More and more everyday, it becomes increasingly important that we cut through the clutter and separate fact from hysteria as it pertains to China and this pandemic. There is much to speculate on but it’s best to focus on what we do know.
By Neil Mathew
China has a long history of censorship throughout its history, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the superpower is now censoring data regarding coronavirus. China has no problem censoring films, books, and video games, for all various reasons and agendas. With more than 1 million Muslim Uighurs held in modern day equivalent of concentration camps, our largest trading partner has learned to navigate a world where it is perennially accused of human rights abuses.
What does this exactly mean for the rest of the world? Is China blatantly lying about the deaths of its citizens? Does this censorship mean that it’s impossible to actually prove that China is carefully manipulating the data that they release, and when they release it? How will China’s data manipulation affect the future?
How China Is Cracking Down
China isn’t the only country that is willing to suppress information to further its agenda, whether it has to do with militaristic goals or economic interests. China may have ended its Wuhan lockdown, but it’s not as if normal life has resumed in many of its cities.
It’s important to note that this isn’t an issue that is limited to China or even Asia. Human Rights Watch reports that Cambodia has detained politicians that have expressed concerns about coronavirus disinformation. It hasn’t stopped there, either – they also report that Cambodia has even arrested a teenage girl who used social media to express her own fears. Turkey has also begun arresting those who have spoken about COVID-19 on social media.
China is also cracking down on academic research regarding coronavirus, and studies regarding the pandemic have to be approved by government officials.
All around the world, many countries already understand that China is willing to censor information in their own country. However, organizations are now trying to find out exactly what they are hiding, and what aspects of the pandemic that they are still downplaying.
China has recently criticized U.S. officials that have suggested that China should be more transparent, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has become involved in the spat between two world leaders. President Donald Trump has criticized the United Nations agency of being “China-centric.” Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, has also criticized China’s lack of transparency.
An Unethical Advantage?
There’s a new point that arises amid China’s crackdown on anyone willing to speak out about the government’s misinformation. China might be misrepresenting its data, but it also has the infrastructure in place to track its citizens more than many other countries. The country might be home to well over a billion people, but it also might be the most surveilled nation in the world.
Specifically, the superpower is expected to boast around half a billion surveillance cameras by next year. China might be authoritarian, but is it uniquely positioned to deal with a global pandemic as a result? Some have suggested that the government’s ability to monitor and enforce was crucial to slowing the spread of coronavirus.
There’s one individual that understands surveillance arguably more than anyone else in the world, and that person is Edward Snowden. In a recent Vice interview, Shane Smith posed this same question to Snowden, who dismissed the idea that China was uniquely positioned to deal with the pandemic. Snowden instead pointed out that governments all around the world would use the pandemic as an excuse to build an “architecture of oppression.”
Regardless, China claims over 3,000 deaths officially, although the real number is likely much higher. Many journalists all around the world have suggested that the lines of people at Wuhan funeral homes suggest that the death toll in China is much higher.
Dealing With Dissent
There are still free speech advocates in China. While the average Chinese citizen might not be outspoken, the truth is that social media has, at the very least, allowed them to mourn those who tried to inform the public of the importance and scope of coronavirus.
Many Chinese citizens took to Weibo and Whatsapp to mourn Li Wenliang, who died once he was infected with coronavirus in a Wuhan hospital. In fact, his death ended up becoming a #1 trending topic on Weibo, a microblogging website that boasts over half a billion monthly active users.
Wenliang was detained for speaking publicly about the outbreak, along with seven others. Hundreds of thousands of Weibo users commented on his death, many of which relied on pop culture references to make veiled statements regarding China and its coronavirus response.
Chinese authorities understood that Wenliang’s death could lead to riots, and began deleting posts related to his death. China is now attempting to blame the United States for the virus. President Trump has hit back at these claims by calling coronavirus the “China virus”, which has also led to the relationship between the two superpowers becoming more tense. Pair this with exacerbating tensions in the South China Sea and you have a perfect formula for the fruition of Thucydides Trap.
Some might say that the damage from Chinese misinformation regarding the coronavirus is already done and that the focus should now be placed on making sure that other countries flatten the curve. However, the fact that China is now censoring academic study may have further implications, even if other countries are transparent and honest regarding their own research. Either way, China’s response to the global coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly have ripple effects regarding its relationship with the rest of the world.