The Iranian government's network of foreign militia groups represents its primary regional power projection and national security tool.
Since it began in late December 2019, the coronavirus epidemic, declared a global public health emergency by the World Health Organization, has infected over 80,000 people and claimed nearly 3,000 lives. Revelations about early cover-up attempts by the Chinese authorities have led to public uproar over the ruling Communist Party of China’s response to the crisis. This in turn has fed into growing speculation among foreign observers regarding the epidemic’s potential long-term political impact on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hold on power. The epidemic, with the potential to inflict serious damage on the economy (as countries impose travel restrictions and suspend flights to China and manufacturing sits largely idle) can be understood as a “black swan” event, a type of crisis or risk that the leadership has repeatedly warned the rank and file to be vigilant against over the past few years. Indeed, the leadership has declared the epidemic a national crisis requiring that “all of the party, the military, and the ethnic groups of China stand together.”
The Communist Party has resorted to propaganda as part of its attempt to manage the crisis and minimize negative fallout. This has entailed actively controlling the discourse on conventional and social media platforms as well as promoting its own narrative – “telling well China’s story of fighting the epidemic” and of the Communist Party’s inevitable triumph over it. This dual approach has not solely been applied in the domestic sphere but also has been deployed globally. This has been partially driven by a desire to manage the opinion of foreign audiences, including state responses to the epidemic, as well as to create an echo chamber effect in which supportive foreign discourse can be utilized to reinforce the Communist Party’s domestic propaganda campaign. The reproduction on Chinese media of comments from foreign leaders (including those reportedly by Saudi Arabia’s king and Qatar’s emir following their respective calls with Xi Jinping) expressing their “faith in China’s decisive ability to triumph over the epidemic” and affirming their decision to “resolutely stand together with the Chinese side whatever the circumstances may be,” speak to this point.
أبدعت فتاة يمنية تعيش فى الصين رسما عن مكافحة فيروس كورونا الجديد فى الصين تشجيعا للصين على الانتصار على الفيروس. شرح والدها رسمها على النحو التالي … pic.twitter.com/2ICL2Z3cco
— صحيفة الشعب اليومية أونلاين (@arabic98492130) February 6, 2020
The Gulf Arab states, although major strategic and economic partners of China, with a total trade volume of $162 billion in 2018, have implemented a broad range of measures in response to the epidemic. Kuwait and Bahrain instituted strict entry bans on Chinese citizens and residents (and even vessels originating from countries afflicted by the epidemic in the case of Kuwait). Saudi Arabia, by contrast, imposed travel restrictions on its own citizens and residents while also evacuating a small community of Saudi students from Wuhan in Hubei province. It has also temporarily suspended entry for individuals to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. The United Arab Emirates has refrained from adopting such barriers of entry, perhaps in part due to economic considerations arising from the presence of a sizable Chinese diaspora in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, approaching 250,000 people. Nevertheless, most major Gulf airlines, including Saudia, Oman Air, Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad, have either reduced or suspended flights to the Chinese mainland. Gulf officials have increasingly voiced their concerns over the epidemic’s potential impact on the oil market. Undoubtedly, a sustained deceleration of the Chinese economy will weaken demand for oil and will also harm the Gulf region’s mature and nascent tourist sectors, which rely on Chinese tourists.
In seeking to assuage growing fears and persuade Gulf Arab states to reverse these measures (and pre-empting similar reactions elsewhere), the Communist Party has sought to propagate a unified message to Gulf audiences. Rather than lash out at Gulf states, the message emanating from Chinese diplomats has instead sought to highlight the heroic sacrifices and effective management undertaken by the Chinese government in dealing with this health crisis (in contrast to the coverage presented by Western media). Chen Weiqing, the Chinese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has carried out a relatively effective outreach campaign in that regard. Offering frequent updates on the day-to-day decline of confirmed coronavirus cases in China (outside of Hubei province), the most noticeable feature of his outreach has been to leverage news of the Saudi government’s medical assistance to China into an opportunity to repeatedly showcase the gratefulness of the Chinese people to the kingdom. This won the ambassador widespread recognition from Saudi social media users who also made use of a Chinese-language hashtag (“#我们与中国伟大的人民站在一起”) saying “we stand together with the great Chinese people” to express their support.
