China’s international image was severely tarnished by Beijing’s handling of the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. The Chinese government and its proxies have heavily leveraged social media, especially Twitter, in an attempt to repair China’s reputation and cast doubt on prevailing global narratives about the pandemic. In-depth analysis of Chinese disinformation and propaganda campaigns by ChinaPower reveals new details about the scope and objectives of Beijing’s efforts.
To date, Chinese social media campaigns have consisted of two major components. Throughout the pandemic—most frequently in early 2020—Chinese state-linked accounts on Twitter focused on defending and praising China’s handling of the pandemic and criticizing other countries’ responses to the pandemic. Faced with renewed scrutiny over the origins of the coronavirus in 2021, Chinese state-linked accounts turned to deflecting criticisms that China is to blame for the pandemic, especially accusations that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese research lab.
Assessing the efficacy of Chinese disinformation and propaganda campaigns is difficult, but available evidence suggests these efforts have had limited impacts. Perceptions about China’s handling of the pandemic have improved with time, but Beijing has not shaken accusations that it is ultimately to blame for the pandemic, and unfavorable views of China remain near record highs in many countries.
China’s Initial Response to Covid-19 Sparked Criticism
The Chinese government’s approach to the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan was hampered by a desire to control information and prevent public panic. Beijing’s reticence resulted in mistakes and bureaucratic inefficiencies that ultimately allowed the virus to spread more rapidly throughout the world. These failures severely damaged China’s international image and set the tone for how Beijing would use social media to try to re-shape global narratives about the pandemic.
Public opinion polling indicates widespread negative views on China’s handling of the pandemic. A YouGov-Cambridge poll conducted in July and August of 2020 found that large majorities of respondents in two-dozen countries believed that Beijing had “tried to hide the truth” about its initial outbreak. A similar share of respondents believed that Chinese authorities could have prevented the spread of Covid-19 internationally if they had responded faster. These views were not only common in developed countries—where negative views of China tend to be highest—but also in the developing countries surveyed.
Concerns about China’s handling of the pandemic contributed to plummeting overall perceptions of China. In a 2020 Pew Research Center poll of 14 developed economies, a majority of respondents in each country had unfavorable views toward China. In nine of those—Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States—unfavorability toward China reached record-breaking levels within Pew polls.
Negative views of China’s handling of the pandemic were driven in large part by perceptions that Chinese officials were not transparent and slow in responding to the outbreak in Wuhan. Experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) learned of the outbreak through Chinese social media reporting and repeatedly requested more information and access, only to be provided with the bare information required from China.
Despite completing a full genetic sequencing of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, by January 3, Chinese government scientists did not publicly declare that the virus is capable of human-to-human transmission until January 20. The Chinese government also punished medical professionals who attempted to publicly warn others about the virus—most notably Dr. Li Wenliang, who died of Covid-19 after having been detained by Chinese security authorities.
Beijing eventually took steps to control the spread of the virus by locking down Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province on January 23, 2020. By then the virus had spread well beyond China’s borders, including to Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. It took China another week to share more information with the WHO, and officials only did so after WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made an extraordinary trip to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping and request more details about the virus. Immediately after this meeting, the WHO declared an international health emergency, prompting countries like the United States to impose limits on travel from China.
In addition to concerns about China’s mishandling of the outbreak, there is evidence that the Chinese government has not been transparent about the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths within China. Through mid-October 2021, Chinese authorities recorded about 8 cases and 0.35 deaths per 100,000, while the United States had reported about 13,500 cases and nearly 217 deaths per 100,000. However, Chinese authorities publicly disclosed far fewer cases of confirmed and suspected patients than documented in internal reports, and the official tally of cases and deaths likely deeply undercounts the actual impact of the virus within China.
A study by China’s own Centers for Disease Control suggested that the actual number of cases in Wuhan may have been 10 times higher than officially reported. A study of how the virus spread through international air traffic found that actual cases in China may have been as much as 37 times higher than what was reported in January 2020. The death toll from the pandemic was likely also higher than reported. According to one estimate, the death toll in Wuhan may have varied 2-3 times higher than officially reported.
Beijing’s Use of Social Media to Shape Narratives Abroad
Faced with criticism over its handling of the pandemic, the Chinese government and its proxies have leveraged social media—especially Twitter—to spread its narratives and propaganda abroad. According to a study by researchers at Oxford University, the number of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) diplomats on Twitter nearly quintupled, from 39 to more than 188, between January 2019 and December 2020. The number of Chinese state-linked media accounts on Twitter also grew from 58 to 76 accounts over the same period. China’s presence increased on Facebook as well, but to a lesser extent. As of March 2021, there were 84 Chinese MFA diplomats and officials and 95 state-linked media accounts identified on Facebook.
