The Chinese state is ramping up its English-language media campaigns in a bid to defend the country’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, highlight the failings of western governments, and raise China’s standing on the world stage.
Photographs of Chinese aid – dubbed “facemask diplomacy” – arriving at Heathrow on Saturday including boxes labelled “Keep Calm and Cure Coronavirus” have been promoted to UK audiences by the Xinhua news agency. Some younger Chinese diplomats have used English-language Twitter, which is banned within China, to spread false suggestions that the virus may have been started by the west to discredit the Chinese state.
Prof Kerry Brown, an associate fellow on the Asia-Pacific programme at the thinktank Chatham House, suggested the country was trying to turn a national disaster into a global triumph: “They’re trying to push back against some of the politicisation of this in America and to try to get control of the narrative before it spirals out of control.”
China’s authoritarian single-party state, which is at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index and has faced recent claims of playing down its coronavirus infection numbers, has long complained of unfair coverage by western media and recently expelled many western journalists. In recent years it has invested enormous sums of money in its own English-language news infrastructure to project its image around the world.
At the forefront of this response has been the state-owned English-language 24-hour rolling news channel CGTN, which recently began broadcasting from a new UK base in west London with a mission statement of “reporting the news from a Chinese perspective”.
Although CGTN is facing ongoing investigations by the media regulator Ofcom over its impartiality and other issues around press freedom, its criticism of western governments is less overt than that of other state-backed news networks such Russia Today or Iran’s Press TV.
Instead, in the past week the channel has broadcast a combination of inspiring individual stories about Chinese doctors saving lives against the odds during the coronavirus pandemic, videos of Chinese aid arriving in European and African nations, and footage of China’s economy already recovering from the lockdown – along with more unusual footage, such as film of an Ethiopian man who believed he could stop the infection by putting garlic up his nose.