China’s Health Silk Road Is a Propaganda Tool

With little fanfare, the National People’s Congress—the annual convening of China’s top legislature and the country’s premier political event—rubber-stamped a $1.4 trillion infrastructure six-year spending plan on May 28, with fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks as its backbone. Undeterred by the devastation that the pandemic has wrought on China and countries globally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has stepped up with full force—by way of its tech champions—with a vision of what a post-pandemic world powered by 5G could look like.

On Jan. 25, as China was still reeling from COVID-19, China Mobile launched 5G base stations to provide the world a high-definition live broadcast of the construction of the Huoshenshan hospitals at the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan. It was an act of deft public diplomacy, as Chinese-state media platforms such as People’s Daily telegraphed the content overseas. The livestream garnered more than 490 million views online, as many marveled at the hospital almost completely built in just 10 days.

Huoshenshan hospital staff then used 5G networks to connect front-line health care workers and patients to medical experts in Beijing’s remote consultation platforms, while 5G-enabled robots took patients’ vitals to minimize human contact. Beyond the walls of the hospital, an army of hundreds of driverless vehicles sanitized the streets of Wuhan. Meanwhile, 5G-powered drones dispatched face masks in Beijing. While it is unclear the extent to which these technologies actually aided the government’s response to the crisis, the resulting visuals were compelling and bolstered a narrative of Chinese technological leadership.

Dominating global 5G networks is a long-standing pillar of the CCP’s technological ambitions, made all the more urgent as the party seeks off-ramps from the economic stumble caused by the pandemic. On March 4, the Politburo’s Standing Committee called for “accelerating the construction of new infrastructure such as 5G networks and data centers.” Again, on May 22, at the opening of the 13th National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang emphasized the need to step up “develop[ing] next-generation information networks and expand 5G applications.”

COVID-19 is no doubt a test of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ironclad authority. But it has also emerged as a golden opportunity for the CCP to leverage critical emerging technologies to tout its superiority to Western models of governance and to advance its narrative of total control.

The Chinese government is pushing this narrative globally in a concerted and well-resourced fashion, drawing in China’s tech champions to do its bidding in countries around the world. While the United States initially floundered in its efforts to contain the virus’s spread and distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to medical professionals, Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma donated 500,000 coronavirus testing kits and 1 million masks to the United States, documenting evidence of the massive shipment in a tweet captioned “All the best to our friends in America.”

Meanwhile, Huawei—which seeks to dominate 5G…

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