Media Warfare & the Coronavirus
There will be much cause for happiness next month when China ushers in the Year of the Ox at its Spring Festival/New Year celebration. China reported a record trade surplus of US $75 billion in November, fueled by a 21 percent surge in exports compared with the same period last year. Exports to the United States alone jumped 46 percent. Overall manufacturing was up 7 percent in November 2020 compared to 12 months ago. Best of all, from its perspective, China has so far successfully evaded responsibility for the outbreak of Covid-19 and the resulting global pandemic.
In Part I of this blog series, I explained the Three Warfares strategy which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of the People’s Republic of China began advancing in 2003. The year 2021 is year 18 of this strategy. If you haven’t read or listened to Part I, please take about 10 minutes to do so prior to continuing. It is essential, as it helps explain the mindset of President Xi Jinping – General Secretary of the CCP and Chairman of the Central Military Commission — and other top CCP leaders as they first reacted to news from Wuhan about the outbreak of the Coronavirus in December 2019. (https://disinformationcampaigns.com/2020/12/29/china-vs-the-truth-2/)
Part II of the blog post seeks to explore a much more important question, inviting you to think deeply about what the CCP’s leaders have carried out with respect to 2020. Suppose you are on the Standing Committee of the CCP’s Politburo, the nine-member group which runs the CCP and therefore the country. How do you present a story or a series of stories about Covid-19 in a way most favorable to your nation and most harmful to your adversaries?
Recognize that a warfare mindset is needed when examining the CCP’s reaction to, then exploitation of, Covid-19 for national advantage. Here is just one dimension: In the U.S. and most Western nations, medical authorities and scientists took a lead in responding to the pandemic. In China on January 20 – three full weeks after Chinese medical personnel had sounded alarms about Covid-19, — President Xi in a Politboro meeting put China on a “war power” response. Wuhan and all major Chinese cities were placed in quarantine. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took command over the nation’s disease control efforts.
Long-time journalist Richard McGregor, now a senior fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute, wrote this about the CCP’s actions:
“Without the need for any messy, democratic debate about civil rights or so forth, the government was able, virtually overnight, to lock down more than 700 million people in residential detention. It was also able to seal provincial, city, county, and village borders; shut factories while commandeering the entire output of some businesses to supply emergency medical equipment; mobilise military and para-military units; build pop-up hospitals; mandate testing of tens of millions of citizens; and track the movements of residents through mobile phone apps.
The CCP-directed militarization of Covid-19 response meant China focused internally and externally on eliminating the Coronavirus as a threat to its key strategic narrative, to be the world’s leading world power by 2050. This was perhaps best illustrated on what became the globe’s largest conference call on February 23, when 170,000 CCP, military and civilian leaders in China listened in on a speech from President Xi. “The effectiveness of the prevention and control work has once again showed the significant advantages of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics,” he said.
As it gained control of the Coronavirus narrative and actions inside China, what did the CCP do next? It lied, and it used every communications and propaganda tool at its disposal to advance its lies. It spread false information about Covid-19’s origins. It attacked other nations and with specificity assailed the U.S. for questioning China’s pandemic reaction. Next, the CCP claimed other nations had “weak” responses to the pandemic. Finally, it concocted a false story for the world, one in which China was a nation leading the global recovery from Covid-19 rather than one covering up and hiding many crucial details about the Coronavirus. (More about this will be chronicled in Part III.)
Under its long-term strategy, the CCP’s Media Warfare activities have coalesced around three major themes. Disinformation (DI) campaigns are inherent in the advancement of all three. They are:
- Claiming that the Coronavirus originated in places other than China, while obscuring and covering up Covid-19’s true place of origination, Wuhan.
- Criticizing other countries’ response to the Coronavirus, especially that of the U.S.
- Positioning itself as a global leader against the virus.
