Over the past few years, and most visibly since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the Chinese Party-State has used every available opportunity to signal its aspired-to global status [17
], manage its (national and international) image, and to “gain face” (要面子 yao mianzi
). While these endeavors are directed at different foreign and domestic audiences, it is the latter we address here. While COVID-19 represents a key issue for the CCP both at home and abroad, within the Chinese political system domestic politics generally trumps foreign policy [37
]. Or, in other words, domestic issues, because of their direct link to the CCP’s primary objective, regime survival, take precedence over external ones. Pu offers a convincing argument for how the Chinese government wants to be received by different audiences: “Status signalling behaviours face a multiple audience problem, and for rising powers, the domestic audience is more important than the international audience” [17
]. As the maintenance of domestic political stability is paramount in ensuring the regime’s continued legitimacy, it can be expected that within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic narratives put forth by the Chinese Party-State will take domestic audiences as their primary addressees, as those are ultimately the individuals on which the stability of the political system depends [17
Against this backdrop, the pandemic thus constituted a welcome window of opportunity for conversing with audiences at home. This is reflected in the employment of specific narratives directed at multiple audiences within the country (and, as mentioned, beyond it). The following section presents our main findings. In particular, scrutinizing media outlets’ words brought to the fore three types of CCP narratives that would be constructed in the context of the pandemic. These are: 1) narratives praising Chinese supremacy and effectiveness; 2) nationalistic narratives interwoven with promises of future greatness and lessons from past plights; and, 3) “Othering” narratives giving voice to anti-Western sentiment. By means of structure, we first present the different types of narratives and then subsequently discuss how they evolved or stayed the same over the course of the pandemic.
Praising Chinese Supremacy and Effectiveness
The analysis shows that performance narratives were a key feature of the CCP’s official rhetoric during all three phases of data collection. We operationalize them as any reference made to the tangible performance of the CCP or “China” as a whole, such as economic growth, governance effectiveness, the sound provision of public goods, or successful pandemic management. Interestingly, the use of performance narratives increased over time, culminating in the third phase during the harsh lockdown in Shanghai.4
Narratives based on economic performance were cautionary in the first period of data collection. Central planners seemingly tried to construct a narrative basis for the possibility of a strong downturn in China’s economic growth. They argued that short-term economic losses would not, however, change the country’s future comprehensive rejuvenation. While these performance narratives tried to reassure the populace that the Chinese economy was not going to significantly slow down because of the pandemic, cautionary voices were also raised that if it did then such an outcome would be through no fault of the Chinese government itself.
In the second phase, meanwhile, great pride was taken in the fact that in 2020 China had been the only “major” economy to have experienced positive growth indicators. To compensate for the sense of insecurity around the country’s economic performance at the time, strong focus was put on the government’s pandemic prevention and control measurements, as the following statement shows:
China’s efforts to coordinate pandemic control and economic growth have convinced an increasing number of observers around the globe that [its] strategy best suits its own national conditions and also benefits the whole world.5
This can be interpreted as proving that the CCP leadership sought to frame the Chinese economic model, a combination of central planning and elements of a free-market economy, as the driving force behind this economic recovery. Nevertheless, the role of the Party-State in steering economic development is presented as the decisive factor here, thereby directly connecting China’s strong economy in 2020 with CCP rule. As increasing socioeconomic inequality is oftentimes interpreted as a potential risk to the latter’s continued legitimacy, especially against the backdrop of the country’s socialist history, this indicative of the attempts made to bolster CCP legitimacy on the basis of strong economic performance.
The invoked narrative of China as great power and international role model vis-à-vis its combating of the pandemic would be frequently underscored by reference to the broad praise it has received from various international organizations. Most notable here were the World Health Organization as well as numerous international leaders. This the following quote exemplifies: “The WHO applauded China for its efforts in combating the epidemic[,] saying it is setting a new standard for outbreak response.”6
As already mentioned, performance narratives were most dominant in the third time period examined. This can be interpreted as an attempt by the Chinese leadership to (re)gain legitimacy amid the obvious failure of its “zero-COVID” strategy, the renewed rise in infection rates, and the harsh countermeasures that followed. For instance, the strict lockdown that was imposed in Shanghai in spring 2022—as leading to widespread complaints by local citizens regarding deteriorating living conditions, food scarcity, and feelings of being imprisoned—was frequently framed as “the best option”7
to combat the virus’s Omicron variant. Moreover, the lockdown was also said to help the economy—thus posited as performing excellently in spite of the health crisis. The following statement reveals how the dynamic-zero failures were sought to be mitigated via claims of economic protection:
[C]ontrary to the opinion of some people that dynamic-zero posts a huge impact on the economy, the measure actually protects the economy to the largest extent. According to a preliminary analysis by mathematical-modeling experts, the impact of a dynamic-zero strategy on local GDP is only half of the economic impact of a nondynamic clearing strategy.8
Nationalistic Narratives, Historical Myths, and Future Promises
Both before and since the outbreak of COVID-19, the CCP has remained keen to rebrand the Chinese nation domestically as well as internationally. According to Bader and Hackenesch, the main aim here is to “show Chinese citizens that the CCP’s chosen path is the right one” [2
]. In particular, during the first two examined phases, nationalistic narratives turned out to dominate the official COVID-19 discourse.
