‘Let America Degenerate on Its Own’: Chinese Scholar Implores CCP to Stop Spreading Conspiracies

Last week’s ChinaTalk podcast came out really well. I talked with Ryan Manuel of Official China about how has the distinct nature of local-central relations in the Chinese system impacted its response to coronavirus.

Our conversation, filled with dark Aussie humor, starts with COVID-19 and SARS and then broadens out into how the history of rural healthcare in China explains dynamics that impeded the initial Chinese response. Next, we focus on how Hu Jintao created a model of managing local-central relations that Xi studied and took to the next level by scrapping collective responsibility and working through Party as opposed to government channels.

This was my first show published at my new home at Lawfare, a popular national security website run under Brookings’ auspices. They host some of the best writing and sharpest podcasts on US national security, including my personal favorite the Cyberlaw Podcast.

I’m already going a little stir-crazy and would love to connect. Do respond to this email if you have newsletter coverage or podcast guest ideas. If there’s interest, maybe I’ll schedule a ChinaTalk fan Houseparty. Let me know your Xbox gamertag/Steam names and join the Discord I just made.

Zhao Lijian, senior spokesmen for the Foreign Ministry, spent last week spouting conspiracy theories about how America planted the virus in Wuhan. The ostensible aim was to deflect blame for the virus’s spread away from the CCP’s handling of the outbreak at home and abroad.

His fever may have just broken. Late last week, the Chinese Ambassador to the US in an interview to Axios disavowed these statements and the next day, Zhao posted a weird flower photo.

But not everyone in China is on board with the tactic of seeding incredibly inflammatory fake news on western social media. Professor Zhang Feng, in a recent viral article, takes down the common justifications heard on Weibo in favor of Zhao’s conspiracy-mongering. He first walks through the common rationales in China in support of Zhao’s rhetorical tactics (‘Zhao has free speech and can say what he wants,’ ‘he’s actually representing the party line,’ ‘we’re just doing following an eye for an eye’). Then he concludes by arguing for China to take the high road. Trump’s penchant for lying has dramatically hurt America’s credibility, Zhang argues, so for China to learn from his playbook would only undermine their global aims.

The author, Dr. Zhang Feng 张锋, is a professor at Hunan University. He used to teach at Australian National University and in 2015 published a book on Chinese grand strategy with Stanford University Press.

Dev Lewis and yours truly translated the article, which first appeared on SupChina. It racked up over 100,000 views before it was taken down.

Chinese Diplomatic Discourse Shouldn’t Violate Morality

March 16, Hunan University of Technology’s Institute of Public Policy. See here for the original Chinese.

China’s diplomatic discourse has always been problematic. Five years ago, I asked a question in a short commentary: Why is China’s diplomatic discourse so difficult to understand? This article provoked discussion among those in international relations, bringing forth both positive and negative responses. At that time, I used the adjective “difficult” because Chinese discourse pursues grand narratives and is obsessed with abstract concepts, and tries to capture the essence of diplomacy, exemplified by expressions such as “win-win cooperation.”

But in recent years, China’s diplomatic discourse seems to be moving to the other extreme — instead of difficult, it has become far too easy to understand, too straightforward, and too aggressive.

Recent tweets by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian 赵立坚 suggesting that the coronavirus was brought to Wuhan by the U.S. military has been the subject of a hotly contested discussion. This kind of discourse takes the case to a whole new, unprecedented level.

How could the U.S. military have brought the epidemic to Wuhan?

Last October, Wuhan hosted the World Military Games, in which the U.S. military participated. At that time, it was the start of flu season in the U.S. If it can be proved that the novel coronavirus actually evolved from a strand of the American flu, then it cannot be ruled out that infected members of the U.S. military brought the virus to Wuhan.

But giving this reasoning any depth of thought will reveal a series of major logical flaws.

What is certain is that no scientist or government can convincingly prove that the coronavirus was in the United States before Wuhan. In the absence of any such evidence, are Zhao Lijian’s tweets appropriate?

There appear to be opposing views within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with regard to this question.

