The Chinese government silenced whistle-blowers, withheld crucial information and played down the threat posed by the new coronavirus, allowing an epidemic that has killed thousands to take hold across the country.
Now the ruling Communist Party, facing a storm of anger from the Chinese public over its missteps, is trying to rehabilitate its image by rebranding itself as the unequivocal leader in the global fight against the virus.
The state-run news media has hailed China’s response to the outbreak as a model for the world, accusing countries like the United States and South Korea of acting sluggishly to contain the spread.
“Some countries slow to respond to virus,” read a recent headline from Global Times, a stridently nationalistic tabloid controlled by the Chinese government.
Online influencers have trumpeted China’s use of Mao-style social controls to achieve containment, using the hash tag, “The Chinese method is the only method that has proved successful.”
Party officials have tried to spin the crisis as a testament to the strength of China’s authoritarian system and its hard-line leader, Xi Jinping, even announcing plans to publish a book in six languages about the outbreak that portrays him as a “major power leader” with “care for the people.”
The attempt to rebrand is a gamble for Mr. Xi and the party.
Mr. Xi, China’s most influential leader since Mao, has made it a priority to expand the country’s economic and military might around the world and to demonstrate that China can play the role of responsible superpower.
The coronavirus outbreak has undermined those global ambitions, and the propaganda push suggests the party might be worried about lasting damage. And as the virus spreads to 56 countries and wreaks havoc on global markets, experts say the campaign could revive concerns about China’s secretive approach to managing the crisis.
“The danger for Xi Jinping is that as the virus spreads globally, the role that China’s system of governance played in delaying a timely response will face growing scrutiny and criticism from the international community,” said Elizabeth C. Economy, a senior fellow and director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The rebranding appears to be “a last-ditch effort by Xi to deflect blame and avoid a demand by the international community for an honest accounting of what actually transpired,” she added.
China is still deep in the throes of a public health crisis, with more than 79,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections and at least 2,700 deaths. Factories in many areas have halted production, and the authorities have imposed lockdown measures across much of the country, beginning in January in the central city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak.
The government is now working to promote the idea that international experts enthusiastically endorse its approach.
A recent story by Xinhua, a state-run news agency, featured experts from several allies of China, including Russia, Cuba and Belarus, lavishing praise on Chinese leaders for showing “openness” and a “highly responsible attitude” in dealing with the outbreak.
Memes have circulated featuring recent praise from a World Health Organization expert for China’s efforts. One shows the expert and a quote from a recent news conference in which he said he would want to be treated in China if he were infected with the virus.
A Twitter post by Xinhua on Thursday asked which part of China’s fight against the epidemic was most impressive. The choices included “spirit of self-sacrifice” and “solidarity among Chinese.”
Eager to highlight the country’s successes, Chinese officials and commentators are encouraging other countries to deploy Beijing’s playbook in fighting the outbreak, including its strict lockdown measures.
“The homework that Chinese people wrote with their blood and sweat is right in front of your very eyes, and you aren’t capable of copying it?” said one post widely circulated on WeChat, a messaging app.
Some in the party are directing their criticism at the United States, a popular foe, accusing American officials of “slandering” China by focusing on the shortcomings in its response. They have argued that the American political system is not capable of dealing effectively with an outbreak.
“China has acted as a responsible big country,” said an article this week in Global Times. “Nonetheless, due to ideological and political prejudice against China, American elites don’t believe China’s moves and experience are reliable and helpful.”
The party has sought to play up themes of patriotism and sacrifice and to reframe the crisis as a heroic battle against the virus with Mr. Xi at the helm. News sites show photos of medical workers stationed at airports, with the word “attack” splashed across the images in bright red letters. Cartoons circulating online depict doctors and security officials marching in step alongside the words, “We will win this battle!”
The authorities have dispatched hundreds of state-sponsored journalists to produce sentimental stories about front-line doctors and nurses. Communist groups have created cartoon mascots meant to stir patriotic feelings.
That approach has often provoked blowback from the public. By trying to reframe the crisis as a vindication of the party’s governance model, propaganda officials appear to be trying out yet another message.
David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, a research program affiliated with the University of Hong Kong, said the party appeared to be in crisis and unsure how to grapple with a relentless outpouring of criticism.
“They really don’t know how to respond to an ongoing event of this magnitude,” he said. “There is a lot of inconsistency. And many efforts to gain control of public opinion only throw these problems into sharp relief.”
Mr. Xi appears eager to reframe the crisis as a triumph for the party and a vindication of his efforts to strengthen its control over everyday life in China.
He told a teleconference meeting of 170,000 party cadres on Sunday that a recent decline in infections “once again demonstrated the notable advantages of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Mr. Xi has proved to be an agile political operator, and he has emerged from other crises relatively unscathed. But with the public still fuming over the outbreak, he is likely to face lingering questions about the party’s credibility and his leadership, experts say.
Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing and a critic of the party, said a propaganda campaign was unlikely to satisfy the public.
“It is difficult to believe that the Chinese Communist Party has played the role of a hero or leader in the so-called coronavirus prevention in the world,” he said.
He added that Mr. Xi would most likely struggle to regain trust.
“This crisis has caused a fatal blow to Xi Jinping’s personal image,” he said. “For a long time to come, the public will continue to doubt him, and this doubt is irreparable.”
Albee Zhang contributed research