The CCP’s overall objective has been to gain news dominance (Xinwen Quan) of the Covid-19 story. It hasn’t been successful, but not due to a lack of effort. In one arena – social media – researchers have discovered that the CCP puts out 450 million fake social media accounts each year. More than 2 million people in Beijing alone work for the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). In 2014, Xi Jinping created the CAC to censor the internet in China, to manage internal and external propaganda, and to carry out all other aspects of the CCP’s digital communications policies. The CAC is the most powerful communications organization on planet earth, and it exhibited its vast power in 2020.
- CENSORSHIP AND FALSE CLAIMS
“China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times, in a New York Times interview. “It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale.”
The Times and ProPublica collaborated on an expose of China’s censorship efforts, which was published in late December 2020. The journalists received leaked documents, including more than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos and other files from the central office of the CAC, (based in the eastern city of Hangzhou) for their stories. They also surreptitiously gained access to internal files and computer code from a Chinese company, Urun Big Data Services. A Chinese government-backed business, Urun Big Data Services manufactures software that local governments can utilize to monitor internet discussions and manage armies of online commenters.
One of the CACs first actions was to silence the “Wuhan Eight” in early January 2020. This was a group of citizens who reported the truth about the Coronavirus outbreak in their city to others in China. One of them was Dr. Li Wenliang, who was castigated as a “rumormonger doctor” on Weibo, WeChat and other China-based social media outlets.
Dr. Wenliang and seven others were detained for questioning. Some were imprisoned, and all were “re-educated” for their actions. “After I sent the message, the police found me and made me sign an official letter of criticism,” Dr. Wenliang said (see the photograph). According to a photo of the letter included in Li’s post, the police chastised him on Jan. 3 for “making untrue comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.”
Government censors doubled down once Dr. Wenliang contracted Covid-19 in late January, and then died of it on February 7.CAC “officials got to work suppressing the inconvenient news and reclaiming the narrative, according to confidential directives sent to local propaganda workers and news outlets. They ordered news websites not to issue push notifications alerting readers to his death. They told social platforms to gradually remove his name from trending topics pages. And they activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter, stressing the need for discretion: ‘As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results,’” read one of the CAC directives. 
Below you see “screen shots” of actual orders from the CAC, along with an English translation. OF NOTE: I’ve made attempt through multiple sources to ascertain the whereabouts of the other members of the “Wuhan Eight” following their admonishment and “re-education” last January. No one knows what has happened to them.
CAC control of narratives continued as the Coronavirus outbreak worsened in February. Censors economically rewarded posting commentators for flooding social media sites with distracting chatter. Additionally, CAC and others in the CCP continuously monitored internal social media communications among its citizens and encouraged appropriate comments while taking down content it deemed inappropriate.
The ProPublica/New York Times reporters write that the CAC then intensified its virus-related directives with mandates on what to promote on local news aggregator websites and social media. The orders specified which links should be featured on the home screens of news sites, how many hours they should remain online, and even which headlines should be bold faced. Words such as “incurable” and “fatal” were never to be used. At a time when about half the Chinese nations was under a PLA-enforced lockdown, usage of the word “lockdown” was forbidden. The CAC ordered its censors to emphasize the “vital contributions” of Chinese Communist Party members and the heroism of local medical workers sent to Wuhan in their posts.
As the Coronavirus continued, both the Cyberspace Administration of China and Urun Big Data Services heightened their censorship and control of the internal narrative, even broadening the scope of their activities. Urun-made software that find key words on social media accounts was employed to flag, fine, and punish citizens who spread worries. CAC workers in one county boasted in a report that it has 1,500 “cybersoldiers” monitoring closed groups on WeChat, another popular China social app. In another county, CAC minions conducted a crackdown where 16 people were investigated by police, 14 given warnings, and two were detained.
According to an analysis of computer code and leaked documents from Urun, the company’s products can track online trends, coordinate censorship activity and even manage fake social media accounts for posting comments. According to one account, commenters in the southern city of Guangzhou were paid 25 yuan (the Chinese dollar) for an original post of longer than 400 characters. Flagging a negative comment for deletion earned them 40 cents. Reposts were worth one cent apiece.
