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March 26, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

Senators seek stronger anti-propaganda effort
Three Republican senators wrote to President Trump this week urging the White House to create a special task force to counter Beijing’s false claims that the United States was behind the coronavirus pandemic that began in Wuhan, China.

“Now that Covid-19 has spread rapidly around the globe, the [Chinese Communist Party] and its officials have the audacity to spread disingenuous claims that the United States is responsible for this pandemic,” wrote Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Mitt Romney of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida. “This is not simply dishonest, it is dangerous.”

The senators said an interagency task force under the National Security Council is needed to counter what they called a “sinister propaganda campaign” by China. The disinformation is a “despicable exploitation of a global emergency” that threatens to undermine global coordination in responding to the pandemic, they wrote.

“It is for this reason that we request an interagency taskforce within the NSC to counter the malicious propaganda coming from CCP apparatchiks,” the senators wrote in the March 23 letter.

China in recent days has used senior officials, including several ambassadors and a Foreign Ministry spokesman, to assert on social media that the U.S. caused the disease outbreak and that the U.S. Army helped spread it.

NSC Senior Director for Strategic Communications John Ullyot said the administration has already created an interagency group tasked with countering Chinese disinformation on the virus, made up of “a specialized group of expert practitioners from across the administration countering the propaganda and disinformation campaign of the Chinese Communist Party in the wake of the Wuhan pandemic.”

The State Department Global Engagement Center is the government’s main unit engaged in mostly secret efforts to counteract foreign disinformation.

The task force sought by the senators could be authorized under the 2018 Asia Reassurance Initiative Act that authorizes funding of U.S. government efforts to counter China’s strategic influence operations.

In addition to seeking to blame the United States for the virus, which began in the city of Wuhan, Chinese officials covered up the disease outbreak in the early days in December.

“Despite early indications that this was a new virus comparable to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) from 2002, the CCP made concerted efforts to obfuscate and downplay information that would have been critical for the health of their citizens and later the world,” the senators said.

The task force sought by the senators should include officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments, in addition to intelligence agency officials. The unit should produce a white paper on the origins of the virus and subsequent efforts by the Chinese government to conceal the seriousness of the outbreak.

“The Chinese Communist Party is manipulating facts surrounding a global pandemic that originated due to their own incompetence,” the senators said.

“While the rest of the world scrambles to clean up the CCP’s mess, they continue to seek geopolitical advantage and undermine the U.S. at every turn. It is critical that our country fight back against this propaganda and an interagency taskforce under the aegis of the NSC is a distinctive tool to formulate a coordinated, [U.S. governmentwide] response.”

To date, the Trump administration’s efforts to counter Chinese propaganda have been limited to several public statements and a few background briefings.

President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have issued statements critical of China.

However, there has been no public condemnation of China for spreading the false claim that the United States caused the pandemic. Additionally, no administration official has called on China to end the disinformation.

One reason President Trump and senior administration officials have trodden lightly in responding to China’s disinformation campaign on the coronavirus is concern within the White House over the future of the landmark trade deal with China.

Officials fear that in addition to seeking to divert world attention from Beijing’s disastrous mishandling of the virus outbreak, Chinese officials may attempt to use the global pandemic as an excuse to back out of the trade deal.

The phase 1 deal signed in January commits China to buying $200 billion worth of U.S. goods and services over the next two years. The United States, in exchange, has promised to cut tariffs imposed on $120 billion in Chinese products from 15% to 7.5%.

With the global economy severely impacted by the virus and the United States and China still locked in a war of words, the future of the trade deal is uncertain.

China critics say Beijing’s leaders are notorious for backing out of agreements once conditions change.

A former executive for a Fortune 500 company with extensive negotiating experience in China said that for the Chinese, agreements are valid only at the time they are signed. If conditions change after the signing, Chinese negotiators no longer feel obligated to abide by what they regard as outdated terms.

The publishers of three major U.S. newspapers ordered out of China wrote a public appeal to Chinese leaders to allow their news organizations back into the country.

William Lewis, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Fred Ryan, publisher of The Washington Post, and New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger wrote in an open letter to the Chinese government that their reporters are needed to be in China for “probing, accurate, on-the-ground reporting” on the global pandemic and other major issues.

The three publishers said the expulsions are “uniquely damaging and reckless as the world continues the struggle to control this disease, a struggle that will require the free flow of reliable news and information.”

“The media is collateral damage in a diplomatic dispute between the Chinese and U.S. governments, threatening to deprive the world of critical information at a perilous moment,” the three executives added.

China said the expulsions were retaliation for the Trump administration’s restrictions on four Chinese state-run media outlets operating in the United States.

The letter was dismissed by some critics as groveling toward the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which under President Xi Jinping has cracked down on both foreign and domestic news reporting. Mr. Xi has said in recent speeches that all media in China must slavishly support the ruling Communist Party.

China hands who understand the party’s approach to foreign news media say the publishers’ appeal will fall on deaf ears.

A more effective tactic for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post to regain access to China would be to unleash their reporters on the leaders of the Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army, exposing their ill-gotten wealth, foreign bank accounts and other forms of corruption.

That would likely result in Beijing allowing the reporters back into the country where the Chinese government would have more tools to manipulate their coverage.

For example, in the past, foreign news reports exposing sub rosa activities of any senior Chinese leaders resulted in occasional expulsions.

But under Mr. Xi, punitive action has shifted to cracking down on news reporters who focus on the Chinese leader and his family.

Beijing retaliated against The Wall Street Journal by expelling a reporter after an investigative story in July revealed that a cousin of Mr. Xi, Ming Chai, was linked to an organized crime investigation in Australia.

That expulsion affected how some news organizations with bureaus in China approached their reporting on Mr. Xi, amid concerns that any reporting on the president or his family would lead to expulsion.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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