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  • Using Moscow’s Playbook, Beijing Sows Doubt into COVID-19 Narrative

  • Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon: Digital Disobedience

  • Skepticism Remains Over Official COVID-19 Count as Wuhan Ends Lockdown


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Undelivered, by Gauthier DELECROIX – 郭天 (CC BY 2.0)

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Using Moscow’s Playbook, Beijing Sows Doubt into COVID-19 Narrative

When the novel coronavirus first began circulating in Wuhan, Chinese authorities were quick to censor news and to punish doctors and others who shared information about the deadly new virus. The government’s obfuscation and censorship of news about the virus’ risk has been widely blamed for contributing to its later spread throughout China and around the world, where it has now infected close to a million people and killed more than 45,000. Now that COVID-19 cases have slowed in China following stringent containment measures, and cases are currently exploding throughout Europe and the U.S., Chinese officials have launched a disinformation campaign seeding a conspiracy theory that the virus was created and spread by the U.S. military. The Chinese charge was notably levied by Zhao Lijian, deputy director of Foreign Ministry Information Department, on his Twitter account:

Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., later disavowed these claims, but Zhao’s initial statements appear to be part of a broader and often covert campaign being waged from Beijing. Vanessa Molter and Graham Webster track the origins of the Chinese disinformation campaign around COVID-19 for Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center:

Groundless speculation about the origins of the pandemic did not begin with Zhao, but the case of his eye-catching tweets reveals how China’s changing propaganda tactics have interacted with mangled news reporting, social media conspiracy theorizing, and underlying U.S.-China tensions—all resulting in high-profile misinformation about a public health crisis.

An examination of social media posts across Weibo, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit in English, Chinese, and Japanese reveals the context and pathways that brought this particular conspiracy theory to Chinese state media and diplomatic channels. Weeks of speculation and online conspiracy theorizing about military links to the virus’ origins or emergence, combined with a broadening uncertainty about the circumstances of Wuhan’s outbreak and increasingly brittle U.S.-China rhetoric, laid the groundwork for Zhao’s inflammatory tweets and the reaction that followed.

[…] Speculation or conspiracy theory writings about a potential role for the U.S. military in Wuhan’s outbreak circulated weeks before Zhao, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, amplified the idea on Twitter. [Source]

While Zhao Lijian’s Twitter campaign was in no way covert or even subtle, the Chinese government’s use of Twitter, which is banned in China, to spread propaganda and disinformation through fake or hacked accounts has gained attention in recent months, especially during Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last year and now again during the coronavirus outbreak. Jeff Kao and Mia Shuang Li reported on such use of Twitter for ProPublica:

ProPublica’s research tracked how the government-linked influence accounts that had targeted political dissidents and the Hong Kong protests turned their focus to the coronavirus outbreak. During the height of the epidemic in China, many of them became cheerleaders for the government, calling on citizens to unite in support of efforts to fight the epidemic and urging them to “dispel online rumors.”

With the epidemic spreading across the world, these accounts have sought to promote the Chinese government’s image abroad and shore up its support at home. One typical recent tweet in Chinese proclaimed: “We were not scared during the outbreak because our country was our rearguard. Many disease-fighting warriors were thrust to the front lines. Even more volunteers helped in seemingly trivial yet important ways.”

[…] We found a pattern of coordinated activity among the fake accounts that appeared to be aimed at building momentum for particular storylines. Central accounts with more legitimate-looking histories such as Keegan’s would make eye-catching posts; for example, a political message accompanied by a bold graphic or a meme, or a provocative video. An army of obvious fake accounts would then engage the posts with likes, reposts and positive comments, presumably to boost their visibility in Twitter’s algorithms.

