As the battle against the novel coronavirus intensifies, conspiracy theories and ignorance have flourished as fake news and bogus claims spread by those with malicious intent or out of sheer lack of judgment are lapped up by a gullible public.
One of the latest such theories that has resurfaced almost two years after it was originally debunked is that the Chinese government has supposedly opened “police stations” in South Africa. The number of police stations varies, depending on who you choose to believe.
Some of the latest theories to surface include that: “China opened 13 police stations in SA to ensure the Chinese virus do (sic) what it was designed to do (sic)”; “The Chinese send there (sic) police first then the Chinese virus to clean SA for them. Africa is sold to China”; “China has started colonising SA, we have had (sic) of China mall, city, town and more recently Chinese police stations! What the f**k? Yes we need to deal with this”; and “Chinese personel (sic) have been deployed through out Johannesburg police stations recently”.
This sudden outburst of paranoia and alarm stems from a fake Facebook post that surfaced in October 2018 that claims to show the opening of the “14th Chinese police station in South Africa”.
‘No Chinese police stations in SA’
According to French news agency AFP, the Chinese have not opened any police stations in the country, but they have set up 14 Community and Police Cooperation Centres to work with South African police.
A picture accompanying the Facebook post shows police officials from China attending the opening of the 14th centre in Port Elizabeth. The post – from 30 October 2018 – contains a picture from the opening with Eastern Cape police commissioner Lieutenant General Liziwe Ntshinga and uniformed Chinese dignitaries, with a caption saying: “#Chinese are now opening their own Police Stations in South Africa to protect their own people and Businesses. #Ramaphosa and #ANC have sold our country to the highest Bider (sic)”.
In a similar post shared on Twitter by an account with 468 390 followers, four images from the opening are included in the tweet. It states: “Now Chinese are opening their own Police Stations in South Africa, they have already opened 13 & this one was opened yesterday in PE. They even teach police to speak Chinese so that the Chinese people don’t struggle to communicate with them (sic).”
At the time, police spokesperson Colonel Priscilla Naidu told AFP: “These cooperation centres are not police stations and are not manned by South African Police Service [SAPS] staff.
“The SAPS is mandated by the Constitution of this country to serve and protect all citizens in this country and as mandated our powers cannot be conferred upon to any other.”
Local fact-checking website Africa Check similarly debunked the claims in November 2018.
Platform for good relations
Police spokesperson Captain Khaya Tonjeni told Africa Check that the centre was “not a police station”. He said its purpose was to teach the basics of China’s Mandarin language to police officers who work at community service centres in Eastern Cape police stations.
Tonjeni reportedly said the Mandarin learning programme started in 2016, but the centre itself only opened on 28 October 2018, the day the photos of Ntshinga and Chinese Embassy staff were taken.
Jie Zhang, the head of the centre, told Africa Check it was a non-profit organisation working to improve relationships between the police, local communities and Chinese people living in the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality.
“[The centre] is focused on the safety of Chinese nationals and being a platform for good relations with police to assist Chinese nationals because there is a huge language barrier,” he reportedly said.
“In our centre, we have colleagues who work 24/7 who know English and Chinese. It’s also how we can fight against crime and contribute our part for a safer environment here.”
Dr Cobus van Staden, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told Africa Check that a lack of information could make people worried about the presence of people from China in South Africa.
“The sort of large-scale engagement between the Chinese state and large Chinese companies with a large amount of migration to Africa is relatively new. But also, the policing forums themselves have not been as proactive as they could be in terms of communicating with the rest of the country exactly what their work is.”
‘Fuelling hatred between China and SA’
At the time the rumour first surfaced, the Chinese consulate in South Africa reported that it had “stirred up quite aggressive verbal attacks online, fuelling a culture of hatred, and undermining the friendship between the peoples of China and South Africa”.
The consulate said in a 2018 statement that 13 South African-Chinese community and police cooperation centres had been set up since 2004.
“It is important to stress that the status of all these 13 centres are strictly non-profit Chinese associations, and they have no law enforcement authority,” Yu Yong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in South Africa said.
“The main responsibilities of the centres are to participate in the community policing mechanisms led by the SAPS, and to cooperate closely with the SAPS in preventing and combating criminals against Chinese community in South Africa.
“Since their establishment, these centres have actively safeguarded the personal and property safety of local communities, including the Chinese community in South Africa, and have been warmly welcomed and widely supported by both Chinese and South African governments, as well as local communities.
“Anyone with basic common sense and conscience, and certainly not necessarily with a doctor’s degree, would be able to understand that such centres definitely cannot be called ‘Chinese Police Stations’,” Yu said.
“We warmly welcome constructive supervision and criticism of China-South Africa and China-Africa cooperation. However, we sincerely hope that before making public comments, one would get out of one’s office to really see and understand what the Chinese people are doing in South Africa and Africa, and think by oneself whether what the Chinese have been doing is conducive to South Africa and Africa’s self-sustainable development.
“Fabricating fake stories or spreading disinformation and misinformation against China not only discourages China as a sincere friend of Africa, but also does no good to one’s own name and credibility,” Yu added.
Significant spike in fake news
William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, earlier told News24 there had been a significant spike in fake news and conspiracy theories since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Bird said fake messages were in the past predominantly shared on open platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which made it easier to control, but that there has been a predominant shift to WhatsApp, where it is much harder to track or monitor.
“Some people make statements that are just fundamentally misinformed because they haven’t applied their brains or logic, so there is some level of ignorance. But some of them are deliberately seeking to deceive people and instil fear or get people to distrust things.”
Social media lawyer Emma Sadleir said that, as much as we are facing a health epidemic, we are also facing a fake news epidemic.
“Whenever emotions are heightened, it creates a breeding ground for fake news.”
In some cases, these spreaders of fake news seek to profit from it, while others are using it for political gain, particularly when they have a narrative, Sadleir said.
“There are activists out there, it’s the same thing as people setting fires. Some of these people are trying to stir up emotions; in other cases, it’s just sheer stupidity.
“The same people who buy into conspiracy theories are the best breeding ground [for sharing fake news].”
National police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo told News24 on Wednesday that there is “no such thing as a Chinese police station in South Africa”.
“These are just old posts that people have been spreading.”
Jail time for fake news
The South African government has gazetted new laws under the Disaster Management Act to combat the spread of fake news.
Citizens could get a fine or a six-month prison term for spreading fake news about the coronavirus.
Regulation 11(5)(c) of the act classifies fake news as “publishing any statement through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about measures by the government to address Covid-19”.