Chinese nationalism has two main driving forces behind it. The first is the projection of the country’s great rejuvenation, which entails the reclaiming of China’s lost international status by its rising within the global hierarchy and exerting of its influence—therewith acting as a role model for other states. The second is the negative attitude toward Western imperial powers, which inflicted great pain on China during “the century of humiliation” [27
]. In the context of the pandemic, state media strongly appealed to this nationalism and crafted narratives that entailed related elements such as patriotism, collectivism, or references to China’s greatness. For instance, several snippets from the examined media outlets praised China’s rise within the global hierarchy in the context of its goal of national rejuvenation while at the same time lamenting any perceived blame or criticism directed toward the country’s political system as a direct attack on and insult to the Chinese people.
Typical of the nationalistic narratives of China being a major country now reclaiming its rightful position in the world, as identified in the analyzed media outlets, is the construction of an imagined “international community”9
that always takes its side—thus unanimously supporting and praising its COVID-19 policies and global engagement hereon. For instance, one article in People’s Daily
states that: “It is a consensus among the international community that China’s efforts have effectively contained the spread of the virus to other countries.”10
The narrative usually positions this envisaged “international community” outside of the realm of the West’s influence. It also becomes apparent how a sense of belonging and collectivism is nurtured through this vision of an international community, whereas claiming that the pandemic originated in Wuhan is cast aside as baseless whispers:
Groundless conspiracy theories on the origin of COVID-19 were cooked up by certain Westerners and Western media, as the international community are making concerted efforts to defeat the virus.11
The wording of this narrative suggests that the whole world is looking to China for guidance and to act as a role model in how to defeat this health emergency. The narrative is crafted in such a way as to imply that the posited “international community” mostly adheres to the view that China’s handling of the pandemic is indeed the correct approach here. As one article from People’s Daily
It is generally believed by the international community that Xi [Jinping]’s remarks and the initiatives proposed by China have provided inspiration for the world to shake off the current crisis and charted the way forward for restoring the world after the COVID-19 pandemic.12
is even more specific in its detailing of China’s new place in the “international arena,” going on to then praise the country’s relative power gains vis-à-vis the current global superpower during the pandemic:
China’s weight in the international cooperation arena has been gaining momentum in recent years and has seen faster growth than the [United States] during the term of President Donald Trump.13
Closely related to the construction of this “international community” is the phrase “a shared future for humankind,” which is mentioned most often during the second phase of data collection, when China had most confidence in the success of its methods and how they were being received around the globe. The term has been linked to the Chinese leadership’s overall ambition to create “a new type of international relations.” It equates to efforts to restructure established international norms, based on the argument that the latter were set in motion during a time in which the West and especially the US dominated the global system. In one article from January 2021, People’s Daily
quotes Xi as arguing that the international community needs to stand united and work together—stressing that people should “let multilateralism light our way toward a community with a shared future for mankind.”14
The expression “a shared future for humankind” usually has positive connotations, being reminiscent of the time when China sought, in line with Deng Xiaoping’s proposal, to rise under the radar.
