Every crisis is an opportunity in disguise – reads the Chinese proverb, perhaps describing the best the current situation in regard to global narratives. Social networks are flooded with news about Chinese help on the one hand, and the inevitable collapse of the EU, on the other hand. Propaganda embodied in fake news and conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus is rapidly on the rise.
Manipulated videos emerged in China, for example, where Italian citizens are applauding to medical workers, which was promoted in China as a video of Italian citizens applauding to the Chinese for providing them with help, with Chinese anthem added in the background. The same pattern was also spotted in Russia, using similar video with Russian anthem in the background.
But what is more important, conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was made in an American lab is being promoted by certain Chinese doctors, politicians as well as a large number of ambassadors, while supported by Russian state media.
Disinformation expert Donara Barojan explains that for propagandists, every global event is an opportunity to spread its messaging to influence people’s perceptions and behaviour.
“Coronavirus is that opportunity for a number of different actors, including, but not limited to Russia and China. Demagogues and national politicians in dozens of countries are using the outbreak as an excuse to seize more power and sideline democracy, conspiracy theorists are using to fill the coronavirus information void with their own groundless content and build up their audience, and pseudoscience influencers are using it to push their ineffective supplements and fake cures”, says Barojan.
However, she highlights that there is most definitely an attempt to redeem China’s reputation internationally, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the CCP’s media outlets broadcasting in over 65 languages.
“China’s reputation was hurt badly when it became clear the CCP hid the outbreak from the rest of the world, allowing the coronavirus to spread”, stressed Barojan.
Political dimension of the crisis
The current state of affairs surpasses global public health issue. It represents something much bigger – a battle for a new global order after the pandemic is over. Assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade Milan Krstić says that China’s global involvement in this crisis undoubtedly has a political dimension.
“The current global order is in crisis and the United States, as the country that has invested the most resources in maintaining it, has been fundamentally changing its approach in recent years. The Donald Trump administration continues to demonstrate skepticism about investing US money to fund international multilateral institutions. The announcement that the US will cut off funding for the World Health Organization is the latest link in the chain, with important elements being the exit from the Paris Agreement related to climate change, the termination of UNESCO funding, as well as pulling away from the UN-backed Iran nuclear deal”, explains Krstić, adding that in the face of America’s hesitation to continue supporting institutions addressing global problems, China is offering itself as a possible alternative force to take responsibility for managing global challenges.
“In this regard, helping to cope with the global health crisis caused by the COVD-19 pandemic is a good ‘stage’ on which China is trying to reassure other actors in international relations that it has the capacity to be a global leader in certain situations, taking responsibility for all of humanity. That is why I believe that China is very keen on reinforcing the political narrative about its altruism, and the same would be the case with any other country in the world”, concludes Krstić adding that all countries in the world tend to promote themselves and use action even in these situations to increase their political influence.
“The collapse of the EU”
Since the beginning of the crisis in Europe, a narrative appeared on a global scale that „the EU has abandoned Italy and that the EU is going to collapse because the COVID-19 crisis has shown its weaknesses“, while in reality the EU has sent far more help to European countries than China and Russia. Therefore, could there be anyone behind the negative EU narrative and in whose interest would it be?
Barojan explains that the negative EU narrative most benefits actors interested in undermining EU’s unity, predominantly Russia.
„Russian state-backed media, like RT and Sputnik, have spent a lot of energy and headline space trying to seed that narrative not only in the EU, but also regions in which Russia sees itself as competing with the EU for influence, like the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East”, she explains.
However, what needs to be determined is how big is the influence of these narratives as well as who is targeted and most likely to fall under the influence.
“The target audience of influence campaigns coming from Russia and China is very broad, ranging from those who have anti-American/anti-EU attitudes, to those who simply do not trust their own governments or the EU”, Barojan points out adding that the target revolves around those less satisfied with their life, especially their financial wellbeing.
Europe’s backyard in Chinese hands
The battle of narratives is most visible in Serbia, whose President Aleksandar Vučić described EU solidarity as a “fairy tale” and kissed Chinese flag in a show of gratitude upon receiving the first plane of medical assistance from China. Belgrade’s official reactions have found their way to global headlines.
However, the fact that the assistance that the EU has provided to Serbia so far amounts to more than €700 million, making the EU number one donor to Serbia in times of this crisis, has not reached a big number of Serbian citizens due to the officials glorifying China in the media.
Speaking about EU aid to Serbia, EU High Representative Josep Borrell said that “if you look on the streets of Belgrade you see billboards with pictures of President Xi of China saying ‘Thanks Brother Xi’ which is very funny because I have never seen a billboard saying thank you EU for the help you provided and we have been providing a lot of help for Serbia and the rest of the Western Balkans”.
“Sometimes the help we are providing and effort we are doing is not taken into consideration and the help that China has been provided is being put on the streets as if it is more important than what the EU has provided before and during the crisis,” Borell added.
According to Milan Krstić, even though Serbia is a candidate country for joining the EU, the narrative about China as a saviour is best received in countries whose public opinion is already sympathetic to China, such as Serbia.
“However, the soil is not ‘fertile’ for the success of this narrative everywhere. Relevant research has shown that the citizens of Serbia perceived China as one of Serbia’s largest donors even before this situation, although the amount of its assistance sent to our country was far less than that coming from the EU or the US. Public opinion has a different perception of the amount of aid donated to Serbia since 2001, largely multiplying aid from Russia and China, and reducing the amount of aid from the West”, explains Krstić.
He added that in such circumstances, it was to be expected that China’s assistance to Serbia during the pandemic would resound very loudly, because it is indisputably very important for Serbia and because it comes at a moment of crisis, when all public attention is focused on this topic alone.
“But the echo of the aid was so loud that the assistance of all other actors, including extremely significant EU assistance and even Russia’s assistance, fell into the background. This is due to the actions of the authorities, who believe that it is politically opportunistic to portray relations with China as closest as possible and to constantly keep China’s significant assistance at the forefront. In doing so, they are showing to the citizens of Serbia that “powerful and good” China is with Serbia, but in addition, they subtly and indirectly create the impression that China is only helping Serbia – which is certainly not true, as China is assisting numerous countries around the world”, says Krstić adding that it suits the authorities to portrait themselves as “younger brother” of President Xi Jinping and a key partner of China in Europe, among other things, because of the popularity of this position among voters.
And the popularity is what superpowers are fighting about on a global scale. There will certainly be consequences of the current narratives after the crisis is over, while Barojan explains that the desired outcome of countries like China and Russia is a change in the global balance of power.
“If the Chinese narratives prove to be effective, we’ll likely see China emerge as an alternative superpower to the US. If the Russian narratives gain traction, we’ll see the EU lose its soft power – the ability to influence other countries without coercion – decline”, concludes Barojan.