Xi Jinping has emphasized on numerous occasions that the Chinese Communist Party must “tell the China story well.” The notion of the “China story,” which dates back to a high-level internal meeting on propaganda and ideology in August 2013, has come to encapsulate the Party’s conviction that it must redress global imbalances in “discourse power,” or huayuquan (话语权), that favor the West and impact China’s fundamental interests internationally.
In March 2019, Xi spoke of “an historic opportunity for Party-led media” to press China’s agenda more actively in the world. “We must strengthen our capacity, boost morale and persevere in telling the China story,” he said, “creating international discourse power befitting our country’s comprehensive national power.”
The global coronavirus pandemic might have had a catastrophic effect on China’s global image, given its sluggishness in grappling seriously with the crisis during the first half of January, and indications that the facts about Covid-19 were actively suppressed by authorities even earlier. But China has, to all appearances, managed to turn the story around. This is testament not, at least not clearly, to its supposedly robust and enlightened efforts to deal with the epidemic – that IS the official story – so much as to the megaphone volume at which China has pushed the glories of its response as an exemplar for all the world.
Even as Chinese diplomats and state media have railed against what they dismiss as efforts to “politicize” the pandemic by highlighting China’s role in the spread of the disease, they have vociferously politicized the crisis at every turn – portraying aid and even commercial shipments of medical supplies as benevolent gifts, and suggesting a loss of confidence in liberal democracy the West.
In late March, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, spoke of a “global battle of narratives.” Public views, he said, were sure to change as the response to the epidemic evolved in Europe. “But we must be aware there is a geo-political component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity,’” he warned. “Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors.”
China has not just spoken loudly through diplomats and party-state media however. It has sought through concerted pressure on all fronts to quiet voices of dissent globally. In April, within weeks of Borrell’s remarks, it emerged that the Chinese government had exerted pressure on the European Union to soften already quite soft language in a report on the coronavirus pandemic. The original report noted: “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image. Both overt and covert tactics have been observed.” China actively lobbied to block the document’s release, taking issue with this characterization of its international image campaign, and senior EU officials reportedly asked that the language be softened.
China’s unremitting effort to turn the story on Covid-19 around has reached a new distillation point with the government’s release on June 7 of a white paper called, “China’s Actions to Fight the Covid-19 Epidemic” (抗击新冠肺炎疫情的中国行动). This is essentially the authoritative Bible on how China wishes the coronavirus epidemic to be understood and written into the history books.
Fortunately, there is no need at the moment to delve too deeply into the text of this document of self-praise and self-aggrandizement – the “self” here referring to General Secretary Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. The evolved narrative that the white paper represents was in fact summarized more succinctly – yet still quite grandiloquently – in a commentary published yesterday on page three of the official People’s Daily newspaper.
The commentary is attributed to “Zhong Sheng’ (钟声), a pen name used in the paper since November 2008 for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its official view. The name, which literally translates “bell tone,” is a shortened version of the phrase “bell tone to warn the world,” or jingshi zhongsheng (警世钟声).
Many elements of the narrative will be familiar already to readers, including the idea that all the Chinese people came together (under the resolute leadership of Xi and the CCP) to defeat Covid-19 in what will go down in history as a great victory for China and the world; and that “China’s experiences and methods” in fighting the epidemic have gifted the international community with a Chinese model of health protection. On this point, the commentary quotes Robert Lawrence Kuhn, identified as the director of the Kuhn Foundation but more widely known as a figure regularly featured in Chinese state media programming as a go-to praise-China voice. The Kuhn quote (though you never know with state media quotes) translates: “In the future, historians will very likely see China’s process in fighting the Covid-19 epidemic as a global model for preventing infectious diseases.”
The commentary is structured around what might be called, drawing inspiration from the CCP fondness for numerical discourse formulas, the “three can-be-seens.” Each of the paragraphs that describes these clearly evident (according to the commentary) lessons to be derived from China’s epidemic response includes at the start the statement that “we can clearly see [_____]”. And each of these paragraphs, tellingly, is bolstered at its tail end with reference either to a foreign study or a foreign voice. This reliance on the foreign voice as authoritative is quite a typical feature of party-state propaganda, and one of its most interesting internal contradictions as it seeks to offset and deny other foreign viewpoints that are dis-favoured.
Another very important feature to note in the “Zhong Sheng” commentary is the way it defines the power of Xi Jinping and the CCP. Included in this distillation of the CCP narrative on Covid-19 is a clear stake to the claim that Xi is responsible for this unambiguous victory, and an elevation of his position as “leader,” or lingxiu (领袖). This, in fact, provides the first and most important of the three “can-be-seens.” The statement begins: “Through the timeline of China’s fight against the epidemic, we can clearly see the enlightened leadership and scientific decision-making of the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core.” In the Chinese, however, Xi Jinping’s name comes first, and the reference to the Central Committee second.
Those who wish to understand both the tone – China’s Covid-19 response is “a magnificent scroll” – and the substance of the “China story” as it pertains to the global coronavirus pandemic could hardly find a better source. As such, I provide a (nearly) full translation of the “Zhong Sheng” commentary below.
An Arduous Journey, Showing Great Strength (艰辛历程，彰显伟大力量)
Focussing Attention on China’s Actions to Fight the Covid-19 Epidemic (瞩目抗击新冠肺炎疫情的中国行动)
By “Zhong Sheng”（钟声)
June 9, 2020
The difficult struggle against the Covid-19 epidemic in China is now written into history. This is a glorious chapter for the Chinese people in the arduous struggle against epidemic [disease]. This is a magnificent scroll depicting the constant growth of the Chinese people through tribulation, their rise through misfortune. This is a powerful voice of the times speaking of the shared destiny of China and the world.
