Chinese state-owned media and at least one party official are spreading disinformation to convince foreigners of the success of Beijing’s response to the growing public health emergency of the coronavirus.
People’s Daily, owned by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the most-circulated newspaper in China, and Lijian Zhao, a deputy director of information with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted an image Monday morning of a building they claimed was a hospital in Wuhan, China, the center of the recent coronavirus outbreak. The publication and the bureaucrat said enterprising workers in Wuhan had constructed the hospital in just 16 hours. In reality, the picture showed an apartment building more than 600 miles away. BuzzFeed News first reported the fakes.
“Chinese speed. Infrastructure maniac. The 1st building of #Wuhan’s #Coronavirus hospital, Huoshenshan hospital, completed construction in 16 hours,” Zhao wrote.
The Global Times, another party outlet, published a story Monday about the purported construction: “Amazing! Huoshenshan Hospital’s 1st building completed in 16 hours!” A screenshot in BuzzFeed’s story showed that the Global Times used the same picture as Zhao and People’s Daily. The picture no longer appeared in the article Monday afternoon.
Yaqiu Wang, a researcher with the Human Rights Watch who studies Chinese censorship, said the boast was not surprising, given that the Chinese government has long prided itself on quick construction.
“The government wants to use the new hospital to show it is on top of things, but apparently it is not. Even the picture of the hospital is fake,” Wang said.
The coronavirus outbreak has killed 82 people in China and infected 2,800, according to Chinese authorities. More than 50 million people in China are under quarantine, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a warning against any travel to China. Five people in the United States have been confirmed as infected, and more than 100 are under quarantine for investigation.
Misinformation hyping certain aspects of the government’s response will undermine the entirety of it, Wang said. The memory of the party’s failure to report the severity of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which public health experts say worsened the disease’s impact and death toll, is still fresh, she added. The New York Times reported Monday that Chinese social media sites—Wechat, Weibo, TikTok’s counterpart Duoyin—have exploded in an uncharacteristic display of rage directed at the government, which maintains strict internet censorship.
“Being able to build things quickly is certainly impressive, but the key to epidemic control is trust and transparency. However, these things are currently urgently lacking in China, a problem that is very much of the government’s own making,” Wang said.
Because Twitter is banned in China, Zhao’s charm offensive and the false claims from state media will only reach foreigners who do have access to the social network or Chinese citizens using virtual private networks. The minister’s tweets often praise China and disparage the United States.
The government had shared videos days earlier of a fleet of backhoes breaking ground on the same new hospital to deal with the growing outbreak, though the origin of that footage is unclear. Bloomberg reported that the goal for the hospital’s completion was one week, though it’s unclear when construction began.
Coronavirus is starting to cause political friction in the U.S. Former Vice President Joe Biden published an op-ed in USA Today on Monday calling President Donald Trump “the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health challenge.”