The Chinese Communist Party is leveraging India’s COVID-19 surge to advance its long-running campaign to denigrate democracies and boost its image, according to a new report.

“Even after the Biden administration committed its support to India, China’s state-backed messaging continued to paint US help as sub-standard, hypocritical and motivated by self-interest,” researchers wrote in the report from the German Marshall Fund.

The report highlights several social media posts from Chinese government officials and Communist-Party-run outlets promoting Chinese assistance to India and portraying the United States as stingy with vaccines and aid.  China’s Foreign Ministry amplified that message during its daily press conferences.

“All social sectors in China are busy taking actions,” said spokesperson Wang Wenbin last week.  “Chinese enterprises are trying their best to collect the anti-epidemic supplies urgently needed by India and deliver them to the Indian people as soon as possible.”

China’s government tailors its message to specific audiences, with vastly different approaches to India’s COVID-19 crisis.  For domestic consumption, a Chinese-Communist-Party-linked outlet posted an image of a Chinese rocket next to a photo of an Indian cremation pyre with the phrase “Chinese ignition versus Indian ignition.”  The outlet quickly removed the post.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian speaks during a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing. AP

“China’s playing a real balancing game,” said Jessica Brandt, the head of research and policy at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.  “It’s painted India’s response to its deepening health crisis, for example, as feckless and ineffective.  And it’s used pretty jarring propaganda images to do that. And then to external audiences, it’s portrayed itself as a great friend to India.”

China’s coronavirus propaganda campaign has evolved along with international developments.  It first deflected criticism for its early response of suppressing information about the outbreak and then disparaged western attempts to control the virus’ spread.  Now, the focus has moved to a new front.  

“Vaccines are a pathway to power, its soft power, it’s market power,” said Brandt. “Pfizer is disproportionately the target of anti-western vaccine narratives … It may be because it was as the first western vaccine. It was perceived as the big target. It might also be because Pfizer’s is a globally recognized US brand.”  

Chinese Communist Party outlets have depicted the United States in cartoons as only willing to share its AstraZeneca vaccines because they’re unwanted by Americans.

The Biden administration has pledged to share with other countries up to 60 million doses of AstraZeneca – a vaccine that has not secured approval for use in the US.  On Wednesday, it also reversed the US position on protecting intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

“The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible,” said Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative.  “As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the Administration will continue to ramp up its efforts — working with the private sector and all possible partners — to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution. It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”

A family member performs the last rites of a COVID-19 victim at a crematorium in Jammu, in Jammu, India April 30, 2021.AP

Before that announcement, the State Department had defended US vaccine policy citing the responsibility the federal government has to vaccinate Americans adding that vaccines at home help control the virus abroad.

“As long as the virus is spreading uncontrolled in this country, it can mutate and it can travel beyond our borders. That, in turn, poses a threat well beyond the United States,” said Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesperson.

Price also cited billions in US contributions to COVAX, a global campaign to support vaccine distribution.

While they have different motivations, analysts say other governments have joined the Chinese Communist Party in pandemic disinformation campaigns.

“For the past year, we’ve watched China, but also Russia and Iran use a combination of public diplomacy, propaganda and outright disinformation to try to sort of shape narratives around the coronavirus crisis and portray their response to the crisis is superior to that of the United States and other liberal democracies,” said Brandt.



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