China is a terrible country. A dictatorship, a corrupt one-party state that tramples on Human Rights, where censorship rules and whose Communist Party can hold on to power only by oppressing its own citizens and massive Propaganda from the state media. Anyone who has followed the development of recent years and China’s ever-growing influence on the international stage must gain the impression that the Chinese Regime intends to extend its absolute claim to power to the Rest of the world. The expansion of authoritarian China is a danger for the liberal Western world and thus also for Germany. This or that kind of impression has to be made when reading German media.
If you read German media, then it can only seem logical that the EU recently described China as a “system rival” or US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo openly described China as a “threat” and part of the new axis of evil together with Russia and Iran at NATO meetings. It would be irresponsible, as a Western community of values, not to oppose such a inhuman Regime. But does this assessment of the Chinese government and the Chinese state really correspond to the facts or is the negative image of China the result of disproportionately critical reporting? The media response to the current Corona crisis allows clear conclusions to be drawn here.
As with almost all topics that affect China, the German media landscape is surprisingly United. It does not matter whether you consume the so-called quality media, such as the FAZ, Süddeutsche and Die Zeit, or the public services such as the Tagesschau or the Heute Journal, the coverage differs at best marginally. According to the consensus, China first covered up the corona crisis, then reacted too late and finally tried to make its own mismanagement forgotten through a media-effective overreaction. The Protagonist at the center of the story is the young Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who as a Whistleblower had already tried to warn about the Virus in December before he was silenced by the Chinese authorities. The Communist Party suppressed the truth, otherwise the epidemic could have been prevented. The party is complicit in the crisis, everyone agrees.
Has China covered up the crisis?
A look at the course of events at the beginning of the crisis in China suggests that there should be doubts about this presentation. The actual protagonist of the story is not Dr. Li, but Dr. Zhang, she is not an ophthalmologist, but a respiratory specialist and had already reported the cluster of pneumonia in Wuhan to the authorities on December 27. Three days later, on December 30, the authorities warned hospitals in Wuhan about the outbreak of an unknown lung disease. The news is spreading rapidly via Social Media and is already being taken up for the first time by the American ISID (International Society for Infectious Diseases). That day, Dr. Li warns his friends in a private Social Media group.
Only one day later, on December 31, the authorities of Wuhan address the public directly for the first time, the national news channel CCTV reports on the events several times and China’s government informs the WHO. When Dr. Li is summoned by the police three days later, China is already beginning the regular exchange with the American health authorities.
However, although news of the outbreak was already circulating in the public and the authorities informed both their own population and the international community only one day later, Dr. Li is misleadingly referred to by the media as a “Whistleblower”. Whistleblowers bring secret information to the public against the resistance of the powerful. But neither were the contents that Dr. Li shared with his friends in secret, nor was it his intention to make them public, as his Social media messages show, in which he explicitly asks not to share his information outside the group.
The fact that Dr. Li and 7 other doctors were summoned by the police is not due to the fact that he disclosed sensitive information, but is due to the fact that his Posts warn of a new SARS outbreak. The 2003 SARS epidemic was a traumatic experience for China, thanks in part to a real cover – up by the Chinese authorities. The dissemination of false information on this topic has the Potential to trigger panic reactions and is a misdemeanor under Chinese law. A law that on the German side is most comparable with the legislation for the preservation of public peace. The application of the law to Dr. Li has provoked great criticism in China, especially after his tragic death from the Coronavirus, and has ultimately forced the government to issue a retroactive acquittal. However, this does not change the fact that Dr. Li was cautioned for legal, not political, reasons, or that Dr. Li’s private message had no significant influence either on the ongoing investigation or on the further course of the epidemic.
Experts say the previously unidentified pneumonia in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, which has had 59 confirmed cases, is believed to be a new type of coronavirus. pic.twitter.com/T71c209fQA— People's Daily, China (@PDChina) January 9, 2020
It took 4 days from Dr. Zhang’s report to the WHO notification. Ten days later, China announces that it is a novel Coronavirus and publishes the DNA sequence of the Virus on two Open Access sites. Within two weeks, the international community is informed, the Virus is identified, the DNA data is published and Chinese scientists are in constant contact with international partners. In view of this sequence of events, the German media are forced to acknowledge China’s rapid response, but nevertheless consistently maintain that a cover-up would have taken place. At the same time, Li Wenliang is elevated to the status of an oppressed Whistleblower for writing an insignificant private message. The presentation is factually incorrect and it is questionable that it was distributed by all German media without exception.
