Chinese state media is strictly centralized and state pressure on journalists has been a constant theme throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The government seems to be upholding its efforts to maintain control over the narrative and avoid being blamed. China Daily, the Communist Party’s organ, broke the news of the pneumonia-like virus in Wuhan on January 17. As the health crisis intensified, Chinese state media outlets like CCTV, Xinhua News Agency, and China Daily, closely tracked the number of confirmed cases and fatalities, followed the government lockdown of cities and swift construction of makeshift hospitals, and recorded the government’s dispatch of military medics. State media outlets also published “positive energy” stories, detailing the heroism of doctors and nurses, generous donations from various channels such as foreign governments, big-name companies, and civil societies, as well as the support and solidarity from foreign countries, organizations, and individuals.
Once it appeared that progress had been made in containing the virus’ spread, Chinese media began highlighting the success of central leadership and China’s institutional strength in fighting against the unprecedented crisis. Simultaneously, it refuted criticism about the government’s strict quarantine measures and its lack of transparency in epidemic control. Chinese media outlets also directly addressed the global wave of xenophobia and racial prejudice against Chinese people that occurred alongside the virus’ outbreak. In this time of uncertainty, Xinhua ran a series of “Rumor Buster” stories to dispel conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
Chinese state media’s coverage about U.S. handling of the crisis rose sharply in early March as America overtook China to become the new epicenter of the virus. The three state media outlets mainly focused on the number of rising casualties, individual states’ social distancing measures, the plunge of financial markets, monetary policy responses, and the massive fiscal stimulus aiming to contain a looming recession.
Chinese state media also ran commentaries highlighting the U.S. “mishandling” of the pandemic. They cited the White House’s failure to act quickly and decisively as a reason for the major human loss and suffering throughout the United States. In addition, President Trump’s calling the pandemic “a Chinese virus” is portrayed in the media as a “blame game” ultimately detrimental to global cooperation fighting against the pandemic.
Lei Zhu is a master’s student studying international affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in Economic and Political Development.