Coronavirus: The cheer and jeer

China seeks to flip virus narrative as Wuhan is 'reborn'

A street market in Wuhan teeming with people last week. No new local Covid-19 transmissions have been reported in the Chinese city for months and life has returned to normal.
A street market in Wuhan teeming with people last week. No new local Covid-19 transmissions have been reported in the Chinese city for months and life has returned to normal.PHOTO: REUTERS

WUHAN • China is recasting Wuhan as a heroic coronavirus victim and trying to throw doubt on the pandemic's origin story as it aims to seize the narrative at a time of growing global distrust of Beijing.

The public relations blitz plays out daily in comments by Chinese officials and lavish state media coverage of a "reborn" Wuhan that trumpets China's epidemic-control efforts and economic recovery while the United States struggles.

The drive peaked in the past week as Chinese primary schools welcomed back pupils with much fanfare and Wuhan hosted executives from dozens of multinationals, from Panasonic to Dow and Nokia, on a highly choreographed tour of the central Chinese city.

"There are few places in the world today where you don't need a mask and can gather," a Chinese official, Mr Lin Songtian, told the executives, implying that Wuhan was one of those places. "This testifies to Wuhan's triumph over the virus and that (the city) is back in business."

Lost in this retelling, however, is that a wet market in Wuhan is widely believed to be ground zero for the pandemic.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested on Aug 28 during a European outreach trip that the virus might not have emerged in China.

The drive indicates China recognises Covid-19's damage to its brand and wants to leverage its relatively successful recovery to counter growing international challenges, analysts said.

China faces foreign bitterness over the virus and an initial cover-up attempt by Wuhan officials.

"Beijing wants the narrative to be: we handled it, we can help you handle it and (hopefully) we're the first to have a vaccine that works," said Ms Kelsey Broderick, Asia analyst with Eurasia Group.

The fumbling US pandemic response provides a clear opening, said Ms Yun Jiang, director of Australian National University's China Policy Centre. "The fact that the US is not only not doing enough, but actually doing things that go against American interests, is a big help to China," she said.

The city of 11 million - which suffered more than 80 per cent of China's 4,634 Covid-19 deaths - has come a long way since the pandemic's grim early days, when a suffocating weeks-long lockdown rendered it a ghost town.

 
 
 

No new local transmissions have been reported in months, traffic jams are back, shoppers cram malls, and al fresco diners gobble up the city's signature spicy crayfish dish.

Face masks sag from the neck or are abandoned altogether.

But not everyone is taking a victory lap. Many Wuhan citizens express persistent concern over an uneven recovery and fear of new outbreaks. "Everyone is afraid the epidemic will return, you know? The summer is over, and winter is coming," said Ms Yi Xinhua, 51. "We've recovered a bit. But if the virus comes back, we'll be hit again."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2020, with the headline 'China seeks to flip virus narrative as Wuhan is 'reborn''. Subscribe