Further accusations, such as the criticism that the first Corona cases occurred in China in November but were not officially diagnosed until late December, which could indicate a cover-up, misjudge the reality of medical practice. The symptoms of Corona patients are similar to those of normal pneumonia. A common disease, with a common course of treatment. Not every Patient is automatically tested for a new Virus. Only after there is no therapeutic success with the current treatment, further measures are taken. Furthermore, if one takes into account that in most cases the Virus runs smoothly and the early patients visited different hospitals individually, it becomes clear why only the appearance of a cluster of four patients on the same day led to the initiation of a further examination by the authorities.
Has China reacted too late to the outbreak of the Virus?
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic beyond China’s borders could have been prevented if China had acted in time; here, too, the German media agree. A serious indictment, because they not only impute political failure, but blame the people’s Republic for tens of thousands of victims worldwide. The insinuation seems refuted by a scientific study which concludes that there were already cases of infection in France at least in December.
But should China have reacted faster? The accusation is aimed at the two weeks of relative inactivity between the release of the genome and the Wuhan lockdown on January 23. During this time, the government publishes little about new case numbers and stresses that human-to-human transferability is not proven, major events take place as planned and the wave of Chinese New Year travel begins. It is of course true that an earlier Lockdown would have contained the outbreak. In retrospect, this is a simple conclusion, but it completely ignores the complexity of the situation, in which the extent of the outbreak is unclear, the properties of the novel Virus largely unknown and test materials are insufficiently available.
When Zong Nanshan, China’s leading epidemiologist, confirmed human-to-human transmissibility on January 20, 10 days have passed since the Virus genome was published, a period that the founder and former head of U.S. health authorities in China, Ray Yip, called “not inappropriate.” Three days later, China launches countermeasures. Not a month has passed from Dr. Zhang’s report to the Lockdown.
It is likely that the Chinese government could have reacted more quickly and that time was lost due to the incompetence of the Wuhan authorities. Exactly how much time, however, is speculation. But it is a fact that the Chinese government has reacted to the crisis more quickly than almost any other Nation. There are 571 known infections and 17 deaths nationwide at the time of the lockdown. When comparable consequences are drawn in Germany, four times as many people have already died, in Italy it is more than ten times as many. In historical comparison, the speed of China’s crisis management is unprecedented. Whether AIDS, SARS, MERS or swine flu: in all cases, it took months for the authorities to respond to the outbreak. The complete containment of a disease, which according to current findings is asymptomatic in up to 80% of cases and already occurred out of the country in December, was never realistic. But it seems to be the yardstick by which the German media measure China.
China’s Crisis Management
After the highly critical assessment of China’s initial efforts to overcome the Virus, it is not surprising that the further crisis management is not applauded by the German media. In January and February, China implements the largest quarantine operation in history, dispatches 40,000 medical personnel to Hubei province, establishes two hospitals in 10 days, and switches the economy to emergency medical care.
The Lockdown is less than four days old, as the SZ already declares China’s measures to be simply false and blind activism. Today’s Journal calls them” Martial “and later discredits them as"the means of an authoritarian state”. Only a little later, many European states will introduce comparable quarantine measures. When the WHO praises China for its responsiveness and transparency, it is “a disgrace” for the SZ and the FAZ suspects that the Chinese media put the words in the mouth of the WHO. When China’s measures have an impact and infections fall significantly at the end of February, the credibility of the data is questioned. As China begins to send much-needed aid supplies, often free of charge, to dozens of countries, this is seen as Propaganda and an attempt at political influence. When Hubei opens its doors again, Claus Kleber is convinced that the government is recklessly putting citizens ' health at risk and making the case for a second wave. Almost every contribution to China repeats that there was a cover-up.
It is hard to see from this report that China’s crisis management was not a disaster, but rather one of the world’s lowest per capita rates of infections and deaths. With 85,000 registered cases and 4,600 deaths, China’s results are 50% below those of Germany, a country whose response is considered exemplary by international comparison. China’s efforts are denied a similarly positive conclusion, as China’s figures are simply dismissed as implausible.
A clear tendency
The fact that German media do not report in a completely unbiased way becomes particularly clear when one compares the image they have created of China’s negligent bungling, which made the pandemic possible in the first place, with the opinions of world-renowned experts. In contrast to the German reporting, the Feedback here is overwhelmingly positive. In early January, China received universal praise for deciphering and publishing the virus genome in record time, from institutions like the WHO to senior politicians like the US Secretary of Health, Alex Azar. Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, calls the work of the Chinese colleagues “extremely fast, extremely efficient”. Peter Hotez, professor at the American Baylor College of Medicine and one of the leading experts on coronaviruses, calls China’s rapid publications “a game changer”. From the point of view by Peter Horton, editor-in-chief of the medical journal The Lancet, the world is indebted to Chinese scientists and physicians for their quick, thorough work. Dr. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University, one of the world’s leading epidemiologists, commends the great sense of duty that China shows in its efforts to contain the epidemic.
