China Sways Global Discussion on WHO Report Findings with Preemptive Narratives
In January 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) sent an investigation team to Wuhan, China to determine the likely origins of COVID-19. The investigation came on the heels of rampant rumors accusing China of causing the pandemic due to human error at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Weeks prior to the release of the final WHO report on March 30, Chinese media claimed that the investigation “smashed the conspiracy theory”. Well before the public had seen the full report, Chinese media outlets promoted and cherry-picked the results that aligned with Beijing’s interests. Content supporting China’s narrative initially appeared in the Chinese language on Weibo before being posted later on Western social media platforms. China’s state media used its early access to the WHO report and tailored its messaging about the findings in a way that promoted the CCP perspective.
Before leaking the preliminary findings of the WHO report, China promulgated two different narratives in Chinese and English in the early days of the investigation. Chinese-language content exploited a long-running conspiracy that COVID-19 originated in a US military lab and published numerous stories on it to distract Chinese-speaking audiences from the investigation.
Chinese state media further suggested the WHO should conduct similar investigations into Fort Detrick and 200 other US biological laboratories.
The English-language narrative avoided references to the conspiracy about the US military lab but China did suggest the US should permit similar WHO investigations. Chinese media also drew attention to the high level of cooperation and transparency China provided to the WHO research team. Chinese content framed the investigation positively and quoted WHO officials saying “We have very good relationships between the two teams [China and the WHO].”
When the investigation completed its field research in February, China began publishing content that suggested the results definitively proved the natural origin of COVID-19, essentially exonerating the government. Significantly, this content appeared in the Chinese language and on Chinese platforms like Weibo weeks ahead of the report’s official release. The earliest Weibo content identified appeared on February 5, 2021 via People’s Daily and garnered over 145k engagements. The post said the WHO team determined that the virus did not come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A day later, Xinhua News published the story in English and quoted the WHO as saying COVID-19 may have originated elsewhere and the Wuhan lab was the unlikely origin.
From the beginning of the year to the official release of the WHO report on March 30, China published over 1,100 posts about the findings, the vast majority being posted ahead of its publication. Chinese media posted an average of 20 times everyday until the report was released, upon which they published more than 100 posts in a single day. China drove more than 214,000 engagements and achieved an uncommon success with English language audiences. English speakers strongly resonated with China’s portrayal of the report outcome which focused on countering the claims of a biased investigation process.
China’s narrative on the WHO report did not have as great success with other audience segments, but its achievement with English-language audiences cannot be understated. Using its access to the WHO report, China crafted a narrative designed to exonerate itself of potential malfeasance at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. China also seized the opportunity to portray the WHO investigation as transparent and definitive, allowing the CCP to leverage the authority of the international organization in its propaganda. Using its advantageous access to the WHO, China’s narrative effectively reached an audience often at odds with CCP influence operations.