Chinese Arabic-language platforms have also played a major role in disseminating the Communist Party’s preferred narrative on the epidemic to Gulf, and more broadly Arab, audiences. The People’s Daily has made extensive use of the Arab diaspora’s presence in China, for example. The outlet frequently posts stories of Arab volunteers going to Wuhan or residents opting to stay in China as a show of faith in the governing system and its capacity to control the epidemic, including videos of children asserting, in Chinese, that they “will not leave due to the disease.” An article by a (self-proclaimed) 25-year Arab resident, published on the People’s Daily, begins by proclaiming “how lucky humanity is that its first line of defense [against the epidemic] is China!” In a repeat of the Communist Party’s talking points, the author praises the central government’s swift actions (ascribing the mistreatment of whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang to local officials) and decries the double standards of the West in spreading unfounded rumors during this time of crisis as it coincides with the U.S.-led trade war against China. More critically, Chinese media outlets have reached out to more than 30 of their Gulf and Arab counterparts (including Saudi Okaz and Al Riyadh as well as the Emirati Sky News Arabia) to coordinate how the epidemic is to be covered.
On the other side of the Gulf, the Iranian authorities – who, like their Gulf Arab counterparts, have imposed travel barriers as they contend with their own serious coronavirus outbreak – have carried out a coherent propaganda campaign aimed at showcasing state and grassroot solidarity with China. At various diplomatic levels, starting from Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, all the way down to Iran’s ambassador to China, Mohammad Keshavarz-Zadeh, the Iranians have generated a consistent and unified message directed at Chinese audiences invoking such phrases of support as “Hang in there, China! Hang on there, Wuhan!” (中国加油! 武汉加油!). In a ceremony during which the Azadi monument in Tehran was lit up in red (with a similar ceremony in Dubai), Chinese Ambassador to Iran Chang Hua declared the “support of the Iranian government and people as an embodiment of two thousand years of traditional friendship.”
The messaging from Iran – far more enthusiastic than that of the Gulf Arab states’ equivalents – suggests that it is utilizing the opportunity presented by the epidemic to convey a narrative of comprehensive political support to China. While symbolic, such narratives offer Iran, itself facing a tense geopolitical standoff with the United States and an increasingly painful sanctions’ regime, the chance to produce much-needed political capital vis-a-vis China. This could be leveraged (or rewarded) at a later stage as the Communist Party “settles scores” (秋后算账) with the international community after the crisis subsides. Interestingly, the coronavirus outbreak in Iran (with top officials being infected), and its subsequent spread to places such as Iraq, Kuwait, and Lebanon, has given fodder for Gulf antagonists of the regime to highlight what they see as its incompetence and criminal mismanagement of the crisis.
At a more popular level in Arabic conventional and social media, the epidemic has generated various narratives, ranging from racist characterizations attributing the outbreak to Chinese eating habits, to accusations that it is a biological attack by the United States to derail China’s rise, to the more widespread claim (though heavily contested by some anti-Islamist authors) that it is an expression of divine punishment linked to the oppression of Muslim minorities (with comparisons made of the detention of millions of people in Hubei from the epidemic with those in Xinjiang). The notion of Islam’s spiritual superiority has been associated with the spread of some of the most absurd fake news stories so far in circulation. These include China’s president making appeals to both global and local Muslim communities “to pray for China” and “ask God to lift the affliction from it” as well as claims that the Chinese authorities are reopening mosques to help in this spiritual mobilization and that “over 20 million Chinese” converted to Islam after realizing that the coronavirus does not infect Muslims. Other ancillary (and equally fantastical) narratives, little to do with China, have also emerged. These include claims that Qatar orchestrated the coronavirus epidemic to derail the implementation of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 to sectarian-driven claims that the epidemic does not infect Shias, or that the origins of the disease are spiritual in nature.
While the epidemic appears to be on the cusp of spreading across the Middle East as well as accelerating the decoupling of major economies, it is being politicized and woven into the agenda-driven narratives of various conflicting actors. Examining these narratives offers insights into the strategic concerns and ideological frameworks of these actors. It is also an apt illustration of the (classical) Maoist reading of politics: Ceaseless struggle underlies all things, including it seems, coverage of an epidemic in the context of the Gulf.
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