China’s leaders have been at pains in recent days to defend their handling of Covid-19 in the face of tough criticism both at home and abroad, with cases soaring and concerns rising among international experts and foreign governments that China is under-reporting cases and fiddling with the facts — the type of obfuscation, it could be said, that got the world into this mess in the first place.
Published yesterday in the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, the latest official commentary from “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), an official pen name used routinely for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its view, is one of the more egregious examples of how determined CCP leaders are to present their handling of the pandemic over three years as evidence of strong global leadership.
On the question of responsibility, the “Zhong Sheng” commentary turns legitimate concerns on their head. “To smear a China that has made important contributions to the global fight against the pandemic is disrespectful to the facts, disrespectful to science, and irresponsible in the face of history,” the column says.
While China’s most recent about-face on Covid, a chaotic unraveling of strict lockdown measures with little apparent preparation and a woeful lack of transparency, has drawn criticism from a wide range of sources globally, including governments, health experts and the World Health Organization, the “Zhong Sheng” commentary” heaps blame on its favorite scapegoat — the foreign media.
It is regrettable that some Western media have turned a blind eye to the above facts and have blatantly smeared China, which has made important contributions to the global fight against the pandemic. Without reason, they have smeared China’s adjustment of its pandemic prevention and control policies. This practice is a complete departure from the professional conduct expected of the news media, a disrespect for the facts, a disrespect for science, and an irresponsibility to history.
Doubling down on hypocrisy, the same newspaper that in January and February 2020 neglected coverage of the pandemic for more than six weeks, choosing instead to focus on the major propaganda objectives set out for the new year, suggests that “[since] the outbreak of the pandemic, China has always been open and transparent.”
China’s economy has floundered, held back throughout 2022 by rolling outbreaks met with uncompromising lockdowns as part of Xi Jinping’s “dynamic zero” policy. Despite the official talk of these lockdown policies as “scientific” and “rational,” they were often disruptive of life in ways that were unnecessary, painful, and even tragic. The examples are numerous, from the horrors of the Shanghai lockdown in the spring to the fatal crash of a quarantine transport bus in Guizhou in September. The deadly fire in an apartment block in Xinjiang in November was for many Chinese the final straw, prompting unprecedented street protests.
Despite these obvious failures, never openly acknowledged, China’s leaders have insisted that the country’s response to Covid since 2020 has demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility, both domestically and to the world. They have suggested consistently, ever since strict lockdowns took effect, that “China’s struggle against the epidemic has shown the advantages of the Chinese system.” Even in late September, within days of the fatal crash of a quarantine bus in Guizhou province, the official Xinhua News Agency argued that China’s real actions on Covid and the economy demonstrated “the correct leadership of the CCP Central Committee” and “gave full play to the superiority of the socialist system.”
China’s Covid policies, no matter how ruinous or ill-advised, must not be associated with failure. The CCP leadership has too much invested politically. And so the ultimate act of irresponsibility for the leadership is to suggest that it has not acted responsibly.
This bottom line played out over the weekend as Sina Weibo, one of China’s top social media platforms, shut down more than 1,000 accounts on the grounds that they had been critical of Covid policies. The platform said it had logged close to 13,000 posts violating regulations by leveling criticism at the government and medical experts.
For all its talk about the need for “reason” from the media, the CCP is clearly not prepared to grapple with the facts when it comes to China’s record on Covid.
Relaying the view from the top in China, the “Zhong Sheng” commentary carps about respect for science, and about the need to be responsible toward history. But we must remember that in the CCP’s understanding, both history and science are beholden, like much else, to the limitations of politics. Sprinkled throughout official CCP discourse today, references to the policies and actions of the leadership as “scientific” are little more than a claim to the legitimacy of anything and everything the Party does.
This is why, in the earliest days of the epidemic in Wuhan, medical experts attempting to call attention to the emergence of worrisome respiratory cases were sharply disciplined by local officials and warned instead to “speak politics.”
Surely, one of the most critical lessons to be drawn from the past three years is that when politics reigns supreme over science, this can have profound and far-reaching implications for the health and security of the entire world.
Whatever “Zhong Sheng” may say, professional conduct by the news media, in China and around the world, should be all about unsettling and pulling apart the reductive narratives imposed by political power, and foiling with factual reporting their attempts to whitewash history. Anything less would be irresponsible.