Michael Ryan, director of the health Emergency program at WHO, calls the countermeasures China is taking at the end of January “extraordinary” and praises China’s great commitment. Published at the end of February report of the 25-member WHO Mission, which included German and American experts, calls China’s countermeasures “arguably the most ambitious and aggressive” in history. For the head of the Mission, Canadian Bruce Aylward, it is clear that hundreds of thousands of people have been spared from the disease due to China’s crisis management. On 19. February published The Lancet published an open letter from 27 leading scientists and physicians, calling the work, responsiveness and transparency of Chinese colleagues “remarkable”. Christian Drosten is one of the authors. Hardly any of these expert opinions are mentioned in German media.
The difference in Corona coverage between China and the US should also raise questions. While in China a systematic cover-up is assumed, the countermeasures are described as “Martial” and the improving case data are subsequently dismissed as implausible, the tone of the US reporting is clearly more patronizing. When the USA, for example, has the world’s largest number of infections and deaths to complain about for the first time at the beginning of April, Claus Kleber assures in the broadcast on 11.04. first of all, New York would already survive the crisis and praises the city for making the impossible possible. The subsequent report first shows mass graves and overcrowded refrigerated trucks, only to reassure that the number of new admissions to the city hospitals would be flattened, which is a reason for hope. The Video shows that the new admissions are over 18,000 people per day-numbers that have never been reached in China. On YouTube, The Post runs under the headline: “confidence: New York holds together.“Such optimism, even under much better Omens, will be sought in vain in the coverage of China, as the FAZ with the summary title “the story of a failure” shows. The title will be released at the end of March at a time when Wuhan has not had any new infections for five days.
The Yellow DANGER
Critical reporting is important. Good journalism must be critical. But if you compare the German coverage of China with the actual events in China, you have to get the impression that the German media is less concerned with a critical analysis of facts than with establishing an image of the enemy. Too simple, too one-sided, too negative is the picture you draw. And this despite our own correspondents on site.
How else can it be explained that the supposed bureaucratic incompetence of the Wuhan authorities, which in the worst case cost two weeks, turns into a systematic cover-up of the Communist Party? How does an unprecedented and apparently successful response to the crisis become a guilty verdict that tries to hold China responsible for tens of thousands of deaths worldwide? Why else is the tragic death of a young doctor hailed as a Symbol of resistance to the Communist Party of which he was a member? Why is it that at the beginning of February, when the course of the crisis is still completely unclear, there is widespread speculation about system failure? Why do facts only play a secondary role when evidence speaks against China?
Even more disturbing than the distorted portrayal of the Corona crisis is the permanent attempt to establish the Cold War narrative of the system contest between China and the Western world. According to the SZ, the Communist Party propagates the superiority of its system and even offers itself as an Alternative to liberal society. Today’s Journal asserts that China wants to use the crisis to prove “that China’s System is better than the free “chaotic” systems of the West.“The FAZ fears that China can use the weakness of its “system rivals” in its favor and gain weight on the world stage. The concern is also evident in Matthias NASS’ unequivocally titled comment “China – a sick System” in Die Zeit. Claus Kleber offers the low point of this hysterical Farce when he equates China’s system with the Virus in the broadcast for the second of February and claims that Xi Jinping wants to “infect the world with the socialism of Chinese coinage”. Is this still journalism or is it already the Propaganda that is so often ridiculed with regard to Chinese state media?
The assumption underlying this narrative that China’s success amounts to a defeat for “the West” is refuted by recent history, in which hardly anyone has benefited so much from China’s economic upswing as the companies of Europe and the United States. The German car industry, of which China is by far the most important market, is a prominent example. The claim that China is interested in converting other states to its political or economic System along the lines of the Americans is an invention unrelated to reality. Here, the media can easily put together a conflict that has no right to exist.
The image that the German media paint of China is an ugly caricature of reality, and the one-dimensional portrayal of the Chinese government as a mendacious Antagonist makes it impossible to realistically assess China’s domestic or geopolitical challenges. This reporting does not clarify, it sways. And anyone who notices the unmistakable agreement not only of the Germans, but of a large number of leading media in the NATO states in all matters concerning China, can easily come to the conclusion that this is politically motivated and should help to build up exactly the enemy image that the US government seems to want.