As the pandemic of 2020 eases in North America and Europe, a new challenge is emerging for America and its allies: pandemic propaganda.
In addition to a broad-scope disinformation campaign that blames the United States for COVID-19, pleads innocence for its own failure to contain the virus, claims Western governments are leaving elderly patients to die in nursing homes, and mocks the Free World’s haphazard response, China is engaging in what’s been described as “mask diplomacy.”
Russia, too, is spinning tales that COVID-19 is a US bioweapon, while using the pandemic to score propaganda points. Both authoritarian regimes have sent medical supplies to Europe, especially hard-hit Italy, with Moscow engaging in a surprisingly showy display. Russia deployed nine massive military cargo aircraft, a 32-man army medical unit, and a 100-man army biological-decontamination unit. “It’s very unpleasant that our tragedy is being exploited for propaganda purposes,” sighs Gen. Vincenzo Camporini, former chief of staff of Italian armed forces.
In addition to Italy, China has sent medical supplies to Spain, France, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Egypt, and dozens of other countries. Beijing’s assistance is not going unnoticed: “When China’s first shipment of coronavirus medical aid landed in Belgrade,” AP reports, “the president of Serbia was there to kiss the Chinese flag.”
In short, Beijing and Moscow are seeking to normalize and elevate business-suit authoritarianism in the eyes of impressionable nation-states, while creating new fissures in an already fractured Free World. But Beijing is going one step further. Beijing’s public relations push is deflecting attention from its criminal malfeasance in response to COVID-19, airbrushing history and recasting the People’s Republic of China as a global Good Samaritan.
“When the epidemic started to explode everywhere, it was China who the entire world asked for help, and not the United States,” China’s embassy in France yelped. “It is China who lent a helping hand to more than 80 nations.” A Chinese official adds, “The whole world should appreciate what China has done.”
Add it all up—the PR spin, the propaganda push, the pallets of aid, the preening—and in a very real sense, Xi Jinping’s regime is offering a new, twisted version of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In Xi’s retelling, the roadside robbers who assault the traveler later return to rescue him—and somehow expect to be hailed as heroes. As evidence, officials in Germany and Wisconsin report attempts by Chinese officials “to persuade them to publicly praise China,” according to the Washington Post.
The United States and its allies cannot allow China to profit geopolitically from COVID-19—a catastrophe of Beijing’s own making.
The good news is that the US and many other nations are pushing back against Beijing’s Orwellian alternate universe. From the Philippines to France, from Nigeria to Nevada, there’s a swelling backlash against Beijing’s aid (much of it defective) and actions (many of them illegal, deceptive, and premeditated). The Brits are edging toward reversing their 5G deal with China. France publicly dressed down China’s embassy for disseminating fake news. Australia wants a full-fledged investigation into what Beijing did and didn’t do about COVID-19. The EU is moving in the same direction. Japan is subsidizing Japanese firms to relocate factories outside China. The US will likely follow suit.
A month ago, I wrote that deft diplomacy could build this well-deserved mistrust of Beijing into a bulwark against Xi’s malign influence. But it’s increasingly apparent that building a post-COVID-19 coalition won’t require the deftness and guile of a Theodore Roosevelt. Even someone with the skill and finesse of, well, Donald Trump or Joe Biden should be able to build such a coalition.
In the meantime, America’s actions speak for themselves. At the peak of the outbreak in Europe, US forces in Germany and Italy provided telemedicine services, assisted in delivering and standing up field hospitals, provided medical care, facilitated the transport of essential supplies, conducted medical evacuations, churned out protective masks, and delivered supplies, as The Hill reports. US forces in Africa deployed rapid-build hospital facilities to fight COVID-19. The State Department details how civilian agencies “are working together to support health systems, humanitarian assistance, and economic, security, and stabilization efforts worldwide with the $2.4 billion in an emergency supplemental funding.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “Americans have devoted nearly $6.5 billion in government and nongovernment contributions to help countries fight COVID-19,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reports, pointedly noting that America’s COVID-19 aid total is already “more than 12 times that of China’s combined contributions.”
Pompeo and the US are, quite literally, playing defense against Beijing’s COVID-19 propaganda onslaught. Indeed, a White House statement emphasizes that “coming to the aid of Italy will help fight the COVID-19 outbreak and mitigate the impact of the crisis, while simultaneously demonstrating United States leadership in the face of Chinese and Russian disinformation campaigns.”
Beijing’s propaganda is relentless and must be answered relentlessly. Looking ahead, beyond COVID-19, Congress should reopen the US Information Agency (USIA) to harmonize public-diplomacy efforts and go on the offensive against Beijing. USIA was shut down after decades of countering Moscow’s Cold War propaganda. The world has changed and changed back since then. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has called for “a USIA on steroids.” In addition, the world’s foremost groupings of democracies—the G7, EU, NATO, and D10—should stand up and fund an International Endowment for Democracy to answer and counter China’s propaganda offensives; monitor and expose Moscow’s meddling; coordinate and launch a PR offensive against authoritarian regimes; and help democracies under assault preserve their institutions.
A Good Neighbor
That brings us back to our Good Samaritan metaphor. Taiwan—continually subject to Beijing’s overt and subtle intimidation—is a far better candidate for the role of Good Samaritan in this COVID-19 tragedy.
Like the Samaritan hero in Christ’s parable about helping a neighbor in need, Taiwan is marginalized and largely isolated. The latest evidence of this is the World Health Organization’s treatment of the island democracy at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. Spurred by China, the WHO locked Taiwan out of planning conferences and stopped inviting Taiwan to global-health initiatives. When pressed as to why, WHO officials were exposed as utterly compromised by Beijing. The actions of the WHO are not only wrongheaded, but they also violate the very foundations on which medicine is supposed to be practiced: to advance science and provide care regardless of politics or creed.
Despite its maltreatment, Taiwan has stepped up to help its neighbors. As early as December, even as the WHO parroted Beijing’s COVID-19 lies, Taiwan’s experts were warning the world about human-to-human contact. Then, as Beijing intentionally or incompetently—it’s one or the other—allowed a local public-health problem to mushroom into a global pandemic, Taiwan proved itself exemplary in its response, both at home and abroad.
After five-plus months in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, Taiwan (population 24 million) has sustained just 440 cases and six deaths. Recall that Taiwan did this in the shadow of the PRC; in the face of a withering PRC misinformation campaign; and despite being shut out of WHO initiatives by Beijing. But that’s just half of Taiwan’s story. Taipei is distributing 30 million protective masks around the world to fight COVID-19—5 million to the United States, 7 million to the EU, millions more to nations and organizations fighting the killer contagion. All the while, Taiwan is massively increasing production of supplies—now pumping out 13 million masks per day.
“It is our duty as global citizens,” President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan explains. “We will donate surplus masks and other supplies to our allies and countries… hit hardest by COVID-19,” she adds. “We need to step up cooperation, and that means sharing experiences and materials—and working together to develop treatments and vaccines.”
That’s what a responsible nation—and a good neighbor—does to help those in need.