On March 13, the day after Zhao’s tweets, another Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gěng Shuǎng 耿爽, took a different tack. He said: “China has always considered this” — that is, the source of the virus — “to be a scientific issue that needs to be informed by scientific and professional opinions.” Cuī Tiānkǎi 崔天凯, China’s Ambassador to the United States, also said in an interview that this is a problem that requires scientific research.

But on Chinese social media, there were both those who laid siege on Zhao and those who, on his behalf, laid siege on his critics. Those who criticized and those who defended him were equally fierce. Let me summarize the three kinds of voices that came to Zhao’s defense.

One set of voices believes that Zhao’s tweets were in his personal capacity and part of his right to freedom of speech. This view is hardly convincing. Zhao’s tweets receive attention because he is a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His Twitter profile clearly states that he is a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, implying that he is not an ordinary person, and therefore any remarks should not be interpreted as his personal opinion.

On the internet, there is a chorus of voices claiming the virus originated in the U.S., but no voice has attracted much attention as Zhao Lijian precisely because people do not regard Zhao Lijian to be an ordinary internet user.

If freedom of speech is invoked, I’m afraid this raises too many questions. First, freedom of speech is not unconditional: this is a point repeatedly emphasized by the Chinese side to international society. Zhao’s tweet was in reaction to U.S. Centers for Disease Control director Robert R. Redfield telling the Senate that at the moment, American tests for coronavirus may not be sufficient and that there may be deaths from COVID-19 erroneously recorded as casualties from the flu. Leaning on this statement alone, there is no way to reach the conclusion that the U.S. had the coronavirus at the start.

Zhao clearly took Redfield’s statement out of context. The context of this dialogue was a lawmaker asking about a death in a nursing home in Washington state, and whether the CDC may be miscategorizing COVID-19 cases as flu. Ignoring this context, one is sure to take the wrong meaning.

Attempts by Chinese diplomats to tell a good China story on Twitter have become a high-profile phenomenon in recent Chinese diplomatic propaganda. While some of the publicity has had a positive impact abroad, it has also raised some embarrassing questions. For example, how does this approach line up with China’s existing internet management policies?

The second kind of voice in Zhao’s defense believes that Zhao is speaking the official line and that every word he utters has some deep meaning, and since he must be thinking before he speaks, one should believe him. This is a lazy and reckless viewpoint, deferring far too much to the spokesperson.

The third voice defends Zhao by arguing that government officials bickering with Americans is understandable. Since Trump’s government often “speaks with fire” (出口毒辣 chūkǒu dúlà), China should “fight fire with fire.” America can scold China, so why not the other way around? Isn’t opposing this just a double standard?

There are still more who think that anyone who opposes Zhao is a race traitor who won’t fight the U.S. but will fight amongst themselves. This viewpoint has quite a few subscribers. This is based on nationalism, in keeping with today’s atmosphere of “struggle,” but it is still a specious argument.

To fully explain why requires another article, but I’ll simply raise a core question here: This so-called “proportionate response,” doesn’t it imply that we’re lowering our standards so that China’s diplomatic morals are more “rotten” than America’s?

With Trump already having spent three years as president, America’s international prestige and influence have taken a nosedive, and American hegemony is in an unstable state. One important reason is that Trump has a habit of lying, driven by his emotional impulses and personal self-interest, and that has hurt America’s credibility like never before in the post-World War II era. 

Really, Trump, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Fox News hosts speak crudely, using the “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” as insults to attack China. These phrases are indeed something the Chinese public should severely criticize. Americans and knowledgeable people (including government employees and Democrats) are already loudly criticizing it. But this criticism doesn’t mean China should lower its standards and, like Americans, begin to peddle conspiracy theories, particularly at the government level.

Why don’t we take the high road and compete against the U.S. at the diplomatic level using honest information? Why not let America degenerate on its own and lose its moral superiority to China?

To flaunt like this, and get into a “spitting war” with America while dressing it up as “an eye for an eye,” is really just playing into America’s tactics, and in the end, hurts Chinese foreign relations and weakens China’s morals internationally.

This week I also wrote a little review of Meet Me in the Bathroom, an oral history of 2000s New York rock bands like The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem. A fun read if you want to think about another world.

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