Mutually Assured Disinformation: Should Mass Media on China Form the Basis of Your Politics? (Pandemic Edition)

In recent years, tensions between China and the West, notably the United States, have skyrocketed—and as has animosity to the opposite side among the general populations of both nations. In particular, this growing hostility is largely influenced by the media, as it often portrays one-sided stories about the other country to the public.  

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a heated topic in many people’s lives. The drastically different approaches that China and the U.S. have taken to deal with the virus have risen to a heated topic of  debate, furthering tensions between the two countries. China has adopted a strict “zero-tolerance” policy during the pandemic—its borders are consistently closed to foreigners and every Chinese citizen traveling back from abroad needs to quarantine for at least two weeks. For every case identified, the patient is immediately taken to a hospital for isolation and treatment; their traveling history in the past seven days is traced and all close contacts receive subsequent mandates to quarantine. Comparatively, the United States has rather loose and disjoined policies regarding the virus. Travel restrictions are few and far between and people who test positive only need to self-quarantine for ten days. 

Throughout the pandemic, the Chinese media has attached U.S. COVID-19 policies and used them as evidence of the erosion of American democracy. In particular, Chinese headlines enjoy a field day when the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. skyrockets; data seldom makes the news during periods of relative calm.

Moreover, Chinese media has published misleading comments regarding the reaction to COVID-19 vaccines among the U.S. public. According to USA Facts, as of January 6, 2022, 75 percent of the US population have received at least one dose while 63 percent are fully vaccinated. However, a December 2021 article published on a Chinese news platform, NetEase, ran with the following headline “American public: even if I lose my job, I will never get vaccinated.” To smear the entire American public for the vaccine hesitancy of particular segments of the U.S. population only encourages misinformed, caustic rhetoric during times of strife.

These misconceptions are then used by many articles to attack democracy and the concept of “freedom” in the United States. An article published on Sina News on December 29, 2021 even asserted that U.S. democracy had grossly undermined global public health and ought to be cast aside by global society. “With powerful political power, the U.S. government should have focused its energy on controlling the pandemic and saving lives,” read the article. “But not only did it fail to fight the pandemic while spreading the virus without repentance, it also used the pandemic to engage in political manipulation, push the blame on other people, and spread the distorted ideas of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights.’” The most damning statement came next: “this irresponsible approach to its own people and global public health will surely be spurned by the international community.”

Similarly, some U.S. media outlets have attacked Chinese COVID-19 policies, saying that the vaccination process is a mark of authoritarianism in China that invades  personal freedom and privacy. In particular, some articles claim that China has been forcing its citizens to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, citing the case of Jian Ping Zhang, who, based on his own account, was forcefully injected by the police in Hunan. 

However, there is little evidence supporting the factuality of this account. According to an official statement of the Chinese National Health Commission, forcing the injection of the COVID-19 vaccine is absolutely prohibited. Still, many articles published by U.S. media platforms have leveraged Zhang’s case to claim that physical coercion is a general practice in China for COVID-19 vaccination. In an article by Nicholas Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times, the same case was presented as a reflection of China’s authoritarian political practices. “China is of course a repressive, authoritarian country. It is also, by long tradition, a country that values the community interest over the liberty of the individual,” wrote Goldberg. “But physical coercion is an unethical and counterproductive way to accomplish the goal of reaching herd immunity.” While Goldberg’s claims about global public health are not false, his attempt to smear the Chinese response to the COVID-19 pandemic only heightens tensions between the two countries. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, this rhetoric is sure to only intensify.

By: Jenny Jin