The term “multilateralism,” as used in the above-cited quote, has been incorporated into this narrative of “a shared future of humankind.” This is a more recent rhetorical development and mainly results from the shift toward unilateralism seen in the US under the Trump administration. Linking “multilateralism” to “a shared future for humankind” thus serves here to connect China to global-governance initiatives and signals its cooperative behavior on the world stage. It can also be interpreted as a claim to represent a responsible international power, one that care about others, contrary to US unilateralism. This fits into a larger context in which CCP narratives have in numerous instances sought to reinterpret or reframe codified international norms, such as universal human rights, global governance, or democracy for all. The established link serves, further, to prove to domestic audiences that China is looked up to all around the world, and that the CCP is evidently leading the country in the right direction:
These propositions and initiatives have once again fully demonstrated the Chinese leader’s sincere wish to pursue common health for mankind and secure stability for the world, embodied China’s firm will to join hands with other countries to overcome the current difficulties, and won high praise and positive responses from various parties.15
Hence, as already pointed out by Yeophantong and Shih [32
], Chinese nationalism during the pandemic would primarily be politically engineered as “both a strategic and an emotional response to external accusations that point[ed] to China or Wuhan as the origin of the novel coronavirus.” Nationalistic legitimacy claims are furthermore used to invoke positive emotions among their recipients too. Namely, around China’s rise within the global hierarchy and the praise received from international actors. This narrative is invoked to ascribe China’s “great national rejuvenation” directly to CCP rule.
Besides these positive narratives appealing to nationalism, pride, and visions of future greatness, the COVID-19 pandemic proved also to be an opportunity for the CCP to capitalize on negative sentiment within Chinese society related to the humiliation the country has historically suffered at the hands of Western powers. Of course, the question of who exactly is to blame for the pandemic is not conducive to divulging how the Chinese government instrumentalizes this narrative to foster regime legitimacy. At the same time, the aggressive tone and blame game that the Trump administration upheld vis-à-vis China only contributed to the deepening of nationalistic resentment in the latter [12
]. Interestingly, this narrative also used codified terms to describe the ways in which the West / the US tarnishes China’s national pride. “Scapegoating,” “mudslinging,” “smearing [China],” “blame game,” “blame-shifting,” “slandering,” and “China-bashing” thus all regularly feature.
In the analyzed media outlets, these critiques are often framed as general insults not only to the Chinese political system or the CCP’s pandemic management but also to all Chinese people indeed:
Harboring deep insecurities about their own economic future, some Western countries, represented by the United States, are again accusing China groundlessly in an attempt to shift the blame from mistakes entirely of their own making.16
This rhetoric plays on the negative nationalistic emotions of the Chinese people, serving a dual purpose: Domestically, first, it is used by the CCP to demonstrate proof of the country’s ostensibly ongoing repression by Western powers and to present itself as the voice of the Chinese people in speaking out against such enduring injustice. This is a tactic, second, commonly known as “rally-around-the-flag,” by which a certain authoritative figure incites group hostility against a common enemy, thereby instrumentalizing the collective so as to further the goals of the leader in question and to increase in-group cohesion. It presents the CCP with an opportunity to signal to the Chinese people that it not only was on the right side of the argument, but also that it operates from the moral high ground [13
“Othering” Narratives and Anti-Western Sentiment
The concept of “[‘Otherness’] is about series of complex social practices, sociological questions, and reproduction of social boundaries” [20
]. As Neumann [14
] argues, “the lineation of an ‘in-group’ must necessarily entail its demarcation from a number of ‘out-groups’ and that demarcation is an active and ongoing part of identity formation”. The delineation of social boundaries is therefore not a by-product of the formation of societies, but rather one of its “necessary a priori ingredients.” In the Self-Other nexus, the external Other is constructed as the exact diametric negative opposite of the own positive Self. The attributes connoted hereby serve as a contrast against which normal, central, and correct self-identification are defined. The state-sponsored “Othering” in Chinese media can therefore be regarded as an elite discourse that seeks to influence self-identification processes in the ways most favorable to the type of governance and society preferred by the Chinese Party-State’s elites. Lams argues that Chinese official narratives constantly engage in “categorizing processes that position the actors as antagonists [China and the US] within a victim/aggressor framework, discursive ideological mechanisms of reification, legitimation, dramatization and generalization” [13
]. In the analyzed media reports, we found many “Othering” narratives entailing anti-Western—or more specifically, anti-US—sentiment. These findings strongly support the notion of the US being the single-most significant object of Chinese “Othering” narratives in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This construction of a positive Self and negative Others, as found in the examined media reports, largely reflects the findings of Yang and Chen in their article on globalism and nationalism in Chinese official discourse during COVID-19. They posit, in a similar vein, that this “Othering” helps to reinforce the legitimacy of the CCP at home as well as the international reputation of the PRC under the leadership of Xi [31
“Othering” narratives identified in the analyzed media reports almost exclusively targeted the US and sometimes the so-called West as an extension thereof. This intertwined simultaneously negative positive and negative framing of the respective global powers has a dual purpose: First, this approach can be considered to be rather outward-looking and aimed at strengthening China’s international standing by highlighting the country’s positive contributions to the international community while at the same time discrediting the US. Second, such a framing can be considered as rather inward-looking and directed at domestic audiences too. Accounts of Chinese moral superiority as well as of tangible and intangible victories are contrasted with Western moral decay and failure.18
Chinese self-identification with this sense of superiority is then sought to be directly associated with the CCP’s successful leadership of the nation.
