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Poor Wuhan? How China is Rewriting the COVID-19 Origin Story

Beijing's PR blitz aims to repair the damage to brand China.
by Agence France Presse
Sep 6, 2020
Photo/s: Agence France-Presse

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 PR 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 students with considerable 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, 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."

Continue reading below ↓

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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 suggested on August 28 during a European outreach trip that the virus might not have emerged in China.

The drive indicates China recognizes 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, plus criticism of Beijing's tightening grip on Hong Kong and generally more aggressive international posture.

"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 Kelsey Broderick, Asia analyst with Eurasia Group.

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"That's really the only way China can come out ahead of the idea that a wet market in Wuhan started this crisis."


The fumbling US pandemic response provides a clear opening, said 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 three-day Wuhan tour also included foreign media outlets and ended Saturday.

It featured primary-school students performing traditional Chinese opera and ballet, a renovated food market presented as a model of sanitation, and a Yangtze riverfront cruise underneath a skyline ablaze with towering light displays referencing the virus recovery.

The city of 11 million -- which suffered more than 80 percent 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.

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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.

The growing confidence was displayed at a Wuhan pool party attended by thousands of mask-less people last month that prompted overseas accusations of recklessness after images of the event went viral.

China countered that the party indicated the nation's success in taming the coronavirus.

"What risks can there be?" asked Wuhan factory worker Xie Ailiang while speaking to AFP.

"I think now Wuhan should be absolutely safe."


But not everyone is taking a victory lap.

Many Wuhan citizens express persistent concern over an uneven recovery and fear of new outbreaks.

"The economy has really declined. The benefit of even coming to work is questionable," said Yi Xinhua, 51, who sells tofu from her stall at a Wuhan wet market.

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Blocks of tofu were neatly arranged by shape and size, but there few buyers -- Yi says her sales are only half of the pre-pandemic level.

It's a common complaint in Wuhan, blamed by many business owners on lingering fear of going out in public and the widely expressed belief that millions who fled the city early in the pandemic have still not returned.

Wuhan employers complain online that the exodus has also reduced the local labour pool.

And memories of a subsequent virus cluster in May, which triggered a citywide effort to test millions, remain fresh.

"Everyone is afraid the epidemic will return, you know? The summer is over, and winter is coming," said Yi.

"We've recovered a bit. But if the virus comes back, we'll be hit again."

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