As China reveled in its “victory” over COVID-19, internet users in the country seemed to relish finding fault with the rest of the world – and Europe was no exception.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the world, different countries are responding to the crisis in different ways. In China, the first country to experience the virus, mandatory quarantines and other measures seem to have stabilized the situation. Nevertheless, in lieu of a vaccine, the prospect of a resurgence is always a real fear. In June there was talk of a possible “second wave,” which China seems now to have tamed. Meanwhile, debate has continued internationally over how to assess the responses of various governments -- and China, which faced criticism early on for its handling of the outbreak, has tried to turn the narrative around.
In March, once China had a handle on the pandemic, with official numbers taking a turn for the better, Chinese state media dialed up the volume on their praise of the government response in controlling the epidemic. They lauded on China’s governance model, reporting that the “clear superiority of China’s system” had been made evident by the government’s successes in dealing with COVID-19. In some media reports there was a clear patronizing tone, with suggestions that foreign countries could or should “copy [China’s] homework,” learning from its pandemic response.
Two narratives in particular have been heard on the Chinese internet since March about foreign news of the pandemic. The first criticizes and ridicules foreign governments, stressing their dependence on Chinese aid to fight the pandemic. Insufficient control measures, many Chinese internet users say, have caused the rapid spread of the virus, and such accounts have been exacerbated by reports circulating on social media platforms like WeChat from so-called “self-media” or “we-media,” referring to digital accounts or platforms. Some of these media are private accounts operated by individuals or companies, but they are not “civic media” as the name might suggest, and some are also operated by government organs.
The second narrative prevalent since March claims, or strongly implies, that the virus originated in some country other than China.
Sacrificing the Weak
One country that became a focus of the narrative of government incompetence on the Chinese internet in March was the UK. On March 12, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a statement on the coronavirus epidemic from his office at 10 Downing Street, in which said that the government’s goal was “not just to attempt to contain the disease as far as possible, but to delay its spread and thereby minimize the suffering.” Seeking to clarify the government’s policy during an interview with Sky News the next day, March 13, Sir Patrick Valence, the government’s chief scientific adviser, seemed to suggest that about 60 percent of the UK’s population would have to become infected with the virus for the society to build up immunity.
This and other failures of communication on the part of the Johnson government quickly led to the perception that the UK’s policy for dealing with the epidemic was one of “herd immunity.” Just days later, a double headline in the Atlantic read: “The U.K.’s Coronavirus ‘Herd Immunity’ Debacle: The country is not aiming for 60 percent of the populace to get COVID-19, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so based on how badly the actual plan has been explained.”
While the UK’s plan was never “herd immunity,” this idea quickly exploded across the Chinese internet. The headlines proliferating across Chinese “self-media” were often appalling: “Is the British government gambling with the lives of 60 percent of the population?”; “Britain deliberately sacrifices 60 percent of its people to achieve herd immunity," and so on. A common refrain found across the internet and on social media went: “Britain’s herd immunity means: we have decided to give up on our citizens.”
When British media reported in early April that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after his health had “worsened,” Chinese internet users responded strongly to the news, and one related post gained 415,000 “likes” on social media.
By early March, China’s foreign ministry and state media were talking of a deepening friendship between China and Italy as the latter struggled under the onslaught of the virus. A March 10 release from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “the Italian government is following closely and drawing on China's successful experience and taking strong measures to prevent the spread of the disease.” But online, Italy was fair game.
On March 24, a top trending topics on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms, was titled, “Italian doctors say they are restricting intubation for patients over 60 years of age.” The post referred to a subtitled video in which Gal Peleg, an “Italian doctor,” was quoted as saying that because his hospital had an insufficient number of respirators, they had now “set a threshold so that people over 60 years of age would no longer get help." This Weibo post, which cited as its source a March 22 report from the Daily Mail, was read more than 80 million times. But it was patently false. In fact, Peleg was an Israeli doctor working in Parma, Italy. His suggestion that a policy limited access to respirators was in place was denied by other doctors in Italy, and in a Facebook post he subsequently rejected the statements attributed to him, calling them “fake news.” “I share my experience with you because the whole world wants to know about Italy,” he wrote, “but journalists sometimes change things.”