How do you ensure a story has a fairy tale ending? You write the ending yourself of course. In recent days, official state media in China have celebrated the publication of A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combatting Covid-19 in 2020, a book that compiles writing by official state media to paint a portrait of leadership resolve in the face of a major challenge.
So it seems that while we all wait to see how the Covid-19 fares in the rest of the world, the verdict is already out on the epidemic as a major show of resolve on the part of the Chinese Communist Party. The story has already been written.
According to the Xinhua News Agency release on the book, it “collectively reflects General Secretary Xi Jinping’s commitment to the people, his sense of mission, his far-reaching strategic vision and outstanding leadership as the leader of a major power.”
This is a narrative being pushed insistently in the People’s Daily and other Party-state media in recent days. The idea that the Chinese Communist Party, despite all evidence to the contrary, and despite the broad undercurrent of popular anger on Chinese social media, has faced the epidemic with great wisdom and effectiveness from the start.
Just look at page three of this week’s People’s Daily, on which an article with the headline, “’China Has Shown Stunning Collective Action and Cooperative Spirit,’” is accompanied by another called, “How Has America Done in the Face of the Epidemic?” While the former, manipulating the remarks of the WHO’s Bruce Aylward, praises China’s readiness and speed of response, the latter accuses the U.S. of being more focused on anti-China smear tactics than on action to prevent the spread of the virus. This piece even manages to justify China’s recent decision to expel reporters from the Wall Street Journal: “They must be made aware that the dignity of the Chinese people must not be compromised, and China’s bottom line must not be touched. A few days ago, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the suspension of the credentials of three journalists from the Wall Street Journal, delivering a loud slap.”
Earlier in the week, the newspaper also ran a prominent front-page piece on China’s epidemic response that characterized the entire crisis as a “test” that the country and its leadership had essentially passed with flying colours: “The results obtained in the epidemic control and response work are no small feat,” it read, “and many sides have undertaken many arduous asks, putting in great efforts, once again making clear the obvious superiority of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
CMP co-director Qian Gang wrote recently about the puzzling and infuriating tone-deafness of the People’s Daily through January and much of this month, how they were committed to the point of absurdity to pre-arranged propaganda themes about the greatness of Xi Jinping and the realization of a “moderately wealthy society.” He described this inability to shift focus to the most clearly urgent matter at hand, the coronavirus epidemic, as systemic. “The system of the CCP is like a great big elephant,” he wrote. “It is difficult for the sudden and unexpected to force any change to its huge and lumbering gait.”
The elephant has now changed directions. It plods confidently forward with a revisionist narrative of competence and collective victory. And these themes can now return us to familiar tropes, like the notion that China offers an inspirational political model that can better instruct the world. So the Xinhua release reports that A Battle Against Epidemic will be published in English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic editions, “the first book to date both domestically and overseas to follow and introduce China’s epidemic prevention and control work.”
Where is this nonsense coming from? The book is published, we are told, by the Central Propaganda Department, the Information Office of the State Council and the China Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC). In fact, these three partners are essentially a single party. Trace CICC in China’s national enterprise credit system and you find that it is listed as being fully run by the “Central Propaganda Department (Information Office of the State Council).”
So of course, no surprise, this was a scheme that must have developed at the top of China’s propaganda apparatus at least a number of weeks ago, possibly from shortly after Xi commented publicly for the first time on the coronavirus epidemic.
Will this nonsense work? China has managed many times in the past to simply move on, brushing uncomfortable facts and even immense tragedies under the rug, and changing the topic of conversation. But there is still a great deal of anger being directed toward leaders, judging from activity on social media, and efforts like this new book to distract and redirect can themselves feed the embers.
Here is one image making the rounds on WeChat, in which the cover of A Battle Against Epidemic is hemmed in on all sides by Chinese banners that read:
Shameless to the extreme.
Painting fine pictures on the bones of the dead.
Distilling essence from human blood.
Certainly, some Chinese may move on from this crisis and think it better to forget and to say nothing.
Others, however, will no doubt remember the very real lives sacrificed for the sake of these political slogans, and these glorious fairy tales.