Urun also makes a smartphone app that streamlines the CAC’s staffers’ work. They receive tasks within the app, post the requisite comments from their personal social media accounts, then upload a screenshot. The upload serves as proof that the task was completed. Social media platforms commonly used in the West, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, are prohibited internally within China. The nearest equivalents, Weixin and WeChat, which have 1.2 billion active users. Government censors greatly restricted information about the coronavirus outbreak on these platforms in China in early 2020. In addition to removing content it deemed “sensitive,” CAC regularly blocks accounts for discussing issues such as human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region of China and the coronavirus pandemic.
If an account is blocked, follow-up actions usually include a police visit, questioning of the user. “I was shocked and befuddled,” said a Chinese student studying in Australia, whose account was blocked earlier this year for posting comments critical of the government’s handling of the outbreak in Wuhan. “It puts me in a very awkward situation because having your WeChat blocked means telling others you have dissenting political views, which is frowned upon when you are looking for a job.”
For those in China who did not follow the dictates of the CAC and PLA about communicating about the Coronavirus, disappearance and or jail time is the result. On December 28, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison over her social media posts and blogs about the pandemic in Wuhan.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has shown once again it will do whatever it takes to silence those who question the Party’s official line, even regarding crucial public health information,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Zhang’s sentencing. “Because of the CCP’s gross malfeasance, the rest of the world relied heavily on uncensored reports from citizen journalists like Zhang to understand the true situation in Wuhan after the CCP-imposed strict media controls were enforced and a controllable outbreak turned into a deadly global pandemic,” he said. “Her hasty trial, to which foreign observers were denied access, shows how fearful the CCP is of Chinese citizens who speak the truth.”
Eliminating truthful accounts was also critical to another part of the CCP’s overall strategy, blaming others for the Coronavirus. It did this in various ways and with many different communication channels. A main one was to subvert diplomatic channels to propagate baseless conspiracy theories. In March 2020, Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Lijian Zhao claimed at a news briefing and then in a Tweet that “Patient Zero” in the pandemic was an American soldier who participated in the October 2019 World Military Games in Wuhan.
China later stated — with no proof — that the virus emanated from the U.S. Army’s laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md. These lies were part of an external PR/propaganda campaign covering up the true origins of Covid-19’s first patients and initial diagnoses. However, weeks of delays and obfuscation both by Hubei Province officials and the Chinese Communist Party were integral to the overall strategy of deception.
Delay was also a part of the plan. “…China in fact sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information,” according to a June Associated Press story. “Tight controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were to blame, according to dozens of interviews and internal documents.
“Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on Jan. 11,” the story continues. “Even then, China stalled for at least two weeks more on providing WHO with detailed data on patients and cases, according to recordings of internal meetings held by the U.N. health agency through January — all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been dramatically slowed.”
The timeline of the Coronavirus’ outbreak is of critical importance here. Spiegel’s story lists December 20, 2019, as when health care workers identified the first patient in Wuhan with the virus. But the CCP’s diplomatic corps was blaming others – especially the U.S. – in external communications in March 2020. In hindsight, leaked documents and emails prove that China adopted an intensive lockdown and control strategy on/around mid-January, 2020, and then launched its intensive external propaganda and communications campaign shortly after Chairman Xi’s conference call of February 23, 2020.
“Many countries are ‘weaponizing’ information, writes Donald M. Bishop, the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University. “They craft narratives that support authoritarian rule, stoke nationalism to deflect discontent with their own governance, and seek to weaken the United States in several ways …” In hindsight, the CCP strived to do all this, and more, when the Coronavirus struck.
