Every day the numbers continue to rise as the Covid-19 crisis infects the world.
But scratch beneath the surface of the data and another narrative is taking shape in which deceit has become as virulent as the disease itself.
Last week, an influential ministry attached to the European Union accused China of running “a global disinformation campaign,” according to a report leaked to the media.
The white paper by the European External Action Service was due to be circulated among the 27-member states. It outlined how the world’s second-largest economy was trying to “deflect the blame” for the coronavirus outbreak.
“Official sources and state-controlled media and social media channels have been running a coordinated campaign … promoting false health information,” the EEAS, a ministry combining diplomacy, foreign affairs and defense, initially stated as quoted by news outlets.
“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,” the original version said.
Yet at the weekend, Reuters revealed that Beijing had moved to block the publication of the EU study until it was watered down.“The report was eventually released with some criticism of the Chinese government rearranged or removed,” it said.
“The public summary, posted to euvsdisinfo.eu http://www.euvsdisinfo.eu, attributed the disinformation to ‘state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and – to a lesser extent – China,’” Reuters added.
Allegations that the EU caved in to demands from China have been denied. But Beijing has a history of using bullying tactics.
The European Union has also tried to walk a fine line between confrontation and collaboration after the epidemic in Wuhan last December turned into a planetary pandemic. After all, more than 1 billion euros a day, or around US$1.1 billion, in bilateral trade is generated between the EU and China.
Still, a whiff of appeasement appears to be in the air above Brussels. A claim which has again been denied.
“We never comment on content, or alleged content, of internal diplomatic contacts and communication with our partners from other countries,” an EU spokesperson was quoted as saying.
So far, nearly 3 million people have been infected globally by this new strain of coronavirus with the death toll edging close to 210,000. In Europe, Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom have been plunged into Covid-19 chaos, while the US has reported nearly 990,000 cases of infection with the death toll surging past 55,000.
China’s official figures are minuscule in comparison. Up to April 27, infected cases were 82,830 with 4,633 deaths in a population of 1.39 billion. Outside the initial epicenter of Wuhan and the broader Hubei province, there were roughly 15,000 infected cases.
Discussing the issue of transparency with Beijing has become highly sensitive.
“There is a global battle of narratives going on in which timing is a crucial factor. China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the United States, it is a responsible and reliable partner,” Josep Borrell Fontelles, the leading representative on foreign affairs and security policy for the EU, said last month.
Since then, France’s President Emmanuel Macron has cast doubts about the statements emanating from the ruling Communist Party government.
“We don’t know. There are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.
Skepticism has also increased in the UK about China’s reaction to what has turned out to be a catastrophic world event, despite praise from the World Health Organisation.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has been standing in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson after he contracted Covid-19, spelt out Britain’s position at a regular briefing.
“I think there absolutely needs to be a very, very deep dive review of the lessons – including of the outbreak of the virus – and I don’t think we can flinch from that at all,” he said.
US President Donald Trump has been even more vocal, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In response, China has constantly denied that there has been a “cover-up” or that President Xi Jinping’s administration manipulated the numbers. Yet, two weeks ago, the authorities were forced to revise the death toll in Wuhan by 50%, or 1,290, from 2,579 to 3,869.
Zhao Lijian, the deputy director of media relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was quick to rule out “deception” and stressed that there had simply been a delay in reporting.
“Medical workers at some facilities might have been preoccupied with saving lives and there existed delayed reporting, but there has never been any cover-up and we do not allow cover-ups,” he said during a daily briefing.
At the forefront of pushing a more aggressive and nationalistic foreign policy, Zhao is one of a new breed of diplomats, backed by Xi and key members of the Politburo.
These “wolf warriors” have also harnessed an army of Twitter trolls to help spread a “global disinformation campaign.”
Even though the social media site is banned in China, that has not stopped Beijing from peddling its own brand of in-your-face mask rhetoric.
“China has ramped up its own disinformation about the virus originating in the US. The number of Twitter accounts opened by Chinese embassies, consulates and ambassadors has increased by more than 250% since March 2019,” Graeme Smith, of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, said last week.
“These diplomats are now being described as ‘wolf warriors’ in China for their newly aggressive stance on social media toward western countries,” he wrote in a commentary for The Conversation, an academic website.
Deciphering fact from fiction has become as complex as finding a cure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus which triggered the Covid-19 calamity.
Last week, Asia Times reported one compelling argument put forward by Derek Scissors, an academic at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington.
“China’s Covid-19 figures are not arithmetically sensible. The [ruling] Communist Party has deliberately made estimation difficult, but, outside of Wuhan city and Hubei province, cases are low by a factor of 100 or more,” Scissors said in a study, adding that there could have been “tens of thousands of deaths.”
There have even been calls for a global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. Beijing has simply ignored them. Instead, China has launched a propaganda war about the weakness of democratic nations and their institutions to deal with the pandemic.
Europe has been singled out after struggling to cope with the speed of the contagion.
“The rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across the globe has dealt a heavy blow to Europe … because it seriously underestimated the danger at the beginning and subsequently failed to take stringent prevention and control measures in a timely manner,” Feng Zhongping, the vice-president of China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations, said last week.
“At the same time, as in previous crises in Europe, the pandemic has exposed some structural flaws in the European Union’s governance model,” he wrote in a commentary entitled Europe Divided Against Itself for China-US Focus.
Mistakes have certainly been made by the EU. But, now, it appears appeasement could be one of them.