US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had 'certified' that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were acting to reduce risks to civilians from their military operations in Yemen. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” was a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. He was Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda from 1933 to the end of World War II. Whether Goebbels actually said that or not doesn’t matter any more. It has been attributed to him so often and for so long, it might as well be true.

The same rule applies today. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been busy acting as President Donald Trump’s chief minister of propaganda, blaming China for every conceivable and inconceivable action and non-action as related to the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

Although Pompeo came to his current job with impressive qualifications for fabrication, drawing on his tenure as former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, he is not just lying for self-amusement. He has to orchestrate the maximum blame game on China to cover up the fumbling incompetence of the Trump administration in dealing with Covid-19.

Just as the latest announced death toll from Covid-19 in the US exceeded 26% of the world’s total, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, triumphantly proclaimed that combating the epidemic was an “American success story.” Since the US represents less than 5% of the world’s total population, it’s hard to imagine what a less-than-success story would have looked like. 

But Kushner’s boast should not be regarded as an amateur attempt at propaganda. It was simply blatant bloviating baloney. Pompeo has a much more capable corps of adjutants to carry out Nazi-like tactics of misinformation.

One prominent example who comes to mind is historian and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson. He put his considerable academic reputation behind his assertion that China deliberately contaminated the world by permitting international air travel from Wuhan even as domestic travel within China was locked down. Needless to say, this revelation caused quite a sensation, perfect for Pompeo’s blame game.

As propaganda goes, Pompeo could not have been given a more powerful cudgel against China. Unfortunately, it was not true.

Another Harvard scholar, Professor Daniel Bell, did a fact-check on Ferguson’s claim. To save Ferguson from public embarrassment, Bell privately contacted him to tell him that the FlightStats data from Wuhan airport showed that all of its flights, domestic and international, were shut down at noon on January 23. Therefore, the charge that China deliberately let air passengers contaminate the world was untrue.

Ferguson could have admitted to making an error and issued a retraction, but that’s not how Nazi-style propaganda works. He didn’t back down but went public with his reply.

He said in his blog, “Even if, as seems on balance likely, no flights left Wuhan for domestic or foreign destinations after January 23 …” and then went on to contend that enough people had been allowed to leave Wuhan because of the Chinese New Year before January 23, and thus his claim was not wrong. How lame can he get?

Both Bell and Ferguson hold first-rate academic credentials and have published many books. Bell is teaching in China while Ferguson is currently a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The one blemish on Ferguson’s record was teaming with a Republican student group in attempting to uncover dirt on a progressive student activist whose pointed criticism was annoying him. As a result of the scandal, he had to resign from a conference chairmanship.

Ferguson’s affiliation with Hoover has a consequential multiplier effect. His notoriety from his China attack set a precedent for other right-wing colleagues in Hoover to join the chorus castigating China.

Lanhee Chen, formerly a young staffer for Mitt Romney and now also at Hoover, has been especially energetic, making the media rounds and adding his voice to the lies scripted by the chief minister of propaganda. It’s not certain that he knows much about China, but he does know how to take the cue from Pompeo, Ferguson et al.

This is the first article of a two-part feature. Next installment: a profile of another adjutant minister of propaganda, US Senator Tom Cotton.

Dr George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield’s, a novel green building platform.