Posts also used hashtags about trending topics such as the coronavirus outbreak or the Hong Kong protests to gain visibility for an account that had few followers. Other posts would use hashtags unique to the influence network, presumably to try to make them trend on Twitter. Remarkably, some of the fake accounts accumulated hundreds, and, in a few cases, thousands of followers (It’s not clear whether the fakes were being followed by real people or other fake accounts.) [Source]

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed new Chinese government tactics in pushing questionable conspiracy theories abroad along with specific propaganda and disinformation narratives, similar to techniques long used by Russia. Julian E. Barnes, Matthew Rosenberg, and Edward Wong report for The New York Times:

China has a long history of propaganda and efforts to cajole the world into following its own narrative on geopolitical issues like Taiwan, Tibet or Hong Kong. While it pushes its policies and views, some openly anti-American, it rarely puts enormous resources behind fringe conspiracy theories.

But that has changed during the pandemic, intelligence officials and outside experts said. In a highly coordinated campaign, Chinese officials and institutions have spread talking points centered on two narratives: that the United States is to blame for the origins of the virus and that the Communist Party has successfully contained the virus after a hard-fought campaign, affirming the superiority of its system.

[…] After remaining relatively quiet early in the year, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have in recent weeks amplified conspiratorial stories as the coronavirus outbreak has spread globally while China has claimed to have wrested it under control in the city of Wuhan where it originated.

[…] The tactics are “a significant departure from how the Chinese have operated in the past,” said Laura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the nonpartisan German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“Russia has long spread multiple, seemingly contradictory disinformation narratives and then said, ‘How can we know for sure what happened, how can we know the truth?’” she added. “We have never really seen China do that externally before. But now we see Chinese officials and media trying out those typically Russian tactics.” [Source]

The Alliance for Securing Democracy has added a feature on Chinese government disinformation to its Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard, which “captures content from more than 150 Chinese diplomatic and media accounts on Twitter, five state-sponsored news websites, CGTN America and CCTV+’s channels on YouTube, and official statements made by the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations. […] Collecting data since November 2019, the China section of the dashboard has captured official government messaging on topics like the Hong Kong protests, Xinjiang, the trade war with the United States, the implementation of Huawei technology in Europe, and, most notably, the global outbreak of COVID-19.” Jessica Brandt and Bret Schafer of the ASD wrote up some of their initial findings in “Five Things to Know About China’s Disinformation Campaign”. Like other researchers and reporters, they found that Beijing’s tactics are becoming increasingly similar to Moscow’s, focusing more on pushing forward the government’s own narratives rather than just censoring others that they disagree with:

China’s more confrontational posture on COVID-19 represents a clear departure from its past behavior and signals a move toward a style of information manipulation more like Russia’s.

In the early stages of the outbreak, official Chinese messaging largely focused on human-interest stories and on Beijing’s efforts to respond to the crisis. But as the virus spread rapidly to Europe and the United States over the past month, that approach shifted. From February 27 to March 26, four of the ten most engaged-with articles on Facebook from China’s state media outlets featured content that was critical of the Trump administration’s handling of the outbreak. This appears to be one component of Beijing’s broader information strategy, which entails highlighting the chaotic nature of democratic political systems, in contrast to its own.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Chinese diplomatic and embassy accounts promoted conspiracy theories from fringe websites and China’s Embassy in Brazil engaged in a public spat with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over statements he made about China’s role in the pandemic.

Using official channels to amplify conspiracy theories and to sow doubt about established facts in the context of major political events is a tactic often used by Moscow — whether to deflect blame, dent democracy’s appeal, or both. Beijing, which has long tended to be more risk averse in its approach to information manipulation, has tended to focus on censoring criticism — suppressing critical content rather than seeding conspiratorial material that is false, polarizing, or misleading. Beijing’s more confrontational posture surrounding COVID-19 could signal a broader shift in its approach. [/">Source]

A report from European External Action Service which tracks disinformation aimed at Europe during the COVID-19 outbreak from both China and Russia says that Chinese “state media and government officials promote not proven theories about the origin of COVID-19. Chinese coverage highlights displays of gratitude by some European leaders in response to Chinese aid.” Propaganda and disinformation about COVID-19 has also been found in advertisement features from Chinese state media in newspapers including the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph.

