Leaked Documents Show China Suppressed Information on COVID-19 Outbreak

An aerial view shows the construction site of a new hospital dedicated to treating patients with coronavirus, in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China January 24. (China News Service/via Reuters)

The Chinese government engaged in a massive propaganda campaign to cover up its responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic, according to a New York Times report.

The campaign began in earnest following the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, a physician from Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus was first discovered. Dr. Li had posted warnings about the new disease before police summoned him to the Public Security Bureau where he was forced to sign a letter in which he was accused of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.”

Dr. Li died of the virus on January 30, 2020. His death drew international attention to China’s efforts to suppress information about the disease. In response, China redoubled its efforts to control the spread of information on the coronavirus.

A trove of 5,000 leaked documents, including government directives and internal memos, revealed the government’s efforts to bury the story of Dr. Li’s death.

Directives were issued to news companies not to push stories about Dr. Li, while social media sites were told to remove stories bearing his name from their trending pages. In addition, a legion of online trolls was unleashed to discredit the stories and distract from China’s culpability.

One directive instructed the fake commentators: “As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results.”

The documents were leaked to The New York Times and ProPublica by a group called CCP Unmasked and were independently reviewed by the organizations. CCP stands for the Chinese Communist Party.

In addition to suppressing news and discussion on Dr. Li’s death, the Chinese government sought to control the overall narrative on the coronavirus. Documents show directives against words such as “fatal” and “incurable” to describe the disease and to present a picture of the government having the situation under control.

Before the doctor’s death, the CAC was able to keep negative information about the virus at bay through its many resources, such as bureaucracy, unique technology created by private contractors, persistent monitoring of online news outlets and social media platforms, paid internet trolls who were directed to flood social media with party-line malarkey, and organized security forces ready to silence illegitimate voices, The Times reported.

It isn’t clear whether a free flow of information from China would have halted the outbreak from turning into today’s global pandemic.