On June 7, the State Council Information Office issued a white paper running to 37,000 characters in length called, “China’s Actions to Fight the Covid-19 Epidemic” (抗击新冠肺炎疫情的中国行动), which recorded the grand course of the Chinese people’s fight against the Covid-19 epidemic, sharing with the international community China’s experiences and methods in fighting the epidemic, sharing the Chinese concept for the global anti-epidemic [effort] and China’s proposition (中国主张). At this critical moment in the global anti-epidemic effort, this important document transmits the confidence and strength to fight the epidemic through unity and cooperation, and international figures have praised it as “enlightening and inspiring the global anti-epidemic cause” and having “worldwide scientific value.”
The white paper makes a detailed timeline of how China has fought against the epidemic since an unexplained case of pneumonia was detected in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province. Point by point, it truly records the facts of 126 important nodes in time in 5 different stages, showing to the world China’s critical decisions in facing the major test of the epidemic, the critical measures it took, and the critical results it obtained. The concentrated and clear timeline marks the arduous journey taken in China’s fight against the epidemic, and condenses the unforgettable shared memories of 1.4 billion Chinese people. China took just over a month to initially curb the epidemic’s spread, about two months to restrict the number of new cases in local areas to single digits, and three months to get decisive results in the obtain the war of defense in Wuhan, and the war of defense in Hubei. The major strategic results obtained in the battle of epidemic prevention and control the decisive results of the war and the major strategic results of the epidemic prevention and control powerfully safeguarded the safety of people’s lives and health, and made important contributions to the maintenance of public health security both regionally and across the world. “Just as Robert Lawrence Kuhn, director of the Kuhn Foundation in the United States, has said: “In the future, historians will very likely see China’s process in fighting the Covid-19 epidemic as a global model for preventing infectious diseases.”
Through the timeline of China’s fight against the epidemic, we can clearly see the enlightened leadership and scientific decision-making of the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core. General Secretary Xi Jinping personally commanded [the effort] and personally directed deployments, taking overall control for decisive decision-making, firmly establishing confidence for the Chinese people in the fight against the epidemic, bringing together strengths and pointing the direction. . . . As Bruce Aylward
, senior advisor to the director-general of the World Health Organization, has emphasized after having personally inspected the path of the coronavirus in China: “Behind every line are the excellent policies and decisions of China’s leaders.”
Through the timeline of China’s fight against the epidemic, we can see that everything the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government does is for the sake of the Chinese people, and all relies upon the feelings of the people and on governing concepts. General Secretary Xi Jinping has emphasized “always putting the safety and health of the people first,” [that] “it is of top priority to do our utmost to save the lives of more patients,” [that] “winning the people’s war for epidemic prevention and control must rely on the people,” [and that] to overcome this epidemic, it is the Chinese people who give us strength and confidence.” The world has witnessed that under the bright light of the idea of putting life before all else, China has committed to the protection of the life and health of the people at all costs, resolutely determined to win the people’s war, [to win] the overall war, and [to win] the war of prevention and control. The Chinese people put a high degree of trust in the leader (领袖), and a high level of confidence in the Party and the government, which have consciously taken on the responsibilities and concerns of the nation. In the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, the Chinese people’s confidence in China’s development in various areas steadily increased, and for the third year in a row China’s overall degree of confidence [among its population] was the highest in the world among major economies in the world, reflecting that the Chinese people, who have suffered through the epidemic, have more support and trust in the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, and more confidence in the Chinese system.
Through the timeline of China’s fight against the epidemic, we can see China’s role and contribution in the global effort against Covid-19. China, with a law-abiding, open, transparent and responsible attitude, reported the epidemic situation at the earliest moment to the World Health Organization, and to relevant national and regional [offices]. At the earliest moment, it shared the gene sequence of the new coronavirus. At the earliest moment is carried out international cooperation in the effort to control and prevent the epidemic, and without reservation it shared its experiences in fighting and controlling the epidemic with various parties. The irrefutable facts show that China issued clear and definite information with the international community at the beginning of the epidemic; and the ‘scraping of the pot’ by certain countries to push off responsibility with accusations of [China’s] “delays” and “concealment” are outright nonsense. A number of international academic publications including the journals Nature, Science and The Lancet, have continuously for several months assessed anti-epidemic measures in China, finding that China effectively controls the epidemic situation, providing an encouraging example to other countries. The international community generally believes that China has demonstrated the role of a truly responsible major power.
The difficult struggle against the Covid-19 epidemic in China is now written into history. This is a glorious chapter for the Chinese people in the arduous struggle against epidemic [disease]. This is a magnificent scroll depicting the constant growth of the Chinese people through tribulation, their rise through misfortune. This is a powerful voice of the times speaking of the shared destiny of China and the world. The great force running through this arduous journey has been transformed into China’s firm confidence and powerful will to overcome difficult challenges, holding up China’s beautiful hope to treasure together with the world the lives and health of the people of all countries, together to treasure our common human home on earth, and together to build a community of common health for mankind (人类卫生健康共同体). As the white paper says: “The Covid-19 epidemic has deeply impacted the progress of human development, but the longing of the people to pursue better lives has not changed, and the historical wheel of peaceful development and win-win cooperation continues to roll forward.” The Chinese people will forever remember this period in history, and will constantly draw from it wisdom and strength, working with people of all countries to create a better future for human development.
[Featured image by Gauthier Delecroix available at Flickr.com under CC license.]