fingers everywhere but Wuhan.
Only about a week and a half before this writing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian started spreading the rumor online that the US Army was responsible for introducing the virus into China. That has become a continual drumbeat on Chinese television. Elsewhere, rumors have been started that it really started in Italy (which has been hit brutally hard by the virus, with thousands dead already). The fact that Lombardy, which is the epicenter of the epidemic in Italy, has a considerable population of Chinese nationals, of course, goes unremarked.
Now, here’s where it gets a bit more subtle. Because shortly after the first accusations of US biowarfare came out, rumors began to circulate on social media that perhaps the bad sickness that went around during flu season, with some people suffering a linger cough for weeks, was actually the same as the Wuhan Coronavirus. In other words, it was already here, and we weathered it.
This is, of course, ignoring the fact that confirmed cases of the Wuhan Coronavirus in the US have followed a similar pattern to cases in China, Italy, South Korea, and Japan, with high fevers and pneumonia, none of which matched up with the ailment during regular flu season. Nor were there enough deaths or required ventilators to get American doctors’ attention.
And the timing has to be taken into consideration. Only after Beijing started pointing fingers elsewhere, insisting that the virus didn’t start in Wuhan, did these rumors start to circulate. Pinning down the source, at this point, would probably be next to impossible, but more than likely, they came from someone in the employ of the Chinese MSS.
This is how IO works. It’s often not a matter of overt propaganda, though that can play into it. It is rumor–often being spread by someone unconnected with the source–that gets spread because it resonates somehow. In this case, I don’t believe that everyone spreading this rumor is sympathetic with the CCP; in fact, many of them hold considerable antipathy for the ChiComs. But wishful thinking is easily preyed upon by the propagandist, and people really, really want this to be over soon, and not nearly as bad as the doomsayers keep saying that it is (it probably isn’t that bad, but that’s a whole different discussion). So, the idea that it was already here, it was weathered, and this is all panic over nothing is an appealing idea.
But it’s a lie. Furthermore, it’s a weaponized lie, being used by the Chinese Communists to deflect blame and, quite possibly, to prompt further destabilization among their strategic rivals. After all, if they drag everyone down with them, they still have a chance to be a relative superpower. (Yes, that thread might be worked into later volumes of Maelstrom Rising.)