These accounts used their digital megaphones to push Beijing’s narratives around the world. Using data provided by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, ChinaPower’s analysis reveals that Chinese state-linked accounts tweeted about Covid-19 more than 270,000 times between January 2020 and September 2021.1 Chinese Twitter activity peaked at roughly 29,400 tweets in April 2020 as China reined in its outbreak at home. In subsequent months, Chinese accounts have averaged about 11,000 tweets per month.
Defending China, Criticizing Others
Much of China’s initial efforts focused on defending China’s response to the pandemic. State-linked accounts emphasized China’s success in containing the virus by praising domestic efforts to combat the virus, from rapidly building new makeshift hospitals to sharing heartwarming photos of frontline health professionals working long hours to treat patients. The most popular Chinese pandemic-related tweet in January 2020 was a retweet of Donald Trump’s post praising China for working “very hard” to contain the virus.
According to content analysis by ChinaPower of the top 20 Covid-related tweets from each month, Chinese state-linked accounts shifted their approach as the pandemic wore on.2 As China battled its outbreak at home from January to March 2020, nearly 47 percent of tweets were aimed at praising or defending China’s approach. However, as China gained control over its outbreak and as the severity of the pandemic increased worldwide, these Twitter accounts turned to criticizing other countries. From April to June 2020, 50 percent of the top tweets focused on criticizing or highlighting the failings of other countries, while only 18 percent focused on defending or praising China.
This shift has persisted. Through September 2021, about 43 percent of the top pandemic-related tweets promoted by Chinese-linked accounts were aimed at criticizing other countries. Another 20 percent of all top tweets were aimed at defending or praising China, and 12 percent were praising other countries for their handling of the pandemic. The other 24 percent did not fit within any specific category.
Chinese state-linked Twitter accounts aimed much of their attacks against the United States. Through September 2021, the United States was mentioned in roughly 23,400 tweets about Covid-19—more than four times the next most-mentioned country, the United Kingdom.
Many of these were retweets of U.S. politicians and journalists criticizing and covering the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. As the 2020 U.S. presidential election grew closer and criticism of the Trump administration increased online, Chinese accounts exploited political divisiveness to ramp up criticism of the United States’ handling of the pandemic. In October 2020, one month before the election, 14 of the 20 top tweets were targeted at criticizing the United States. The most popular tweet that month was MFA Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s retweet of President Donald Trump announcing that he and First Lady Melania Trump had contracted Covid-19. The third most popular tweet was a retweet by China Daily EU Bureau Chief Chen Weihua of Senator Bernie Sanders criticizing Trump.
Through these efforts, Beijing sought to promote a common narrative that its successes were thanks to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and China’s governance model while framing U.S. failures as shortcomings of democracies. Early in the pandemic, the CCP-run newspaper Global Times published an article arguing that the United States needs to “learn from China” in fighting Covid-19. In March 2021, the Chinese State Council issued a report which stated that the U.S. government’s “incompetent pandemic response…. added to the human rights violations in the country, the so-called ‘city upon a hill’ and ‘beacon of democracy.’” The report added that the pandemic in the United States was “accompanied by political disorder, inter-ethnic conflicts, and social division.”
Number of Tweets about Covid-19 from Chinese State-Linked Accounts by Country Mentioned
Besides the United States, China conducted significant propaganda and disinformation campaigns against Europe. The United Kingdom, Italy, and France all ranked among the top seven most-mentioned countries, and together they were mentioned in more than 10,000 pandemic-related tweets. Not all tweets were critical of European countries: one top 20 retweet in April praised Chancellor Angela Merkel for Germany’s handling of the pandemic. However, Chinese accounts regularly shared perceived criticisms of European countries. A top 20 tweet in February 2021 was a retweet by Chen Weihua about a court ruling in the Netherlands ordering government-imposed coronavirus curfews to be lifted.
In early 2021, Chinese media also spread claims that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are risky and even deadly, highlighting extremely rare sudden deaths or illnesses from people who received the vaccine in France, Germany, Mexico, Norway and Portugal. George Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated in a press conference that mRNA vaccines developed in the United States and Britain are not without risks and should be utilized with caution.