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Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon: Digital Disobedience

The following term comes from the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon, a glossary of terms created by Chinese netizens and encountered in online political discussions. These are the words of China’s online “resistance discourse,” used to mock and subvert the official language around  and political correctness. CDT is expanding its China Digital Space (CDS) wiki beyond the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon to include short biographies of public intellectuals, cartoonists, human rights activists, and other people pushing for change in China. CDS is a work in progress. 

wǎngmín bù fúcóng 网民不服从

English version of censored interview with Ai Fen (Source: CDT Chinese)

Online protest and/or circumvention campaigns; play on “civil disobedience” (gōngmín bù fúcóng 公民不服从). Came into usage during a 2020 campaign that used translation, transcription, inversion, and other visual and typographic distortions to preserve and circulate a censored magazine interview with Wuhan Dr. Ai Fen. The interview, originally published in People (Renwu 人物), covered her censure for circulating a report on an early case of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The People interview, published in March 2020 as President Xi Jinping set off on his first trip to Wuhan since the outbreak, quickly disappeared from the People website and from social media. Chinese netizens, who are well-versed in censorship evasion techniques such as using code words and sharing screenshots of text, in this case innovated ingenious workarounds to keep the article alive.

Translations appeared in English, German, Vietnamese, Hebrew, classical Chinese, Cantonese, Sichuanese, Wu, Elvish, Klingon, and Martian script. There is a version in Braille, another in a font that mimics Mao Zedong’s handwriting, and another written in nucleic acid notation. There is a Star Wars version. One iteration in particular captures the spirit of digital disobedience, placing the People interview in superscript above the Baidu Baike definition of internet safety. Dozens of examples are archived at CDT Chinese.

Can’t get enough of subversive Chinese netspeak? Check out our latest ebook, “Decoding the Chinese Internet: A Glossary of Political Slang.” Includes dozens of new terms and classic catchphrases, presented in a new, image-rich format. Available for pay-what-you-want (including nothing). All proceeds support CDT.

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Skepticism Remains Over Official COVID-19 Count as Wuhan Ends Lockdown

After punishing the first healthcare workers who voiced concerns about a mysterious new virus now known as the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 in December, authorities in Wuhan, Hubei province continued to act as if all was well for weeks before officially acknowledging the threat. As the outbreak became endemic in the region and country, authorities cracked down on unauthorized information, detained critical voices, and silenced a massive online call for free speech from scared and frustrated citizens. On January 23, Wuhan authorities announced the lockdown of the city, a move the WHO called “new to science,” and public health experts criticized for being risky. The lockdown would soon expand to much of the province and become the “largest quarantine in human history,” affecting over 50 million people. Days later the WHO declared COVID-19 a “global health emergency” (a possibility censors in China had targeted days earlier to limit negative economic forecasts).

The WHO classified the outbreak as a pandemic on March 11. As global infection rates rapidly climbed, state media reported Wuhan’s first day of zero new cases on March 19 (four more days would follow), a statistic Beijing would use to promote itself as a leader in the global fight against the pandemic. Many local residents and external analysts were skeptical about the official numbers for Wuhan–due both to earlier COVID-19 censorship and propaganda, and to the fact that under Beijing’s updated prevention guidelines, daily tallies did not include positive test results from asymptomatic and recovered patients. Since then, Wuhan’s official COVID-19 death count has hovered just above 2,500.

Last week, authorities announced that the “brutal but effective” lockdowns in Hubei would be eased and fully lifted by April 8, and that other regions of China would be easing relevant restrictions on residents and businesses. At NPR, Emily Feng and Amy Cheng report that as many as 10% of Wuhan residents who had tested positive and were pronounced recovered, have tested positive a second time, raising concerns as authorities begin to lift the local quarantine measures:

Some of those who retested positive appear to be asymptomatic carriers — those who carry the virus and are possibly infectious but do not exhibit any of the illness’s associated symptoms — suggesting that the outbreak in Wuhan is not close to being over.

