Pandemic Ploys: April 29, 2022

Understanding authoritarian manipulation & democratic responses amid COVID-19. A newsletter from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. If you enjoy this newsletter, forward to a friend or share on social media so others can subscribe.
  • The global distribution of Russia and China’s vaccines is shrinking, partly a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, in China’s case, also a growing vaccine supply from competing COVAX and non-COVAX initiatives.
  • Global Voices published a research initiative aimed at digital authoritarianism, amid the development of COVID-19 surveillance tech over the past two years.
  • The President of Sri Lanka enacted a state of COVID-related emergency and curfew, although critics say the act is meant to curb protest and popular dissent.


Image Credit: MyNewImages/Shutterstock

The Shanghai Lockdown, Freedom of Expression, and Propaganda

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant in Shanghai has prompted officials to impose a strict lockdown over the city’s 25 million residents. Weeks into the ordeal, many residents are struggling to access foodmedicine, and healthcare, prompting unrest and pushback. These draconian lockdown measures have compelled the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to intensify its propaganda efforts to justify and uphold the PRC’s Zero-Covid public health policy, worsening the threat to freedom of expression. Yet, pushback against the policy has reverberated around and beyond China.

The lockdown in Shanghai—now potentially impacting Beijing as well—was enacted under the auspices of China’s Zero-Covid policy. Since 2020, the PRC has aimed to keep coronavirus cases to an absolute minimum through mass lockdowns, forced quarantines, and extensive testing—despite many other countries phasing out COVID-19 prevention measures. Yet, even as the crisis in Shanghai reveals the vulnerabilities of the Zero-Covid policy, the CCP and state-linked media outlets view this strategy as a facet of Xi Jinping’s legacy and legitimacy and thus advocate for its continuation.

Since the pandemic’s outset, the CCP has sought to amplify positive narratives about the PRC’s health response to bolster domestic and global perceptions of the party’s competency, strength, and legitimacy. The party’s messaging surrounding Zero COVID is no exception. According to The Atlantic contributor and Atlantic Council nonresident senior fellow Michael Shuman living in Beijing, PRC officials have pointed to the country’s relatively low coronavirus transmission over the last two years as proof of the allegedly “…incontrovertible evidence of [their] system’s superiority.” As such, the Zero-COVID policy served as an effective propaganda tool, comparable to the PRC’s messaging surrounding the international distribution of masks and vaccines.

Despite the ongoing amplification of propaganda surrounding Zero-COVID, as well as the intimidation and censorship of those challenging the current policy, dissenting voices have managed to break through in the digital sphere. Videos of Shanghai residents suffering under and pushing back against severe lockdown restrictions have circulated on social media and gone viral on PRC social platforms. Footage of egregious measures by health officials have spread widely on platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, such as a video from early April of a health official killing a pet dog whose owner had tested positive for COVID-19.

The situation in Shanghai has exposed vulnerabilities in the PRC’s efforts to suppress dissent. Shanghai’s residents’ highly publicized outrage and suffering has not gone unnoticed by PRC officials. In fact, while messaging from the CCP and state-linked entities continues to extol the virtues of Zero-Covid, local officials eventually loosened restrictions around lockdownstransportation of food, and the separation of parents and children who test positive (a highly contentious policy). Some Beijing officials have even voiced tacit support for policies based on coexisting with the coronavirus. Despite the CCP’s censorship efforts and amplification of support through its propaganda system, voices of dissent can still break through.

– Ariane Gottlieb, Program Assistant, International Forum for Democratic Studies


Russian Social Media Promotion of Sputnik V in Latin America (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Latin America is one of the largest recipients of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, and subsequently, has been subject to coordinated Russian official social media campaigns. Using Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela as case studies, researchers note that while Moscow’s COVID-19 diplomacy targets global audiences, Spanish-language content about the vaccine is four times greater than its English language content.

From Vaccination to War: Slovak Disinformation Outlets Quick to Shift the Conversation (Balkan Insight): Several Slovakia-based independent outlets, such as Hlavné Správy, have saturated the information space with COVID-19 related mis- and disinformation and consistently spread pro-Russian narratives. However, since Russia invaded Ukraine, many pages have since shifted their attention to spread mis- and disinformation about the war. Although Hlavné Správy and three other websites have been taken down, these homegrown networks have advanced the Kremlin’s narratives on popular subjects with the goal of undermining trust in democratic institutions and Euro-Atlantic cooperation.


China Was the World’s Biggest COVID-19 Vaccine Exporter. Not Any More (South China Morning Post): As major countries with vaccine stockpiles shift their focus to exporting vaccines to other countries, PRC vaccine shipments have dropped in recent weeks according to data from Airfinity. Brazil and Indonesia, two key buyers of the PRC’s vaccines, have not yet renewed their agreements as other nations diversified their vaccine agreements, and the global COVAX initiative greatly increased its supply of vaccines to low- and middle income countries.

How Russia’s Invasion Shot Down Sputnik V (CFR’s Think Global Health): While Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has already been plagued by a myriad of challenges, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a new set of political, payment, and production obstacles for the vaccine. Since the invasion, sanctions on the Russian Direct Investment Fund (the body in charge of the development and distribution of the Sputnik V), a block of several Russian banks and institutions from the international financial system, and a disrupted supply chain of critical materials have left Sputnik V vulnerable to Putin’s war.


Sri Lanka Suspends Debt Payments as it Struggles to Import Fuel and Food (Washington Post): The pandemic has fueled Sri Lanka’s economic downturn as the virus crippled the country’s tourism industry, and COVID-related restrictions prompted public debt to skyrocket. Last week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency and an island-wide curfew, which some believe were intended to dissuade protestors from gathering in mass demonstrations. The entire cabinet resigned from their posts, further escalating the crisis.


Hungary’s Government Uses Anti-Covid Campaigns for Propaganda (Economist): In the weeks leading up to the widely criticized April 3 election, Hungary’s government sent politically motivated emails from the government’s information center to addresses that registered to receive COVID-19 vaccine updates. The emails touted the government’s posture regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine and falsely portrayed its opponents’ posture and policies.


Introducing The Unfreedom Monitor, a new project of Global Voices Advox (Global Voices): In Global Voices’ newly launched “Unfreedom Monitor,” researchers examined eleven country examples and categorized digital authoritarianism into four main areas: data governance, speech and expression, internet access, and information flow. As surveillance tools intended to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic became more prevalent, some states relied on digital authoritarianism to monitor citizens and consolidate their power.


In the latest post on the International Forum’s Power 3.0 blog entitled “How China is Selling Its Muslim Genocide to the Arab World,” Nick Monaco and Colin Eide analyze how the PRC has brandished favorable narratives related to Xinjiang and its treatment of Uyghurs. Through a network of PRC-affiliated social media influencers and a series of targeted press conferences, the PRC has exerted its influence while shaping the Middle East’s perceptions of its atrocities.


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