The China Syndrome is a 1979 American film about a television reporter and her cameraman who discover safety coverups at a nuclear power plant. The term "China Syndrome" describes the end result of a fictional nuclear meltdown, where the reactor melts through the containment structures and into the underlying earth, "all the way to China."
Fast-forward to 2020 and the world indeed is in a meltdown of a different kind, where the contamination is very real and has come from the other direction – from China to the West in the form of COVID-19, the official name for the disease caused by the Novel Coronavirus, first isolated and identified in China’s Wuhan province in late November last year.
Not that Beijing wants you to think about that, as the Chinese government has marshalled an army of social media propagandists in order to ensure its responsibility is well and truly blurred for what has now become a global pandemic, which at the time of writing has killed almost 150,000 people worldwide.
According to Paul Gardner, a PhD candidate in Chinese Studies and Political Communication at the University of Glasgow, the war to control the narrative over coronavirus started early: “Online, there have been a succession of measures to limit speech the party deems a threat. These include laws that mean the threat of jail for anyone found guilty of spreading “rumours”. In an authoritarian regime, stopping rumours limits people’s ability to raise concerns and potentially discover the truth,” says Gardner in an article for The Conversation.
Reports from the ABC note that China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced assistance to 82 countries, as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the African Union.
Among the countries it is helping are Pakistan, Laos, Thailand, Iran, South Korea, Japan, Cambodia, the Philippines, Egypt, South Africa, Iraq, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Cuba and Chile, as well as the hard-hit European countries like Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Serbia, and others.
But this is just the soft part of the charm offensive – the velvet glove covering the iron fist if you will. As Shadi Hamid writing in The Atlantic last week noted: “…Chinese officials moved to take advantage of the crisis and launch a disinformation campaign claiming that the U.S. Army introduced the virus.”
“Well before the new coronavirus spread across American cities,” writes Hamid, “the Chinese regime was already rather creatively trolling U.S. publications, expelling American journalists, and “weaponizing wokeness” over anything it perceived as critical of China’s role in mishandling the epidemic.
And it’s not just online that the Chinese government is sowing the seeds of doubt over the origins of COVID-19. Across many platforms and formats, it is actively dispelling them.
A new book called A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating COVID-19 in 2020 has received rave reviews in the Chinese media, not least because it was published by the Chinese Central Committee Publicity Department, formerly known as the Propaganda Department, writes James Palmer in Foreign Policy.
The book is set to be translated into English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic, with more languages to follow, he notes.
All this is part of the new war launched by Beijing to deliberately sow conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins, in an attempt say analysts to prevent China’s prestige, influence and of course, power being tarnished both at home and abroad.
Palmer also notes that claims disputing the origins of coronavirus erupted on Chinese social media platforms last week, “where conspiracy-minded sites such as College Daily, already vectors for deeply racist and Islamophobic stories winked at by the propaganda authorities, are pushing the idea that the virus really originated in the United States.”
“Clips from Taiwanese TV and mistranslated captions from American reporting are used to back up the case,” Palmer writes.
Law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Xu Zhangrun, posted this assessment online: “The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance; the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state has thereby been revealed as never before,” according to the New York Times.
Many commentators have said that the film, The China Syndrome, ushered in the beginning of the end of the global nuclear industry, helped along by accidents at nuclear reactors such as Three Mile Island (coming just two weeks after the film’s release) and of course the devastating Chernobyl nuclear disaster a few years later.
Whether the coronavirus pandemic will usher in any serious regional or for that matter, global geopolitical change is unclear as yet, but as Shadi Hamid writes: “After the crisis, whenever after is, the relationship with China cannot and should not go back to normal. Nothing, in any case, will go back to normal after the sheer scale of destruction becomes clear.”
Normal is a term that has now also taken on an almost Brave New World meaning. While one could speculate as to whether the US nuclear industry would have remained unchanged had The China Syndrome not shone a spotlight on it, the question then is will whether the coronavirus pandemic have a similar effect on China and its relationship with the West?
As Paul D. Miller writes in the latest edition of Foreign Policy: “… a global pandemic does not happen every time a novel infectious pathogen emerges…“A global pandemic is not a blind force of nature independent of human agency. It is a failure of governance,” says Miller.
And as Al Jazeera has reported, there will be regional and global implications as the Chinese economy is taking an unprecendeted battering. "After two months of a severe lockdown on people and businesses to curb the spread of the virus, economists fear that China's economy may have shrunk in the first quarter, the first time it has done so since records began."
Although it is way too early to tell what the West’s relationship with China will look like in say 2022, perhaps the last word should go to Robert Kaplan of the Eurasia Group, who told The Guardian that “coronavirus is the historical marker between the first phase of globalisation and the second …. Globalisation 2.0 is about separating the globe into great-power blocs with their own burgeoning militaries and separate supply chains, about the rise of autocracies, and about social and class divides that have engendered nativism and populism …. In sum, it is a story about new and re-emerging global divisions.”
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