Among many rapid changes underway as the COVID-19 pandemic races across the globe is a dramatic transformation in how China’s rulers engage with the world. China is trying to turn crisis into opportunity by making a major push for global leadership in handling the virus, and one of the virus’s early victims—Chinese doctor Li Wenliang—is back in the news. The Chinese Communist Party’s evolving effort to re-brand Dr. Li as a loyal soldier in their fight against COVID-19 captures the dramatic, unsettled state of the Chinese Communist Party’s drive for global influence amid a catastrophic health crisis.
An ophthalmologist in Wuhan, Dr. Li noticed that patients were appearing with strange cases of a severe respiratory illness. He sent out a widely circulated message on December 30 to other doctors in the area, warning them to take precautions, which caused the local police to call him in. They accused him of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.” They told him that he was being investigated alongside several other doctors for the crime of “spreading rumors.” Soon, of course, the virus became much too serious to hide. The police eventually apologized to Dr Li, but it was too late. On February 7, he died from the very disease he’d tried to warn about.
Dr. Li became a martyr, but the meaning of his martyrdom was contested. Across the Chinese Internet, people denounced how Li had been treated for trying to tell the truth. They quoted a line that he had uttered to the Chinese news outlet Caixin: “A healthy society shouldn’t have only one voice.” Intellectuals and activists critical of the regime invoked Li to argue that the virus exposed the enormous risks created by China’s top-down, authoritarian system and its intolerance of freedom of speech, and that the time has come for reform.
But no time at all passed before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided to take ownership of Li’s explosive story. Rather than allowing him to remain a symbol of the system’s failings, the party chose to lionize him—while ignoring any inconvenient calls for freedom of speech. For example, the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, tweeted, “Farewell to Dr. Li Wenliang, to be remembered for high responsibility & devotion as a doctor. Salute him & millions of medical workers at the frontline saving lives, making huge sacrifices.”
Now, as new cases of COVID-19 rise around the world but taper off inside China, the CCP has gone even farther to reclaim Dr. Li as one of their own. After an official investigation, China’s National Supervisory Commission ordered Wuhan authorities to punish the local police station that mistreated Li. He was a member of the Communist Party, which provided the basis for a dramatic reframing of his story: “In order to attack the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government, some hostile forces labeled Dr. Li Wenliang a ‘hero’ and ‘awakener’ [of the people], confronting the system,” a Q&A released by official propaganda organs stated. “This is completely false. Li Wenliang was a Communist Party member, not a so-called ‘anti-establishment’ figure.” In other words: Li was one of ours, the CCP asserted, so we get to decide what his martyrdom means.
The CCP sees itself as in a fierce battle over the narrative about COVID-19. The CCP wants to control the narrative inside China, and it is determined to control the global narrative as well—shifting the focus internationally from seeing China as the source of the outbreak to seeing China as a benevolent partner aiding the rest of the world in a time of need. From spinning propaganda to distributing face masks, it wants to be seen as the leader in the world’s fight against this disease, especially as the Trump Administration abdicates any sense of global responsibility or community, or even domestic leadership.
To achieve these goals, the CCP has been both constructive and destructive. It delivered supplies and expertise to the European Union and member countries such as Italy, as well as Iran, South Korea, and many other countries. Meanwhile, it expelled American journalists at major U.S. newspapers and punished their Chinese staff; in the minds of Chinese officials, the foreign press is paramount among the “hostile forces” that the CCP claimed had tried to present Dr. Li as an independent, “anti-establishment” voice. Some Chinese officials have even circulated outlandish conspiracy theories that the United States created the virus and brought it to China.
All of these measures have one thing in common: their desire to control the story of COVID-19, alongside the epidemiological and economic realities that are changing every day. In contrast to many voices that blame the CCP for allowing the disease to spread, the CCP’s own story is that its decision-making and political system, led by Xi Jinping, saved China and the world from an even worse disaster. This rendering is, at best, premature; and Dr. Li’s actual experience underscores how misleading it is. The CCP has for many years wanted to use fighting disease to show the “superiority” of its system, as I argue in a recent article in Past & Present, but until now its attempts haven’t gotten off the ground. Will this time be different? After the initial clampdown on information about the virus, China’s draconian lockdown and surveillance do appear to have contained the spread of its domestic epidemic, and the world certainly can and should learn from certain aspects of China’s experience. But it would be ironic indeed if the CCP came out of the COVID-19 crisis—a crisis to which China contributed by trying to hide the virus’ initial spread—in a stronger geopolitical position.
More than any other factor, what gives the CCP the opportunity to dominate the narrative competition is, alas, the Trump Administration. The administration’s sluggish response—failing to plan ahead and President Trump’s and other American officials’ repeated downplaying and distorting of the epidemic’s seriousness—has left the world’s richest country struggling to make up for lost time. The continued lack of testing and production of medical necessities threaten to produce a public health emergency of unprecedented scale. Trump’s incessant attacks on the U.S. media make it harder for the American government to take the moral high ground when the CCP expels the international journalists who are essential to understanding China. And President Trump’s racist language about a “Chinese virus” repulses American allies, feeds discrimination against Asian-Americans, and provides CCP propaganda with cinematic images of the “Ugly American” incarnate.
Driven by an escalating tit-for-tat and longstanding grievances, U.S.-China relations are rapidly deteriorating. Of course, one can imagine a different path, in which the United States and China put aside their differences and worked together with key global players to develop a vaccine and better treatment for COVID-19, as well as to manage the emerging economic crisis. “Only strong leadership can solve global coordination problems related to travel restrictions, information sharing, and the flow of critical goods,” Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi have said. Of course, Trump’s impulses are consistently to abandon global coordination, rather than to lead it—even at a time when it is so obviously and urgently necessary.
In this environment, the CCP feels emboldened to push out its own narrative. Dr. Li Wenliang’s plea—“A healthy society shouldn’t have only one voice”—is less and less audible. As ever, nothing helps the Chinese Communist Party more than when the United States falls short of being its best self.