- CRITICAL ATTACKS ON OTHER NATIONS
Edward Lucas, a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, was formerly a senior editor at The Economist. He has covered Central and Eastern European affairs since the mid-1980s. He succinctly summarizes China’s strategy in “collaborating” with other nations:
In an era of geopolitical competition, the West — the U.S.-led countries of the transatlantic alliance and their East Asian allies — lacks a strategy for dealing with its most formidable competitor: the People’s Republic of China (China). But the Chinese Communist Party has a strategy for dealing with the West. It involves a long-term goal of ‘national rejuvenation’ — making China the world’s most powerful country by 2050 — implemented with decisive leadership; a clear-eyed appreciation of Western diplomatic, economic, political, and social weaknesses; and effective means of exploiting them. These tactics, best characterized as ‘sharp power,’ include censorship and manipulation of the information system, cyber operations, divide-and-rule diplomacy, leverage of trade and investment, and propaganda, plus military bluff and intimidation.
The ‘sharp power’ tactic has been in play for years, even before to the onset of Covid-19. In 2015, the CCP seized and jailed Gui Minahi, a Hong Kong book publisher and Chinese-Swede, while he was traveling in Thailand with Swedish diplomats. His alleged crime? He was charged with passing secrets to foreigners, for which he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment by a Chinese court in 2020.
Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat working as a conflict mitigation consultant, and Michael Spavor, a consultant who arranged business travel to North Korea, were imprisoned in China in 2018. Both are still in jail, charged with espionage. It’s believed that that this was done in retaliation for Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhow, Huawei Corp’s chief financial officer. Meng has been indicted in the U.S. for fraud and conspiracy in relation to allegations she lied to an HSBC executive in Hong Kong in August 2013 about Huawei’s control of a subsidiary accused of violating U.S. economic sanctions against Iran. U.S. prosecutors claim HSBC relied on Meng’s assurances to continue handling financial transactions for the Chinese telecommunications giant, placing the bank at risk of loss and prosecution for breaching the sanctions. Meng has been free on bail and lives a normal life in Vancouver, BC, as her extradition proceedings continue.
Gui, Kovrig and Spavor are simply human pawns under control of the CCP. The two Michaels, both Canadian citizens, have now been jailed for more than two years. No evidence has been presented against them. There is no trial date set. Abroad, China’s ministers employ diplomatic and economic pressure in efforts to will their way against its accusers. An example: China’s embassy denounced Italian parliamentarians as “irresponsible” when they invited Hong Kong activist and democracy leader Joshua Wong come to Rome and testify about China’s crackdown in November 2019. Wong is one of 53 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong who were rounded up and arrested in a dawn raid on January 6, 2021. More than 1,000 police officers participated in the mass arrests.
But It was the COVID-19 crisis, however, which revealed the full colors of China’s enmity diplomatic strategy. Beijing’s representatives in France, Sweden, and Venezuela have all issued papers and statements indicating an air of superiority and high-handedness. An unnamed Chinese diplomat posted a statement that included the claim that French nurses had abandoned their patients in nursing homes, leaving them to starve.
The Chinese embassy in Caracas tweeted that Venezuelan officials should “put on a face mask and shut up,” after they had referred to Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus.” The Chinese ambassador was summoned to the Swedish foreign ministry after putting down Sweden, comparing it to a lightweight boxer taking on a heavyweight.
Two nations singled out for intensive attacks from the CCP are the United States and Australia. It is important to note that although Chinese prohibits social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter from operating in its boundaries, its CAC propagandists are adept at creating and using fake social media accounts in Western nations to assail those nations’ leaders. These inauthentic social media accounts are especially active in Western democracies. In mid-March, for example, alarming messages that the Trump administration was about to lockdown the U.S. due to the Coronavirus spread rapidly on social media platforms and via cell phones. “They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” one of the messages warned. The messenger was allegedly a military parent. “He (a soldier) said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared … with dispatch orders.”
These types of messages were so widespread that the National Security Council took to Twitter to announce that they were “FAKE” (all caps theirs). Security officials noted then that Chinese disinformation efforts are more likely to spread through text messages and encrypted phone apps than on social media platforms.
