One of the frequent terms used by U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to criticize China is “disinformation.”
“I listen to some of the narrative that flows out of China, some of the disinformation,” Pompeo said in a news conference on July 15.
Before that, the term was used by the United States to describe Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election through social media propaganda. Now it has been picked up by Pompeo to bash China.
From China’s handling of pandemic to the national security legislation for Hong Kong, the U.S. has missed no opportunity to blast China with the disinformation label. What’s strange is that Chinese scholars seldom dig into the meaning of this term. Official statements only respond to it on a case-by-case basis.
There was even a debate in WeChat group discussions among Chinese scholars about how to translate it into Chinese. A simple understanding is to treat it as a noun meaning false information (假信息或虚假信息). Although it’s a noun in English, the author is of the opinion that the whole process of conducting a disinformation campaign should be expressed fully when translating it into Chinese. The author prefers that it denote the operation of conducting a false campaign (信息欺骗行动). Its purpose is to fabricate information intended to mislead public opinion through the systematic delivery of propaganda on social media. Its guiding principle boils down to opposing China on all fronts, no matter what China does.
Taking this understanding as a starting point, it is not difficult to establish the fact that the U.S. has been conducting a systematic disinformation campaign against China at least from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic with the allegation that it was manufactured in a laboratory in Wuhan. This disinformation is easy to discredit since there have been numerous scientific reports on this topic, including by experts in the United States.
More hard evidence of the campaign comes from U.S. intelligence sources. One article published by The Daily Beast, an independent news website, disclosed that the White House was launching a communications plan across multiple federal agencies to accuse Beijing of orchestrating a cover-up and creating the global pandemic. This disinformation guideline was contained in a cable sent to the State Department and disclosed in U.S. media reports.
One interesting thing is that the talking points appear to have originated with the White House’s National Security Council. One section of the cable reads “NSC Top Lines: [People’s Republic of China] Propaganda and Disinformation on the Wuhan Virus Pandemic.” The overt use of the term “disinformation” in the cable is telling. Given that the NSC is the top security institution in the U.S. executive branch, it is crystal clear that the disinformation campaign is systematic and well organized in a top-down approach.
Other hard evidence is the widely reported 57-page Republican memo orchestrated by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The messaging strategy was that Republican candidates should blame China for the COVID-19 pandemic and insist that the term “Chinese virus” isn’t racist.
The organization and planning of the U.S. disinformation campaign are reflected as well in a series of Trump administration broadsides against China — a virtual daily occurrence, with speeches on China given by cabinet-level officials from Pompeo to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray. The Trump administration is transparent to some extent, as it has released those speeches well in advance.
There is barely any evidence, if any at all, for the U.S. accusations against China. Neither with the origin of coronavirus nor the supposed Huawei 5G national security threat has the U.S. provided any evidence. In the latest manipulated image of the “slave labor” scandal, the U.S. embassy and consulates in China have drawn a major backlash from netizens.
Yet, the lack of evidence does not prevent many in the West from believing the U.S. disinformation. The targets share the ideology and values of democracy, so any stories told by the U.S. are easily accepted, even though they are lies.
For the same reason, the West also has more tolerance toward the U.S. When the U.S. embassy in China was fabricating its slave labor story, the UN Human Rights Council was reviewing Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard’s new report on armed drones and targeted killings, which clearly showed that the U.S. had violated the UN Charter and other international law by its assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. But the international community, willingly or not, stands largely silent.
“It is hard to imagine that a similar strike against a Western military leader would not be considered an act of war,” Callamard said — not to mention that the same tolerance also applies to the U.S. withdrawal from numerous multilateral UN treaties.
Finally, most people think the disinformation campaign is only a PR tactic and applies mainly in the communication field. The author holds that this approach is integrated into all US confrontations against China at all levels, be it the trade war or the South China Sea.
Take the U.S. change of neutrality in its South China Sea policy, for instance. None of the so-called misdeeds allegedly perpetrated by China are new flashpoints in the South China Sea. All the incidents reflect century-old differences and disputes between China and its maritime neighbors. However, the White House’s new policy paper hypes up tensions for the purpose of building up the false perception that China is aggressive and threatening. Such allegations only end up jeopardizing the peaceful environment that China needs in its development and do not change in any way the geopolitical status quo of the South China Sea.
The U.S. disinformation campaign may slow China’s development and to some extent break up its strategic window of opportunity. However, the American people are not immune from damage. Whatever security threat it attributes to China, the biggest enemy for the American people is now the pandemic. The more resources and energy the Trump administration puts into containing China, the less it has for taking care of the American people, who are in desperate need of help. The pandemic is far from over.
The same applies to the peoples of Asian countries. Regardless how the U.S. describes China in its disinformation campaign, it remains a fact that China is the first country whose rise is not built on colonialism, slavery or genocide, but rather on hard work, good economics and effective governance. Unlike the U.S., which seems to be at constant war, China has not fired a single bullet since its last spat with Vietnam. The more a state believes in U.S. disinformation and follows the U.S. lead in trying to contain China, the less opportunity it has to develop itself.
Captain (Retired) Tian Shichen, a senior research fellow, is Vice-President of the Grandview Institution and Director of the Centre for International Law of Military Operations in Beijing. He is also a China Forum Expert.