[…] Two [of the four people who retested positive that NPR spoke to …] are front-line doctors who were sickened after treating patients in their Wuhan hospitals. The other two are Wuhan residents. They all requested anonymity when speaking with NPR because those who have challenged the government’s handling of the outbreak have been detained.

[…] To leave Wuhan, residents must first test negative for the coronavirus, according to municipal authorities. Such screenings will identify some remaining asymptomatic virus carriers. But the high rate of false negatives that Chinese doctors have cited means many with the virus could pass undetected.

[…] “In terms of those who retested positive, the official party line is that they have not been proven to be infectious. That is not the same as saying they are not infectious,” one of the Wuhan doctors who tested positive twice told NPR. He is now isolated and under medical observation. “If they really are not infectious,” the doctor said, “then there would be no need to take them back to the hospitals again.” [Source]

Exceptionally long lines to recover the ashes of dead family members now that lockdown measures are easing  have added to earlier skepticism over the official case counts. Bloomberg reports:

The families of those who succumbed to the virus in the central Chinese city, where the disease first emerged in December, were allowed to pick up their cremated ashes at eight local funeral homes starting this week. As they did, photos circulated on Chinese social media of thousands of urns being ferried in.

Outside one funeral home, trucks shipped in about 2,500 urns on both Wednesday and Thursday, according to Chinese media outlet Caixin. Another picture published by Caixin showed 3,500 urns stacked on the ground inside. It’s unclear how many of the urns had been filled.

People who answered the phone at six of the eight funeral homes in Wuhan said they either did not have data on how many urns were waiting to be collected, or were not authorized to disclose the numbers. Calls were not answered at the other two.

[…S]ome in China have been skeptical of the accuracy of the official tally, particularly given Wuhan’s overwhelmed medical system, authorities’ attempts to cover up the outbreak in its initial stages, and multiple revisions to the way official cases are counted. Residents on social media have demanded disciplinary action against top Wuhan officials. [Source]

In a Twitter thread, Bloomberg’s James Mayger notes that state media has reported that a top-level Party meeting has called for the better monitoring, tracking, and control of asymptomatic COVID-19 patients, and that other Chinese media have reported those numbers will be released soon. He concludes:

An English report from Caixin explains how the onslaught of death in Wuhan has complicated logistics for funeral homes and mourning observations, and notes other standing regulations facing the bereaved as the lockdown eases in Wuhan. Flynn Murphy and Bao Zhiming report:

Liu’s father was […] already hospitalized with brain cancer when the city’s Covid-19 crisis deepened in late January. To make room for a surge in patients, Liu’s father returned home, but his condition deteriorated as he became unable to access the care he needed. Despite being readmitted to the hospital in early March, he died within a few days.

“Although my dad didn’t die because of Covid-19, it killed him indirectly,” Liu told Caixin.

[…] Many of the bereaved regret that they weren’t able to give their loved ones proper sendoffs. Strict quarantine requirements prevented friends and relatives from being at their bedsides when they died. At the height of the city’s epidemic, some undertakers were so busy that deceased patients lay in their hospital beds for hours before being removed.

Even now, people are far from free to pay their respects however they want. On Thursday, as smoke billowed from the chimney of the Hankou Funeral Parlor’s crematorium, mourners sat on widely spaced plastic chairs to minimize human contact, while workers in full-body protective gear reunited them with the deceased. To prevent another surge in infections, city authorities plan to suspend in-person visits to grave sites through Qingming Festival, a traditional festival to honor the dead also known as Tomb Sweeping Day that this year falls on April 4. [Source]

At Radio Free Asia, Qiao Long, Lau Siu-fung, and Luisetta Mudie report that some online estimates of the city’s actual death toll are nearly 20 times higher than the government statistics. The report also includes other anecdotes leading to skepticism around the official Wuhan statistics:

[…] Such an estimate [based on 3,500 urns handed out daily for the 12 days before Tomb Sweeping festival] would mean that 42,000 urns would be given out during that time.

