China spins a web of deceit with alternative news

Beijing’s disinformation campaign covers South China Sea tension, the Covid-19 crisis and human rights abuses 

Spinning a web of alternative news threatens to undermine China on the global stage and inflame tension across the world.

Rewriting history to justify the Communist Party regime fills the pages and websites of state-run media. Tightly-controlled social media is also awash with propaganda and conspiracy theories pushing the Party line.

Under President Xi Jinping, obedience to the CCP has been at the heart of Beijing’s domestic policy, encompassing every aspect of life in the world’s second-largest economy.

Yet three issues stand out in Beijing’s attempt to suppress an open debate, such as the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan nearly two years ago. 

The militarization of the South China Sea is also highly contentious along with human rights crimes committed against the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang.

To combat rising condemnation from the United States and its democratic allies, Xi’s government has rolled out a state-sponsored “network” to push the Party’s agenda.

It has also bludgeoned critics of China’s authoritarian regime.

In a report released by the Centre for Information Resilience in the United Kingdom, Chinese trolls used “fake AI-generated profile photographs” in posts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

“The aim of the network appears to be to delegitimize the West by amplifying pro-Chinese narratives,” Benjamin Strick, the author of the CIR study, said.

China has been plagued by Covid-19 allegations. Photo: Courtesy of Xinhua
Pandemic of words

Tracking the origins of the Covid-19 crisis has rapidly descended into a political circus. So far, there have been 211 million confirmed cases of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen and more than 4.4 million deaths. 

A high-profile World Health Organisation mission to Wuhan, where the virus first surfaced, failed to uncover the source of the initial outbreak. Speculation that it could have leaked from a top-security laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was first discounted after the WHO trip earlier this year. 

But now it is considered a plausible explanation despite Beijing’s move to muddy the waters.

Bats from hell: “An employee of the lab gets infected while working in a bat cave collecting samples. Such a scenario, while being a lab leak, would also fit our first hypothesis of direct transmission of the virus from bat to human. This is a hypothesis that we consider to be likely,” Peter Ben Embarek, who was the head of the WHO mission to China, told the Danish public channel TV2 earlier this month.

Big picture: The WHO originally rejected the scenario, claiming it was “highly unlikely.” China also dismissed the allegations after working closely with the global health body. Instead, Beijing has called for an investigation into the Fort Detrick army base in the US.

Bizarre claims: “No country can whitewash itself by smearing others. To prove itself ‘transparent and responsible,’ the US should start [by] inviting WHO experts to investigate Fort Detrick and its 200-plus bio-labs overseas,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a media briefing in early August.

Delve deeper: China has a history of lab leaks. In 2004, The Scientist magazine reported that “the latest outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS in China” involved “two researchers who were working with the virus in a Beijing research lab.”

What was said: “We suspect two people were both infected, apparently in two separate incidents,” Bob Dietz, a WHO spokesman in Beijing, told The Scientist.

China continues to flex its military muscles in the South China Sea. Photo: PLA
Waves of turmoil

The South China Sea has become a major global hotspot as Beijing expands its naval presence in the region. Military bases have been built around sandbars and disputed islands with China flouting international law.

Using a tenuous historical precedent, Xi’s administration ignored a ruling by the tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration five years ago in a dispute with the Philippines. At the time, China’s Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the decision handed down at The Hague was “just a piece of waste paper.”

Since then, Beijing has hardened its position, claiming vast areas of the 1.3 million-square-mile waters as its “sovereign territory.” Up to US$3 trillion of trade traverses through the South China Sea.

States of play: “We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” US Vice-President Kamala Harris said during a speech in Singapore on Tuesday.

Breaking the rules: “These unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision, and Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” Harris added, referring to The Hague decision.

Slander and oppression: “[The] order [that the US wanted was one in which it] could wilfully slander, oppress, coerce and bully other countries and not have to pay any price,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in response.

Afghan question: “What is happening in Afghanistan now clearly tells people what rules are touted by the United States and what is the so-called order of the United States,” Wang added, skirting The Hague decision.

The Communist Party is still using ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang. Photo: File
Human rights violations

Crimes against humanity in an open-air prison? Or Western lies?

The ethnic crisis in Xinjiang has triggered a war of words between China and major democracies.

In May, it reached new levels of rhetoric after the US State Department released its 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom

At least one million Uighur Muslims have been held in Xinjiang internment camps amid allegations of torture, sexual abuse and “genocide,” human rights groups have reported.

Open-air prison: “Essentially, the entire [Xinjiang] region [has been turned] into an open-air prison,” Daniel Nadel, a senior official at the State Department’s Office of International Freedom, told a media briefing.

Torture tactics: “In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized. China’s government [must] stop its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uighurs and other minorities,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US Ambassador to the UN, told a virtual summit of nearly 50 nations earlier this year.

Delve deeper: The UN online event was organized by Germany, the United Kingdom and the US. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other European nations acted as co-sponsors. “Germany’s UN Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced ‘massive Chinese threats,’ but did not elaborate,” Reuters news agency reported.

Western lies: “China has nothing to hide in Xinjiang … [it] is always open. We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt,” Guo Jiakun, who was part of China’s UN delegation, said in response.