Once again, China is waging its infamous public opinion warfare against the rest of the world. Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman tweeted in English last Thursday that “It might be U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! U.S. owe us an explanation!” Naturally, this infuriated the Americans.
The U.S. Department of State promptly reacted. The assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific summoned the Chinese ambassador to Washington. The United States strongly protested Beijing’s reference to the “U.S. army” and its attempt to deflect criticism that China had started a global pandemic by not telling the truth.
Anonymous U.S. officials reportedly stated, “Spreading conspiracy theories is dangerous and ridiculous” and “We won’t tolerate it.” Of course, for most Americans China’s recent propaganda campaign is unacceptable because as U.S. President Donald Trump said, “They know where it came from, we all know where it came from.”
Many in Tokyo, however, are not so surprised by China’s propaganda. The Japanese are very much used to Chinese fabrications, which have been very frequent over the past few decades.
I experienced this kind of official fake Chinese narrative back in 2002, as follows:
1. Beijing changed its Japan narrative
In May 2002, when I was a diplomat posted in Beijing, a North Korean defector family of five entered the compound of the Japanese Consulate-General in Shenyang, China. The North Koreans managed to enter the compound but were later forced out by the Chinese police guarding the Japanese mission.
Unfortunately for China, the entire scene was recorded by a Japanese NGO. Therefore Beijing’s foreign ministry at first admitted that the Chinese authorities did not obtain Japan’s consent to enter the compound. I was sent from Beijing to Shenyang to assist a fact-finding team that flew in from Tokyo.
A few days later, the Chinese foreign ministry suddenly changed its narrative. Now it said that the Chinese armed police had entered the compound and arrested the North Korean family with consent from a Japanese consul. Of course, the Japanese side strongly denied that the consul had ever agreed to anything.
That led me to lose confidence in the Chinese government. Chinese diplomats understood that the consulate’s compound is inviolable under international law. They knew the Japanese consul did not give its consent. It was unbelievable that those officials could change their narrative overnight.
2. China’s “three wars”
That move was not invented by the Chinese foreign ministry. It was part of the three wars concept, i.e., public opinion warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare. This concept was adopted by the Chinese Communist Party in 2003 and was later incorporated into the People’s Liberation Army Political Work Regulation.
According to Japan’s 2009 defense white paper, public opinion warfare refers to the “buildup of morale inside of the country, inspiring the army and providing it with a fighting spirit, while aiming to decrease the morale of the enemy.
“The media and information resources, such as newspapers, books, radio, television, the internet and electronic mail, are all considered operational tools. Some commonly used tactics are ’emphatic blow’… and ‘information control’ (spreading advantageous information and limiting unfavorable information).”
3. False narratives must be simple and clear
Adolf Hitler once referred to “a big lie” in his 1925 book “Mein Kampf.” This has been interpreted to mean “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” A lie about “coronavirus’ U.S. Army origin” is big enough. What was applicable to Nazi Germany then is now applicable to China.
4. False narratives must appear likely
China’s foreign ministry spokesman was not successful in convincing the rest of the world that the U.S. Army brought the epidemic to Wuhan simply because the fabrication is so hard to believe. If it were brought by the U.S. Army, why doesn’t Washington have antidotes for infected Americans?
5. False narratives must be repeated
When asked about the U.S. military conspiracy, the spokesman only responded that “the international community, including the United States, has different views on the source of the virus” and could not even repeat the disinformation he tried to circulate. His U.S. Army conspiracy theory was too improbable to be repeated.
6. China’s information control is not working
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman himself must be a wise, decent and well-educated diplomat and what he said is likely not what he believes. It’s not his fault. What’s wrong is the concept of public opinion warfare itself. China’s version of information control has a fundamental defect.
To spread advantageous information or limit unfavorable information, proven facts must be used. Information control or public opinion warfare will fail if fabricated information is used, especially when the targeted public enjoys democracy and freedom of speech.
7. Don’t underestimate China’s three wars fighting capability
As in the case of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Beijing’s information warfare in the international arena may not be as good as it hoped. This, however, doesn’t mean that the Chinese information warfare is so poor that it can be ignored.
That Beijing could not successfully deflect criticism in the international community that China had started a global pandemic is welcome. This, however, doesn’t mean that China’s domestic information control is also poor. The government’s skill to control the flow, quantity and quality of information inside the modern Chinese empire should not be underestimated.
Some people in Tokyo may hope the pandemic will eventually lead to the fall of the People’s Republic of China. This is wishful thinking. As long as the Chinese government can tightly control information internally, the regime will survive for the foreseeable future. That’s what authoritarian dictatorship is all about.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.