[…] Another popular estimate is based on the cremation capacity of the funeral homes, which run a total of 84 furnaces with a capacity over 24 hours of 1,560 urns city-wide, assuming that one cremation takes one hour.

This calculation results in an estimated 46,800 deaths.

[…] [The official number is 2,500 people,] “But during the epidemic, they transferred cremation workers from around China to Wuhan keep cremate bodies around the clock,” he said.

A resident surnamed Gao said the city’s seven crematoriums should have a capacity of around 2,000 bodies a day if they worked around the clock.

“Anyone looking at that figure will realize, anyone with any ability to think,” Gao said. “What are they talking about [2,535] people?”

“Seven crematoriums could get through more than that [in a single day].” [Source]

At The Atlantic, Kathy Gilsinan outlines Beijing’s recent statistics-based attempt to declare the worst over at home while internationally promoting itself as a global leader in COVID-19 response to warn that “China’s purported success against the virus, and its help to others in similar circumstances, may prove less than meets the eye“:

[…] For one thing, the Chinese model of mass roundups of citizens and extensive surveillance with no real public-health purpose is not, or shouldn’t be, exportable to democracies—and democracies like South Korea and Taiwan have, through their own successes against the virus, proved that authoritarianism is not the required ingredient. The crackdown may not even have succeeded as well as China wants to advertise. Nurses in Wuhan have told the Financial Times of “hidden infections” going unreported in China’s official statistics. “If China prematurely declares victory and they’re wrong, that could lead to a second wave of infections,” Doshi said. “It’s quite sobering to think what that would mean for the world’s pandemic response and the global economy.”

[…] Most immediately, it could mean that the coronavirus ground zero continues to generate and export more cases.

[…] The real short-term risk of China’s leadership exercise is that, should the country make the calculation to prize its economic health over public-safety concerns, other countries contending with the pandemic’s economic devastation may find themselves tempted to follow suit. Trump has already said he’d like to get the United States back to work by Easter, about three weeks from now—though China’s lockdown lasted months. As the crisis drags on, more and more leaders will find themselves facing gruesome calculations about the severe economic toll of keeping a low death toll. At that point, the China model may look even more tempting. [Source]

With lockdown restrictions lifting in Wuhan despite palpable safety concerns, the Financial Times’ Sun Yu reports on widespread citizen opposition to the easing of restrictions stemming from a lack of trust in the government:

The violence on Friday [on the Hubei/Jiangxi border against local authorities not following central orders to allow migrant workers to cross the border] and the sudden requirement for large amounts of additional documentation before people could move around the country underlined a growing distrust of authorities as Beijing struggled to restore credibility undermined by its cover-up of the pandemic that has killed more than 30,000 people worldwide.

[…] The present difficulties faced by migrant workers, said a Beijing-based sociologist, are rooted in fears that the virus remains prevalent, especially in Hubei, even though official statistics have been showing zero new cases of infection in the province for many days.

[…] Authorities are unlikely to be able to reassure Chinese citizens because authorities only test those with symptoms, which means official statistics are unable to capture asymptomatic virus carriers.

[…] “We have paid a steep price for believing in the government,” said the academic. “Now people would rather overreact than not act to protect against the virus.” [Source]

At Al Jazeera, Shawn Yuan reports that despite concerns of a second spike in infections in Wuhan, “there is a sense that the worst has past,” and relays three stories of life slowly returning to normal as the restrictions are eased. A video report from Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi shows customers returning to thoroughfares as businesses reopen, subject to virus screening. The AP also reports on life in Wuhan as restrictions lift.

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