Interestingly, in the COVID-19 context, Chinese “Othering” narratives often seem to be closely intertwined with nationalistic and performance-related ones. When stressing the demonstrated supremacy of the CCP’s reaction to the pandemic, this is often interwoven with nationalistic references to collectivism, solidarity, and a shared destiny of humankind. At the same time, performance narratives often find their reference frame in broader “Othering” narratives that mostly hint at the ostensible failures of an abstract “West”—with the latter either poorly combating the pandemic in general or certainly worse so than the PRC at least. While performance narratives themselves stress China’s evident superiority, “Othering” narratives pick up on that notion and subsequently predict a general decline of Western hegemony and a major global power shift in the country’s favor. Interestingly, in comparison to performance and nationalistic narratives, “Othering” ones appeared less often in the analyzed material. While in the first examined time phase these latter narratives came up frequently, they were only scarcely used during the period of the Shanghai lockdown.
This might be explained by the specific nature of the “Othering” narratives that are often used to depict the (alleged) supremacy over the West—and, in particular, the US. While China’s model of combating the pandemic seemed rather successful initially, this first time period was flanked by “Othering” narratives based on carefully selected examples in which China seemingly objectively triumphed over the West in terms of infection rates, effectiveness of the political system, and the responsiveness of the healthcare sector. The sociopolitical climate around the flare-up of cases that led to the harsh lockdown in Shanghai in spring 2022, in combination with a global trend toward fewer restrictions amid the Omicron wave, did not offer the same fertile ground for such “Othering” narratives.
The analysis shows that the majority of articles with content focused on the US specifically and the West more generally either employed a neutral or openly negative/aggressive rhetoric here. The dissection of the US and its failings within the data corpus focused on two major themes: First, the latter’s political system, as well as “Western culture.” Second, the international role played by the US, constantly depicted as “irresponsible” and “egoistic.” Through the lens of “Othering,” the US is hence lambasted as the diametrical opposite of China. The strong focus on the former’s political system and its international affairs also offers insight into what the CCP’s political priorities are. It seems to be of especially high importance to signal to domestic audiences the superiority of the Chinese political system, as well as the central role “responsible” China plays internationally.
One specific narrative addressed the US’s political system, deeming it “inadequate” based on an individualistic Western culture that hinders the coordinating of coherent and efficient responses in moments of crisis given the required intensity and speed here. Western democracy is also portrayed as having been hijacked by influential and wealthy interest groups and paralyzed by polarization and partisanship, akin to what Zhang Weiwei has called Western “vetocracy” [35
]. Western politicians are further depicted as “immoral” given the nature of their pandemic responses. While China is presented as having put “people’s lives first,”19
Western politicians are said to have disregarded public safety in favor of individual freedoms and willfully caused the death of their citizens:
This also fully showed that some US politicians ignored public safety and lives, go against science, and are obsessed with making propaganda about conspiracies and spreading “the political virus.”20
Another frequently recurring narrative would be one depicting the US as an irresponsible player within the international community. Examples such as its withdrawal from international treaties, for example the Paris Agreement, were hence brought up to illustrate this declining role of the US within the global system. A very illustrative example in this regard is the following quote by Xi:
Flouting rules and laws, treading the path of unilateralism and bullying, and withdrawing from international organizations and agreements, [this runs] counter to the will of the general public and trample on the legitimate rights and dignity of all nations.21
In a similar way, narratives about vaccine politics were constructed for the purpose of “Othering” the US and asserting Chinese supremacy. For instance, it was mentioned a number of times that “China walks the talk on COVID-19 vaccine sharing.”22
In turn, the way the US handles the distribution of vaccines is interpreted as an example of the country’s “immoral” nature, of the alleged politicization of COVID-19 vaccines, and of their ostensible misuse as a means of political bargaining. For instance, one article from Global Times
remarks that: “The US seems to be deliberately distributing vaccines to reshape the attitude of Western countries and the world, trying to restore the so-called leadership it lost in the fight.”23