In early March, as countries across the world rushed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Xi Jinping made an official tour of the city of Wuhan to declare China’s decisive victory over the virus. Since that time, Chinese state media have strongly pushed this narrative of victory, even suggesting that evident successes in fighting the disease point to the clear “superiority of China’s system.” This push in the media at home has been coupled with a strong campaign of external propaganda and misinformation.
COVID-19 continues to be a propaganda boon at home for the Chinese Communist Party, particularly in light of the poor response in the US and other countries. Today the top story on the front page of today’s official People’s Daily is the news that Xi Jinping has signed a “presidential decree” (主席令) awarding Dr. Zhong Nanshan (钟南山) with the “Order of the Republic,” and honoring physician Zhang Boli (张伯礼), Hubei health official Zhang Dingyu (张定宇) and epidemiologist Chen Wei (陈薇) as “people’s heroes” for their efforts to fight COVID-19.
According to the Peoples’ Daily article: “In the midst of the struggle against COVID-19, a great number of advanced models emerged who are worthy of songs and tears.” Honors were being given, it said, “in order to commend the exemplary figures who made outstanding contributions in the struggle,” and to “vigorously promote the outstanding achievements and glorious image of [China’s] anti-epidemic heroes.”
The honors, the paper said, would be “beneficial to the strengthening of patriotism,” would encourage “education in the collective spirit” (集体主义教育), and would “promote socialist core values.”
Dr. Zhong, who became a globally recognized figure in 2003 as he spoke out openly on the seriousness of the SARS outbreak, prompting a stronger government approach, has been a key figure this year in the leadership’s response to COVID-19. He stepped out in late January to become the public face of the official response, seeking to ease public nerves about the crisis. Against clear evidence of early attempts to restrain the release of information about the disease in Wuhan, Zhong insisted in January that the government had been “transparent” in its response.
Zhang Boli, currently president of the Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, was a member of the “Central Guidance Team” sent to the city of Wuhan on January 27, shortly after Xi Jinping signalled a national response to the epidemic. He has since been an outspoken advocate of the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in fighting COVID-19.
Zhang Dingyu is the president of Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital and one of the most senior health officials in Hubei province, the origin of the outbreak. In repeated interviews with Chinese state media, Zhang insisted – despite the well-documented fact that there were weeks of delay during which political meetings in Wuhan and Hubei went forward without dealing with the question of the outbreak – that there had not been a cover-up in the epidemic’s early stages. Rather, he said, it had been a “process of understanding the disease.”
Chen Wei is a researcher at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences. She is a key member of the team at the academy’s Institute of Biotechnology that in March this year registered an experimental COVID-19 vaccine for initial trials. State media reported in May that the vaccine trials showed “promising results.”
[Featured Image: Doctor Zhong Nanshan, honored by Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week with the “Order of the Republic” for his role in leading China’s efforts to contain COVID-19. Image from Wikimedia Commons available under CC license.]