The coronavirus pandemic might be an incident of use of a weapon of mass destruction, in which case countries are anxiously standing by as the U.S. and China are locked in a stalemate over accountability and the virus’ origins. “The Origins of COVID-19: An Investigation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” a report released by House Representative Michael McCaul, provoked strong backlash from China’s state media and research institutes.
A Beijing think tank countered the report by releasing its own on Aug. 9, entitled, “America First? The Truth About America’s Fight Against COVID-19.” By mobilizing various forms of media outlets, they sent out a unified message attacking the U.S.
Whether the origin or the truth is fought over, this illustrates that lingering political effects from the pandemic are fermenting. Many gaps remain in the knowledge of the pandemic’s progression. Using China’s discourse and actions during the confrontation over this pandemic as an example, let us observe and analyze the strategy and techniques with which China has employed asymmetric and hybrid warfare.
The idea of countries “originating” terrorism is a new concept and label. In its report, Beijing mocks the U.S. by giving it first place in eight categories, one of which is among countries originating terrorism. Let’s use this to trace the genealogy of this idea. Yizhou Wang, a Chinese scholar of international studies, wrote a book entitled “Origins of Terrorism.” Flipping the title and ascribing the new term to the U.S. is very irreverent, and Americans will surely not be pleased.
Although the term “terrorism” became popular after the 9/11 attacks, in the 1980s the Reagan administration signed the National Security Decision Directive 207: The National Program for Combating Terrorism. The official definition of terrorism originated within the directive’s anti-terrorism strategy. Even earlier, half a century ago in 1938 the League of Nations proposed the idea of state terrorism. As for the term, terrorist “state,” which is not a wording frequently used, the United Nations passed Resolution 159 at the 39th session in 1984, already indicating unacceptable actions of state terrorism. An idea develops in linguistic and cultural contexts and can be established only when it corresponds (perhaps arbitrarily) to the concrete thing it references. Whether the newly coined term “originating terrorism” has any meaning will have to be determined from continued observation of future developments.
According to Beijing’s report, originating terrorism has implications for politics, as well as for the hegemonic competition between the U.S. and China. Repeatedly raised in the report is the accusation that the U.S. has politicized origination and splintered its democracy, letting it fall into disarray. It heavily criticizes American methods that go against common sense and are anti-science; it also calls the American national system incompetent and out of control, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s cruelty and Joe Biden’s weakness. The tone is not without anger toward Trump and disappointment toward Biden. Biden asked the director of national intelligence to investigate the pandemic’s origins; however, the current theory is that tracing and finding clarity has been difficult, as no information or results from the investigation have been released publicly. Beijing’s report repeatedly accuses the House of Representatives of running an investigation directed by the CIA, special agents and intelligence agencies. Beijing’s goal is to present a show of strength in response to the U.S. executive branch’s newly announced formal investigation. With disruptive tactics and preemptive attacks, Beijing wants to control the damage and impact of the investigation’s results when they come out.
Beijing’s report contains a considerable amount of support for people and organizations that are friendly toward China. Naturally, the purpose is to embolden the pro-China camp to continue to oppose the U.S. and to support China. A less obvious purpose is to send a message to those with similar interests, mobilizing attacks and protecting and consolidating online pro-China sentiment. In this way, Beijing wants to continue to influence international organizations, control the right to speech, steer international opinion and exert pressure on the U.S. and its position. Of course, China’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” or aggressive and combative diplomacy, will not be absent in the fight against the pandemic. China’s diplomatic envoys to South Africa and Italy have used the media to transmit its speeches. Even more impressive is China’s wielding of supportive speeches by politicians in developing nations, such as Syria, the Maldives and Pakistan. The ability of China’s unified propaganda to sway opinion and change minds should not be underestimated.
As the two great countries compete, whether the U.S. can withstand an all-out political attack from China and defuse global disputes over perception, information and talent remains unknown. In Taiwan, in addition to relying on ourselves to fight the pandemic, determining how to create resistance to compound warfare and unified propaganda will be a difficult test.
The author is a member of the Taiwan Association of University Professors.