Beginning in late January, when news emerged of a “novel coronavirus” spreading through China, Beijing’s propaganda apparatus shifted into overdrive. The epidemic has also been heavily covered in externally-directed Russian state-backed media outlets, offering an opportunity to compare and contrast the approaches of both countries’ propaganda apparatuses. Analysis of data from Russian and Chinese official sources tracked by the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 2.0 dashboard since January 30 (the day the World Health Organization officially declared the virus a global health emergency) show two primary findings: First, official Chinese sources are giving Russia political and policy space they do not afford to other countries. Second, both China and Russia are using the epidemic as an opportunity to paint Western countries — particularly the United States — as racist and hypocritical.
Countries that decided to evacuate their citizens from China or to enact bans on travelers from China have come under heavy rhetorical pressure from Beijing-backed state media and diplomats. After the United States implemented a travel ban and evacuated diplomatic personnel, state media outlets such as Xinhua and the Global Times widely reproduced a foreign ministry spokesperson’s accusation that the United States is “turning from overconfidence to fear and overreaction.” In its reporting, the Global Times added that “Chinese government officials and observers” had “blasted” the United States, which had “overreacted to the epidemic and created chaos by being the first country to withdraw its consular staff from Wuhan, a move which analysts called immoral but not surprising.” Beijing’s ambassador to New Zealand called a press conference to upbraid Wellington for its travel ban, saying it had abetted racism towards people of Asian descent. Xinhua and the Global Times both reported her claim that “Chinese students that have arrived in New Zealand are facing xenophobia due to misinformation.”
However, when Russia decided to close its land borders with China, the reaction by Chinese sources captured in the Dashboard appeared muted, to the point that RT itself noted China’s “calm” response to Russia’s decision.
Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing’s respective state media ecosystems have accused Western countries of racism and hypocrisy. Both Russian and Chinese state media have amplified narratives about racism and xenophobia that have emerged in Western countries as fears of the coronavirus have spread. RT has tweeted that the coronavirus has “unleashed a wave of racism and discrimination in many countries against Asian citizens.”
In another RT piece, well-known public intellectual Slavoj Zizek observes that “racist paranoia is obviously at work” in the “hysteria” over coronavirus in Western countries, while the Global Times, in a piece entitled “Virus unleashes racism in Western societies,” argued that “some Western media outlets — with a deep-rooted racist mind-set — have lost their objectivity and rationality, issuing biased reports that would create panic among people and that may thus trigger more serious social problems.”
In China’s case, many state media outlets — as well as a number of official government spokespersons — have argued that travel bans and Western criticism of its public health response are themselves caused by latent racism or colonialist attitudes. These articles account for a relatively small share of all coronavirus-related content pushed out by Chinese state media outlets, but they occupy a relatively large share of editorial and opinion-related content. One piece penned for China Daily by a professor in South Africa, for example, urged Africa to “reject the triple Western diseases of xenophobia, ideological bias and the fear of China’s rise” inherent in the “numerous opinion pieces across the Western media that are using the breakout of this disease to directly attack the Chinese system.” Another article in China Daily, written by a professor based in Singapore, observed that the “U.S. and other Western countries’ overreactions to the outbreak in China smack of a ‘segregation’ policy laced with extreme racism” and linked this latent racism with a desire to thwart China’s geopolitical rise.
These data suggest that both countries are using the epidemic as an opportunity to paint Western countries — particularly the United States — as racist and hypocritical. Simultaneously, China appears to be treating Russia’s coronavirus response differently than other countries. These alignments are only the latest in a series; previous analyses of Hamilton 2.0 data have demonstrated similar alignments on issues such as 5G and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.