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The U.S.-China battle to control COVID-19 narrative — and blame

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused China of a cover-up during the early days of COVID-19, the latest in the U.S. rhetorical pressure campaign. China has pushed back, launching an information war that included conspiracy theories and highly publicized sales of medical equipment to other countries -- including the U.S. Nick Schifrin reports on the roiling confrontation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of a cover-up during the early days of the outbreak.

    It is the latest in a rhetorical pressure campaign on China throughout this crisis. China has pushed back, launching an information war that has included conspiracy theories and highly publicized sales of medical equipment to other countries, including the United States.

    Nick Schifrin reports on the battle to control the narrative and the blame for COVID-19.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the European epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, the cavalry was Chinese. This is Chinese television showing Chinese doctors and Chinese medical equipment arriving in Lombardy in hard-hit Northern Italy.

  • Fabrizio Sala (through translator):

    The donations from China are what we urgently need, which can save many lives. I thank the Chinese people. Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Chinese government says it has exported more than three billion masks, three million test kits, including to the Philippines.

    Nigeria held a press conference to show off its Chinese aid. And Venezuela showcased its Chinese arrival on state TV on March 28. By that time, China was past its peak, and was trying to help countries in the middle of their peaks, said one of Chinese state television's top international anchors, Zou Yue.

  • Zou Yue:

    It is time to think in the framework of a shared human community.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But shared community didn't mean free. Italy had to buy Chinese equipment, after it had earlier donated supplies to China.

    Spain's prime minister announced publicly the Chinese tests it received were defective. The U.K. admitted Chinese tests it received didn't work. And the U.S. called China's mask diplomacy an effort to mask culpability, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated today.

  • Secretary Mike Pompeo:

    China didn't share all of the information it had. Instead, it covered up how dangerous the disease is. It didn't report sustained human-to-human transmission for a month, until it was in every province inside of China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. accuses China of a pattern of deception beginning in December, when Wuhan's central hospital doctors realized the pneumonia they'd been treating wasn't normal.

  • Yanzhong Huang:

    They shared information with their relatives, their friends. They were asked to shut up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yanzhong Huang is the Council on Foreign Relations' senior fellow for global health.

  • Yanzhong Huan:

    In early January, already, the local government officials knew that some health care workers already got infected. And that was smoking gun evidence suggesting human-to-human transmission.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Ai Fen was the director of emergency medicine. On December the 30th, she told her medical school classmates she'd been treating a new coronavirus with apparent human-to-human transmission.

    But the hospital rebuked her. On December 31, the city government further smothered her alarm, releasing a public notice: "The investigation so far has found no obvious person-to-person transmission."

    And on New Year's Day, the local government ordered early virus samples destroyed and announced that rumors had spread about pneumonia, "causing adverse social impact." They detained the eight doctors whom Dr. Ai had told, including Dr. Li Wenliang, who would later become the symbol of China's crackdown.

    Dr. Ai said she went home terrified, and told her husband: If something goes wrong, you can raise our child.

    Why did local authorities apparently feel like they weren't supposed to share all of the information that they were gathering?

  • Yanzhong Huan:

    I think this has something to do with the political structure. And so, when you have a political structure that is so centralized, you know, that, when the top leader is making all the major decisions, that they essentially deny their local government officials any incentives to make any initiatives.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Wuhan's Mayor Zhou Xianwang admitted he wasn't allowed to speak openly about the outbreak.

  • Mayor Zhou Xianwang (through translator):

    As the local government, I can only release the information when I'm authorized to do so.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Local Chinese governments have been accused of hiding fatality figures before, but, since President Xi Jinping took power, Beijing's grip on local governments has tightened, says Huang.

  • Yanzhong Huan:

    Since 2012, we found that the political power has been rapidly centralized to a level that further suppress or stifle the initiatives taken at the local level.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Li, one of the first medical workers who knew about human-to-human transmission, blew the whistle, warning other doctors about COVID-19.

    And on February 7, after treating COVID-19 patients, Dr. Li died. The outpouring of sympathy and anger at authorities who'd silenced him erupted. Authorities acted quickly.

    Citizen journalists who exposed on social media the slow initial response, including Fang Bin, were arrested. By March the 5th, when a senior official visited Wuhan, residents shouted out their windows — quote — "Everything is fake."

    And then came the disinformation. On March the 12th, China's deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, wrote on Twitter: "It might be U.S. Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan."

    The suggestion was repeated on Chinese TV Arabic.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Do you believe a story that the new coronavirus is made by the USA?

  • Yanzhong Huan:

    After Dr. Li Wenliang's death, you know, there was this strong pressure or demand for meaningful change on the political front.

    And if you look at the outcome of this disinformation effort, it does actually distract the domestic attention from making change on the political front.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It could have been stopped. It could have been stopped pretty easily.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump, who had praised President Xi's and China's response in January, responded to the U.S. Army claim by naming and shaming.

  • Journalist:

    Why do you keep calling this the Chinese virus?

  • President Donald Trump:

    It comes from China. That's why. It comes from China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One week later, President Trump declared a cease-fire and spoke to Xi Jinping. That's when China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chinese media replaced disinformation with deflection.

  • Zou Yue:

    And President Donald Trump and his team were not helpful. Their problem is a lack of serious commitment. And, most unfortunately, he failed to communicate the gravity of the problem to the nation, when he still had time to brace for impact.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the Chinese looking to criticize the U.S., there was ample material.

  • Governor Andrew Cuomo:

    FEMA says, we're sending 400 ventilators. Really? What am I going to do with 400 ventilators, when I need 30,000? You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Both sides blame each other and portray this moment as a fundamental test of fundamentally different governance.

  • Zou Yue:

    When I saw Governor Cuomo of New York begging the federal government to step in to get ventilators, I thought, wow, what a difference different systems can make.

  • Secretary Mike Pompeo:

    What do autocracies do in the face of crisis? They become more aggressive. They deny people their rights. They lie more. In the end, they do enormous harm to the people of their own nation, and put the rest of the world at risk as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior U.S. officials tell "PBS NewsHour" China is blocking some medical supplies the U.S. bought from leaving China.

    And China still refuses to share the original virus from early COVID-19 victims, the very victims whom Dr. Ai Fen and Dr. Li Wenliang were trying to save.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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