Chinese state media is laboring furiously to rewrite the narrative of the Wuhan virus epidemic as a tale of the Chinese people coming together behind their wise and noble Communist leadership, rather than the existential crisis for Party leadership that most outside observers are seeing.
On Monday the state-run Global Times ran a weird editorial that asserted the entire world thinks better of Beijing for its deft handling of the outbreak and predicted history would not be kind to those who doubted the Communist Party.
The backdrop for the Global Times editorial is the mounting political crisis facing the Communist Party after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, a whistleblower who was treated as a seditious rumor-monger for sounding early alarms about the danger of the Wuhan coronavirus.
Li died last week after contracting the virus and spending his last few weeks in the hospital. His passing galvanized public resentment of how the virus outbreak has been handled. It also proved challenging to claims that the virus is only deadly to elderly people or patients with serious existing medical conditions, as Li was only 34 and in seemingly good health.
The Global Times editorial created an alternate reality filled with patriotic applause for the Communist Party and Chinese people coming together in a moment of crisis, contrary to “two malicious points of view” promoted by Western countries:
One is naming the novel coronavirus the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.” At the end of January, a newspaper in Denmark published a cartoon of the Chinese national flag that replaced the five symbolic stars with virus-like figures. Facing China’s protest, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen responded that “we have freedom of expression in Denmark – also to draw.”
Such a position can be seen in other European countries as well. A German magazine insulted China by claiming the novel coronavirus is “made in China.” And a host of a local radio program in the Netherlands danced while singing the virus was created by “dirty Chinese people” and “if you don’t want to get infected, please stay away from Chinese food.”
The other malicious attack was calling China “sick man.” On February 3, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” The column was filled with ill-disguised arrogance and a sense of superiority that comes out of nowhere. The sinister intention of the newspaper and the author was to humiliate China.
I have read the author’s book on the history of US diplomacy, an outstanding and broad-view work. But now, he took the epidemic as an opportunity to attack China as “a sick man,” I was surprised how could his understanding of China be so unexpectedly narrow?
The Chinese people, who are becoming increasingly more confident, don’t get offended or outraged as easily as they used to. Now, the Chinese people tend to find those authors ridiculous, ignorant and hypocritical. They do not understand China or the world, nor do they have the empathy and passion that people are supposed to have.
The Wall Street Journal editorial in question was written by foreign affairs expert Walter Russell Mead of Bard College and the Hudson Institute. Mead asserted “the mighty Chinese juggernaut has been humbled” by the coronavirus epidemic and said there are “signs that Chinese authorities are still trying to conceal the true scale of the problem.”
Mead was particularly critical of how the Chinese government handled the early days of the outbreak, with results that include the crisis of confidence Chinese media is striving very hard to deny:
China’s initial response to the crisis was less than impressive. The Wuhan government was secretive and self-serving; national authorities responded vigorously but, it currently appears, ineffectively. China’s cities and factories are shutting down; the virus continues to spread. We can hope that authorities succeed in containing the epidemic and treating its victims, but the performance to date has shaken confidence in the Chinese Communist Party at home and abroad. Complaints in Beijing about the U.S. refusing entry to noncitizens who recently spent time in China cannot hide the reality that the decisions that allowed the epidemic to spread as far and as fast as it did were all made in Wuhan and Beijing.
The passage in Mead’s essay that probably triggered Beijing hardest was his concern that China’s economy, which is much more fragile than the Communist Party wants to admit, could be pushed into a tailspin by the epidemic:
China’s financial markets are probably more dangerous in the long run than China’s wildlife markets. Given the accumulated costs of decades of state-driven lending, massive malfeasance by local officials in cahoots with local banks, a towering property bubble, and vast industrial overcapacity, China is as ripe as a country can be for a massive economic correction. Even a small initial shock could lead to a massive bonfire of the vanities as all the false values, inflated expectations and misallocated assets implode. If that comes, it is far from clear that China’s regulators and decision makers have the technical skills or the political authority to minimize the damage—especially since that would involve enormous losses to the wealth of the politically connected.
The Global Times predicted history would not record criticism like Mead’s in a “positive way.”
“Their voices will smell like stinky farts, making people frown and walk away. Perhaps some impartial historians will tell later generations how the epidemic in China mirrors the greatness of many people and the paltry sense of compassion a handful of others have demonstrated disgracefully,” the editorial hissed, bringing in other persistent China critics such as Gordon Chang and David Shambaugh as examples of supposedly ostracized writers who have become “unpopular and despised” for selling China short.
The editorial concluded by predicting how future historians would write about the year 2020:
The Chinese underwent a tough time over the year. They had to battle the novel coronavirus epidemic at home, and deal with insulting attacks from some foreigners. Yet they are strong and they stay strong. This great country has weathered the year of 2020, like any year over its history of 5,000 years, and they have achieved their goal of making their lives better.
The death of Dr. Li has opened the floodgates for Chinese doctors to step forward and reveal how the Chinese government has been threatening them into silence when they attempt to follow Li’s example and warn about the true dangers of the coronavirus. The New York Post described two such doctors on Monday, noting that both were told to stop spreading “rumors,” and one was made to sign a statement of submission to authority similar to the one forced on Li in December.