The New York Times and ProPublica co-published a blistering exposé detailing how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) suppressed and distorted information about COVID-19 and its response to the virus. This follows a minority report issued in September by House Republicans detailing the CCP’s culpability in spreading COVID-19, which I have reported on in The American Spectator.
The New York Times and ProPublica reviewed “thousands of secret government directives and other documents” in creating their report. Specifically, there were “3,200 directives and 1,800 memos and other files” originating from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), China’s internet censor, created by CCP leader Xi Jinping in 2014. The report also draws from data from Urun Big Data Services, which helps China’s local governments monitor and censor China’s internet. The New York Times and ProPublica received these documents from the hacker organization CCP Unmasked, along with some duplicates from China Digital Times.
The NYT/ProPublica article describes the CAC’s efforts to suppress information relating to COVID-19 starting in January. When COVID-19 started spreading rapidly in China that month, the CAC worked to suppress information portraying China’s response as too “negative.” The CAC required news outlets not to publish stories comparing COVID-19 to the 2002 SARS outbreak (and China’s botched response). According to the article, the CAC did this in part to downplay the severity of the virus and support the CCP’s response to it.
The CCP responded by suppressing truthful news on COVID-19 and creating an alternative narrative.
In early February, a directive from President Xi himself directed the CAC in Zhejiang Province to exert efforts to control messaging on COVID-19 domestically and to “actively influence international opinion.” CAC disseminated directives including what headlines Chinese news outlets should post, which headlines should be bolded, and how many hours the stories should remain online. CAC also stressed that news outlets should favor stories on the heroism of Wuhan medical workers as well as CCP officials and disfavor stories about foreign aid coming in to assist China in dealing with the outbreak. CAC also directed news outlets to not use words like “incurable,” “fatal,” or “lockdown.”
The NYT/ProPublica article details how the CCP suppressed information on COVID-19 following whistleblower Li Wenliang’s death from COVID-19 on February 7. Fearing an “unprecedented challenge” and a “butterfly effect” that Li’s death would cause in Chinese society, the report stated that the CCP responded by suppressing truthful news on COVID-19 and creating an alternative narrative. The CCP’s response included the following tactics:
In March, the Hangzhou CAC (Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang Province) appeared to go into a maintenance mode of sorts, calling on local offices to daily inspect local websites, and called on violators to be “promptly supervised and rectified.”
The NYT/ProPublica article also discussed how Urun Big Data uses Chinese citizens to censor one other. In one city, Urun Big Data pays Chinese citizens $25 for posts longer than 400 characters and 40 cents for flagging posts for deletion. These citizens then use a smartphone app to receive monitoring tasks and to confirm that tasks are completed. Urun also trains these citizens in monitoring through a competitive “video game-like software.” Those employed by Urun can also search the internet by keywords and tag posts needing more scrutiny.
While the authors of the NYT/ProPublica article don’t draw a conclusion on whether or not the CCP could have lessened the degree of the global pandemic had it engaged in a “freer flow of information,” the House Republican minority says otherwise, as I have previously reported in The American Spectator. “In sum, the COVID-19 global pandemic could have been prevented if the CCP acted in a transparent and responsible manner,” the GOP report reads. Unfortunately, it is unclear what either the Trump administration or a future Biden–Harris administration will do to hold China accountable for COVID-19 on a substantive level.
There are several measured victories against the CCP worth noting. To combat CCP propaganda’s influence on Americans, President Trump’s State Department has issued visa caps on reporters from Chinese state-run outlets, cancelled various “cultural exchange” programs abroad, and designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington, D.C., a “foreign mission of the PRC.” In the latest of several similar steps, President Trump’s Commerce Department recently added 59 entities connected to the CCP to its export-control Entity List.
A Biden–Harris administration should continue the above policies. Yet while the Trump administration has withdrawn U.S. support for the World Health Organization (WHO) due to its enabling of China, Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the World Health Organization once he assumes the office of the presidency. Current legislative efforts (HR 6863/S 3683 and S 249) to reinstate Taiwan as an observer to the WHO have stalled in this Congress, and it remains unclear if there is political will to pass such legislation in the next Congress. Even CNN believes that China will be the “biggest foreign policy challenge” to a Biden–Harris administration.
But given rumors that the Biden–Harris team is considering Disney Chairman Bob Iger as ambassador to China, and that that the Department of Justice is currently subpoenaing Hunter Biden for, among other things, documents relating to his business dealings in China, it doesn’t look like Biden and Harris are up for the challenge.