From the World Health Organization’s early China-friendly messaging on the virus outbreak to influential papers dismissing the theory that the virus originated in a laboratory, Beijing’s sway over scientific discussions has come under increasing scrutiny during the pandemic. Some observers are also pointing out the communist regime’s footprint in the push for one side of the debate on the science and policy of lockdowns, which have had significant economic ramifications in the West.
“Number one, the [lockdowns in the West] have strengthened [Beijing’s] control over the global supply chain. And number two, [lockdowns] have meant that Beijing’s economy has been growing while other economies around the world—mostly free societies but not only free societies—are shrinking,” U.S. Gen. (Ret.) Robert Spalding said in an interview. Spalding is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of “Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept.”
Ross McKitrick, an economics professor at the University of Guelph, says lockdown policies and other severe restrictions have had a detrimental impact not only on the economy in the West, but also in terms of overall health due to deferred medical procedures and mental health issues.
“China benefited. They had an economic boom as a result of lockdowns here,” McKitrick told The Epoch Times, echoing Spalding’s view. He added that the possibility that Beijing exerted influence on lockdown policy discussions in Western countries is an issue that needs to be examined.
Controlling the Science Community
The Chinese regime’s politicization of science and use of influence over the scientific community has been a recurring theme throughout the pandemic.
Since early in the virus outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been scrutinized for its response to the pandemic and its deference to Beijing.
The UN agency meant to safeguard global public health was criticized for being slow in declaring a pandemic as well as actively advising against imposing restrictions on travellers from China. Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam, a WHO adviser, supported that advice, which was a position championed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has strong ties to Beijing, routinely praised China’s handling of the virus outbreak.
The organization was also quick to give the disease caused by the virus a name, COVID-19, to prevent it from receiving a name referring to its place of origin that would be established in common usage, as often occurs, such as “Wuhan virus” or “China disease”—given that the CCP was eager to quell any linking of the virus to China.
When it came to discussions on the origin of the outbreak, two letters published in influential science journals The Lancet and Nature were instrumental in cementing a natural origin theory as the only viable possibility and denouncing any suggestions of a lab leak as a “conspiracy theory.” It was only recently that the latter theory was destigmatized after some in the scientific community spoke out and U.S. President Joe Biden said neither possibility could be ruled out.
It later came to light that Peter Daszak, the organizer of the letter in The Lancet, has ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which researches coronaviruses. As reported previously by The Epoch Times, both The Lancet letter and the one published in Nature appear to have been part of a co-ordinated effort originating from a February 2020 conference call organized by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whose organization has funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab.
But it wasn’t just that those journals were printing letters saying that the virus had a natural origin—they were also rejecting papers that suggested alternative theories.
Such was the case for a group of scientists known as the Paris Group, who have published letters arguing that a natural origin hasn’t been proved and urging WHO to conduct an independent probe into the origin that would be free of China’s influence. However, The Lancet refused to publish the letter they submitted to the journal in early January 2020, according to Unherd.
Some are pointing out that business ties to China may be a factor for such rejections.
“These journals have significant and growing business interests in China, and hence the most likely explanation is that they don’t want to upset the CCP, so as not to jeopardize their business interests there,” Nikolai Petrovsky, a professor of medicine at Australia’s Flinders University, told The Epoch Times.
Petrovsky himself was one of the early scientists pointing to inconsistencies in claims of a natural origin, but he had trouble having his papers published.
“The risk of CCP retaliation is very real, as Australia saw when its [prime minister] called for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 last year and China almost immediately hit Australia with a range of trade sanctions,” he said.
A spokesperson for Nature said in an email that business implications are not a factor in the journal’s editorial decisions, pointing to a quote by editor-in-chief Dr. Magdalena Skipper: “For COVID-19-related submissions, as with all other submissions, our editors make decisions based solely on whether research meets our criteria for publication–robust original scientific research, of outstanding scientific importance, which reaches a conclusion of interest to a multidisciplinary audience.”
The Lancet didn’t respond to requests for comment. In the past, the publication has said it only considers scientific merit rather than politics as its publishing criteria.
A 2017 report by the Financial Times showed that Springer Nature, a German-based company that owns Nature and other leading scientific journals including Scientific American, had been blocking access to at least 1,000 academic journals in China that mention subjects deemed sensitive by Beijing, such as Taiwan and Tibet.
The UK-based Lancet’s editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, has repeatedly praised China’s handling of the pandemic while criticizing the UK for not imposing stricter lockdown measures.
In an interview with the Chinese state-owned China Central Television in May last year, Horton said the move to lock down Wuhan “was not only the right thing to do, but it also showed other countries how they should respond in the face of such an acute threat.” He added that it was “most unfortunate” that some people were blaming China for causing the pandemic.
Meanwhile, in an interview in June the same year, Horton told New Scientist magazine that countries like the United States, the UK, and Brazil have acted “appallingly” in the face of the pandemic. And in an interview with Aljazeera in January this year, he criticized the UK for not implementing strict lockdowns sooner.
Pointing to a recent study published by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research on the impact of lockdowns on mortality, McKitrick says strict restriction measures have had the opposite of the intended impact on health.