In April, as a result of months of hostile Chinese actions against it (see below) Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Furious Chinese retaliation, which continues to this day, includes “shadow bans,” an informal refusal to import a host of Australian goods, including barley, wine and timber. In June, ships hauling Australian coal across the ocean began to be stranded at several Chinese ports. Today many of these ships are still being prohibited from unloading their coal supplies.
Martin Hála is a sinologist with Charles University in Prague He wrote this for the National Endowment for Democracy:
After almost three decades of global economic integration, it is clear that private enterprise and international trade do not operate according to the same rules in authoritarian states. Instead, illiberal regimes like those in Russia and China use capital as a foreign policy tool and often as a form of strategic corruption to bolster authoritarianism as a globally competitive governance system. Authoritarian corrosive capital typically hides amid layers of larger exchanges with authoritarian regimes, the majority of which may appear legitimate and can have a financial, political, or cultural character. These funds target critical institutions and key individuals in open societies as a way to repurpose them into instruments of foreign interference.
This report from was completed before the Coronavirus outbreak was widespread, but in its next phase of the Media Warfare strategy, Hála’s posit of China’s strategic corruption rings true.
GLOBAL LEADER CORNERS THE WORLD MARKET ON PPE, THEN SEEKS THANKS
A third reason why China delayed acting and reporting on Covid-19 was so it could refine and then implement a strategy designed to enhance its reputation as a global leader. But this one backfired under the microscope of journalists and foreign government scrutiny. Keep in mind that China had placed half its nation in lockdown mode by mid-January 2020, but was still hiding Coronavirus details from the outside world. It was also continuing to let its citizens (including those from Wuhan) to board planes and to travel all over the globe.
The plan was simple: In January, the CCP through its United Work Front Department (UFWD) sent out a global directive to Chinese living outside the country, called the diaspora, to purchase as much personal protective equipment (PPE) as rapidly as possible, and then to ship it to China. Then months later, when the Coronavirus had spread around the world, China would then be in a position to provide masks and other PPE, respirators, and additional life-saving equipment to other nations. Then as other nations struggled against Covid-19, China would recover and return to normal sooner and rebound ahead of the rest of the world.
According to the U.S. State Department, the CCP uses the work of a “United Front” of organizations and constituencies outside of China to co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to its policies and authority. “The CCP’s UFWD is responsible for coordinating domestic and foreign influence operations, through propaganda and manipulation of susceptible audiences and individuals.
“The CCP’s United Front permeates every aspect of its extensive engagements with the international community,” continues a descriptor on the State Dept. website. “It targets the highest levels of Western democracies, creates a permanent class of China lobbyists whose primary job is to sell access to high-level Chinese leaders to corporate America.”
According to an investigative report from Global News Canada, the news website of the Canadian Global Television Network, the CCP deployed its clandestine United Front networks — run out of Chinese consulates in cities from Vancouver to Toronto to New York to Melbourne to Tokyo — to encourage millions of ‘overseas Chinese’ to bulk-buy N95 masks in order to ship ‘back batches of scarce supplies for the motherland.’”
Mexico’s then-ambassador to Beijing, Jorge Guajardo, Mexico, told Global News that by Jan. 23 he had ascertained that Beijing was involved in massive PPE imports. Two months later, the masks which China purchased in January and February were being sold back to Mexico at 20 to 30 times the same price. Both CNN and the Washington Post reported that in April China was selling back PPE at more than 1,000 percent of the prices seen in early January. “This pandemic got complicated because of China’s coverup at the start,” Guajardo explained. “And now it is further complicated by China leaving the world naked with no supply of PPE.”
Similar United Front networks were doing the same “buy immediately and ship to China” activities all over the world. The U.S. Congressional Research Services reported on one such instance in Australia, where several Chinese real estate developers sent more than 82 tons of PPE to China.
In the U.S. and other nations around the world, by March volunteers were making hand-sewn masks for nursing homes and hospitals in an effort help “stop the spread” of the Coronavirus and alleviate a perceived global shortage. But due to the CCP’s actions in January, China had simply used its advance knowledge to corner the market. By April China had sold nearly 4 billion masks to foreign countries.
