Last night experts warned that Beijing’s behaviour must affect the extent to which the West deals with China in future. China first alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) about the outbreak on December 31. Analysis of Chinese English social media traffic shows how, between January 1 and February 10, China was reposting supportive messages from the WHO based on misinformation from Beijing that coronavirus “does not transmit readily between people”.
Posts assessed by cyber-security company Recorded Future also emphasised economic stability and China’s role in addressing the crisis.
This changed on February 11, however, as the first reports of COVID-19 on cruise ships emerged, and the death toll began to rise.
According to a report by the Henry Jackson Society, Beijing began to “shift the blame for the pandemic away from the Chinese government, highlighting the prominence of [president] Xi Jinping as the leader of effective response, and shifting from China as the source of the pandemic to China as a global leader in its response”.
The effort ramped up on March 9, since when “Chinese overt influence accounts have published more than 32,000 posts related to COVID-19.
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There have been three themes, the report found.
The first was China has successfully managed the outbreak and its response should be the model for containing the virus.
The second is that the West is using COVID-19 as a tool to contain China’s rise.
While the third is that the dangers of COVID-19 are unclear and its government is not at fault.
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Yesterday, just hours after China observed three minutes’ silence for its 3,326 COVID-19 dead, Matthew Henderson, head of the Henry Jackson Society’s Asia programme, said: “China has been managing the crisis with disinformation, and its behaviour must affect the way we deal with Beijing in the future.”
He added: “On December 31, the day Beijing spoke toWHO, China’s health department issued a statement saying there were only 27 victims and that there was no sign of human-to-human contact.
“In fact we know that, behind the scenes, Chinese virologists had already expressed deeper fears.
“China spoke of lockdown but it didn’t happen until the third week of January.
“In the meantime, five million people were allowed to travel.
“Had Beijing been truly transparent from the start it’s categorically clear there would be no global pandemic today.
“How can we trust a nation that behaves like this with important infrastructure projects?”
Blame should also be levelled at WHO, he said: “In its emergency committee meeting on January 23 WHO decided, based on Chinese claims, not to declare novel coronavirus an Event of International Concern.”
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