The study looked at correlations between “shelter-in-place” policies and death rates in 43 countries and all U.S. states and found that such policies didn’t reduce mortality. To the contrary, some jurisdictions had higher excess deaths. The study suggests it’s possible such policies increased “deaths of despair” due to economic and social isolation effects, including unemployment, increased substance abuse, reduced physical activity, and deferred medical procedures.
“I’m sure [Horton] is not aware of this [study], but for him to take a position that governments should be criticized for not being more strict in their lockdowns, he’s going against the scientific evidence,” McKitrick said.
Horton didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Shaping the Narrative
Spalding says the CCP’s goal is to control the narrative to suit its own interests. In the scientific world, besides business funding and partnerships, this has included injecting numerous articles in scientific journals with made-up data, which muddies the waters and makes it more difficult to have fact-based discussions, he says.
A report by World Education Services found that China far outstripped other countries in the number of retracted papers that were fake peer-reviewed between 2012 and 2016, with 276 papers recalled.
Combined with Beijing’s efforts to prevent—or in some cases delete—publication of studies that are not in its interests, the CCP has been able to influence what people see as the truth, he says. This is exacerbated by the Party’s influence and control over the digital world, he adds.
“It’s really about controlling the narrative, because if you control what people say about things, you control the way they think,” he said.
When it comes to policy and scientific advocacy in favour of lockdowns, Spalding says there are a number of ways that the CCP has amplified those calls.
The regime’s systematic use of social media and influence tactics for favourable media coverage is well-documented in different studies.
“As the pandemic started to spread, Beijing used its media infrastructure globally to seed positive narratives about China in national media, as well as mobilizing more novel tactics such as disinformation,” the International Federation of Journalists said in a report published in May.
“China is coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic with more positive global coverage of its actions and policies than pre-pandemic.”
Spalding says Beijing has used these strategies to promote strict lockdowns for other countries. Tactics include systematic use of social media to boast about China’s draconian pandemic measures, and the boosting of posts on studies with disputed modelling that predict large volumes of deaths in the absence of lockdowns.
“These posts were retweeted and reposted by the 50 Cent Army and other influencers outside of China, and then were picked up by the legacy media that furthered the hype, because that’s part of their business model,” Spalding said. The “50 Cent Army” refers to internet commentators hired by the CCP to manipulate public opinion to its favour. They supposedly get paid 50 Chinese cents for each post.
“The way our society is currently on a 24/7 news cycle, and the way that Silicon Valley’s social media platforms are very easily manipulated for propaganda, they use all of those things to create a hype,” Spalding added.
Atlanta-based researcher and lawyer Michael P. Senger says Beijing has misrepresented its pandemic response by significantly downplaying its case counts and deaths, yet prominent news organizations in the West have lavished praise on the regime’s model.
“By demanding elite publications repeat the Orwellian lie that ‘China controlled the virus,’ the CCP has normalized that lie for Western elites to repeat themselves, exploiting China’s fastidiously managed reputation and the fact that most Westerners do not yet know it as an untrustworthy, totalitarian state,” Senger wrote in the Tablet.
“[Chinese leader] Xi Jinping has frequently stressed global co-operation to fight COVID-19. In turn, the world has started to look more like China. Localities introduced tip lines to report lockdown violations and countries unveiled new fleets of surveillance drones.”
Senger points out that FBI Director Christopher Wray said last year that U.S. officials from federal, state, and municipal governments have said Chinese diplomats are “aggressively urging support” for China’s pandemic response, in one case even asking a state senator to introduce a resolution in praise of China’s handling of the crisis.
The Right Conditions
Spalding notes that conditions brought about by “applied postmodernism” and “neo-Marxist activism” in the West, combined with how Silicon Valley technology giants operate, create a very favourable environment for the CCP to control the narrative and advance its interests.
“The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t necessarily have to do it all. It can take advantage of those things,” he said.
Under these modern trends, Spalding says, the same types of censorship and influence mechanisms used to shape people’s thoughts under totalitarian regimes like that of the CCP emerge in free countries.
“It’s about censorship. It’s about defining who has the right to establish what the truth is, not about the facts. It’s not about the scientific method. It’s about who you are, what race you are—that’s applied postmodernism,” he said.
“And then you blend in the fact that Silicon Valley built this incredible engine for influencing perceptions and using these platforms—not just social media but also consumer-based platforms—to influence the way people think.”
These conditions play right into Beijing’s “unrestricted warfare” model, he says, and it can allow the regime to gain influence and control in the West. This type of war strategy, outlined by two Chinese military colonels in the 1990s, calls for the use of unconventional tactics to accomplish the objectives of war. Under the strategy, war is not just limited to the use of military on battlefields, but the use of all available avenues including financial streams, digital warfare, and covert overseas influence and espionage campaigns.
“The CCP has done a fantastic job of using data and the internet and globalization to get their own interests met,” Spalding said.
“When you take the rise of applied postmodernism in the West, in Western academia, you blend that with the rise and the power of the Silicon Valley companies through their technologies, and you pattern that off of the Chinese Communist Party’s very political way of going to war, then you have a perfect instrument to create global totalitarianism without having had to physically occupy territory, which is what the Soviet Union was faced with.”