Taiwan was another major target of Chinese Covid-19 disinformation tactics—an unsurprising development given Beijing’s persistent use of disinformation against the island. China repeatedly sought to cast doubt on Taipei’s success at curtailing the spread of the virus. In 2020, The Investigation Bureau of Taiwan reported a significant increase in the dissemination of misinformation on social media about Taiwan’s Covid-19 responses originating from mainland China. In May 2021, Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Wang Ting-Yu initiated an investigation into a widescale disinformation campaign targeting Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center. Wang stated that the spread of false information—such as fabricated Covid-19 death data, claims of hospitals dumping bodies of Covid-19 victims into rivers, and funeral parlors burning bodies of patients—were indicative of a well-coordinated “cognitive-warfare” campaign by mainland China.
Deflecting Blame for the Pandemic
In addition to criticizing and spreading disinformation about other countries’ handling of the pandemic, Chinese media outlets and diplomats amplified unfounded conspiracy theories that SARS-CoV-2 originated outside of China. Chinese government proxies have suggested a handful of potential origins of the virus. Chinese state media, for example, distorted an Italian doctor’s statements to suggest that Covid-19 originated in Italy in November 2019.
More frequently, China has accused the United States of causing the pandemic. One narrative pushed by Chinese media and officials holds that the U.S. military spread the virus at an international sports competition held in Wuhan in 2019. Chinese officials and state media have specifically suggested without evidence that the virus may have been created at Fort Detrick, a U.S. military biological laboratory in Maryland.
Chinese diplomats and state-backed media drastically ramped up tweets about Fort Detrick in mid-2021 in the wake of President Joe Biden’s announcement that he had directed the U.S. intelligence community to conduct a 90-day investigation of the origins of the virus. From May to August 2021, the combined number of tweets by these accounts mentioning Fort Detrick jumped nearly ninefold from 47 to 402, before tapering off significantly in September.3
Impacts on Global Perceptions of China
So far, there is no clear evidence that Chinese disinformation and propaganda campaigns have produced significant results. China’s image has recovered somewhat with regards to its handling of the pandemic, but China’s overall unfavorability remains historically high, and perceptions that China is to blame for the pandemic persist.
Public opinion polling indicates significant improvements in perceptions of China’s handling of the pandemic around the world. Among a dozen countries polled by Pew Research Center in 2020 and 2021, there was a median increase of 11 percentage points (from 39 to 50) in the share of respondents saying that China has done a good job dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Favorable views of China’s Covid-19 handling saw the greatest gains in Europe, where China was seen as performing well relative to Europe itself and the United States. In South Korea and Japan, where the prevalence of Covid-19 was much lower, views of China’s handling of the pandemic remained more negative.
Despite growing perceptions that China has handled the pandemic well, there have not been sizable improvements in China’s overall image. In a dozen wealthy countries, a median of 72.5 percent of people had unfavorable views of China in 2021—virtually unchanged from 2020 (median of 73 percent). This represents a significant increase from 2019, when those same countries had a median of 58.5 percent unfavorable views of China.
Concerns about the origins of Covid-19 continue to dog China diplomatically. Beijing has repeatedly sought to deter WHO investigations into the origins of the coronavirus amid pressure from the United States and Australia. However, Beijing’s obfuscation and attempts to sow uncertainty about the virus may have backfired: on October 13, 2021, the WHO announced the establishment of a scientific advisory group that will study the virus’ origin and how to better prepare for future outbreaks of new pathogens. On the day of the announcement, WHO Director-General Tedros wrote that “laboratory hypotheses must be examined carefully, with a focus on labs in the location where the first reports of human infections emerged in Wuhan.”
The efficacy of Chinese disinformation and propaganda campaigns may ultimately be limited by the simple fact that people already holding negative views of China are unlikely to be receptive to Chinese narratives. For example, one study concluded that competing U.S. and Chinese narratives were outweighed by “master narratives” about the world that existed prior to the pandemic. The study found that key states, including Australia, India, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, largely ignored U.S. and Chinese narratives about the pandemic, or hedged to avoid choosing one side over the other.
In addition to using disinformation and propaganda to shore up China’s international image, Beijing has also engaged in sweeping efforts to supply the world with medical aid and Covid-19 vaccines. Learn more about China’s Covid-19 diplomacy.
Taken together, this evidence suggests China’s disinformation and propaganda campaigns have not had a sizable impact. Shaping global narratives is difficult, and even in countries where publics increasingly believe China has handled the pandemic well, Beijing’s combativeness and lack of transparency have engendered persistent negative views of China.