Then, in a move to position itself as a global leader, China made it appear that some of its newly-acquired PPE stockpile was being used for humanitarian purposes. And as it shipped supplies to other nations, two patterns emerged. China put a priority on providing equipment to nations most supportive of its “Belt and Road” initiative, and some of the PPE was faulty.
Italy was an example. China sent a plane full of medical supplies, including masks and respirators, to Italy. At the same time, it pressured European governments via diplomatic channels to make public expressions of thanks to the Chines government for the supplies. But it wasn’t a donation. “Before the virus hit Europe, Italy sent tons of PPE to China to help China protect its own population,” a U.S. official told the The Spectator, a British-based weekly news magazine. “China then has sent PPE back to Italy, some of it, not even all of it, and charged them for it.”
Spain rejected and returned 50,000 faulty Covid-19 testing kits after purchasing about $519 million worth of PPE supplies, including ventilators, masks and gloves, from China. In the Netherlands, government officials recalled 600,000 made in China masks for failing to meet safety standards.
Speaking in a podcast for the International Forum for Diplomatic Studies, the German Marshall Fund’s Asian Program Senior Fellow, Mereike Ohlberg, characterizes China as an aggressor nation which coerces others in Europe and threatens economic retaliation if it refuses to do the CCP’s bidding. “An increasing number of governments have really had it, (especially) after being inundated with requests to thanks China publicly for (supplying) what turned out to be faulty equipment, faulty PPE,” she says.
Ohlberg frames her analysis of China’s strategies and actions based upon global best interests. She says one cannot be “value neutral” about the CCP, and we need to understand what the Communist Party is striving to achieve. “Other countries can’t have a dialogue about democracy in China, but CCP’s goals is to make the world more accepting of (China and) its authoritarian norms. That’s not in the interest of anyone who’s in the interest of democracy. We should really pay attention it and get a better grip on what’s happening so we are able to counter it.”
After several months of negotiations between the World Health Organization (WHO) and China, In January 2021, the WHO has a 10-person team of medical experts ready to investigate the Coronavirus outbreak there. However, the Chinese government denied team members entry into China on January 6. At the same time, as nations across the globe are struggling against a resurgent wave of the Cornavirus pandemic. Chinese residents in Hubei Province and elsewhere are again subject to lockdown and quarantine.
In Southern China, some cities are experiencing rolling electricity blackouts and a lack of heat. Despite this, CCP authorities still refuse to allow the unloading of ships coming from Australia, cargo holds full of coal, that are docked in ports in China. This will be the launching point for Part III of China versus the Truth.
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 Excellent resource: Bernhard Zand and Veronika Hackenbroch, “A Failed Deception: The Early Days of the Coronavirus Outbreak in Wuhan,” Spiegel International, online, 12 May 2020, https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/a-faileddeception-the-early-days-of-the-coronavirus-outbreak-in-wuhan-a-70effc1e-0200-440f-bb62- 07cda261de11
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 Lucas, Edward, op cit
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 Edward Wong, Matthew Rosenberg, Julian E. Barnes “Chinese Agents helped spread messages that sowed virus panic in U.S., officials say” New York Times, April 22, 2020, updated August 23, 2020
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 International Forum for Diplomatic Studies, Power 3.0 podcast, September 24, 2020, featuring Mereike Ohlberg. Retrieved from https://www.power3point0.org/2020/09/24/china-the-party-and-the-world-a-conversation-with-mareike-ohlberg/
44 Covid: WHO team investigating virus origins denied entry to China, BBC News, Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-55555466
 Nichole Hao, “Following Virus Outbreak, Chinese Villagers Forced to Quarantine in Facilities With No Heating,” Retrieved from https://www.theepochtimes.com/following-virus-outbreak-chinese-villagers-forced-to-quarantine-in-facilities-with-no-heating_3649563.html
Multiple media reports on this. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/05/chinese-cities-go-dark-amid-shortage-of-coal-a-key-australian-export.html