Chinese state news outlet Xinhua has introduced a new social media character in an effort to counter criticism of China in English-language media during the coronavirus pandemic. The cartoon character is called Terry-cotta, who explains that using face masks during a pandemic is good, that China isn’t hoarding PPE, and that Americans are very thankful for China’s donations of medical supplies.
The new character appears in an animated video that’s made to look like a Periscope livestream, complete with comments by viewers and little hearts fluttering to denote approval of the message being conveyed. The name Terry-cotta is a play on the Chinese terracotta warrior sculptures that date from the third century BCE.
“I don’t like masks either, but you know, with the virus out there, we better be cautious,” Terry-cotta says in a new YouTube video responding to an imaginary comment about masks being “stupid.”
Another segment of the new video shows Terry-cotta addressing complaints that masks which have been shipped out of China in recent months were defective, a huge scandal in Spain, which has been particularly hard hit during the pandemic, with over 236,000 covid-19 infections and more than 27,000 deaths.
“Hola from Spain,” the imaginary Periscope comment reads. “Some of our hospitals complain your exported masks of poor quality. They could not protect medicos.”
Terry-cotta sets the record straight, from the Chinese government’s perspective, insisting that the masks were never intended to be N95 quality. Instead, Terry-cotta insists, those masks were lower quality for everyday use on the street and shouldn’t have been ordered by a hospital.
“Actually, what masks this company exported to Spain were masks for daily protection,” Terry-cotta says. “They are not up to the protective level of surgical masks, not to mention N95. Cases like this also happened in the Netherlands. Doctors and nurses, please ask your admin guys to get you the right kind of masks.”
In reality, it’s not just the Netherlands and Spain which have complained of faulty masks from China. Finland, India, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Canada have also imported faulty masks from Chinese distributors. Many of the faulty masks were supposedly N95 quality, according to Canadian news outlets, and China’s medical device regulators have reportedly cracked down on exports of faulty PPE.
Terry-cotta also addresses questions about the “hoarding” of PPE, which the cartoon character denies by pointing out how much China is exporting at the moment. Terry-cotta also urges people who say tests kits made in China are faulty to “please follow instructions,” suggesting that medical professionals in other countries don’t know what they’re doing.
A fictional Periscope commenter called “GunGene” writes, “don’t buy anything from Terry. There are viruses on his stuff.” The comment echoes xenophobic and racist sentiments in many western countries against people of Asian descent. The name GunGene is clearly a nod to lax U.S. policies on firearms.
“You can say whatever you like,” Terry-cotta responds to GunGene, chuckling. “You’re welcome to stay away from our masks. Like going out into a crowd, and stay away from our ventilators if you’re hospitalized.”
The video ends with an imaginary commenter from Oregon thanking China for a donation of medical supplies. The comment is based on the actual donation of 50,000 masks from Fujian Province to the state of Oregon last month.
“Terry, I’m here to thank you for your donation of masks,” says Andrew in a Periscope-like comment. “I am from Oregon State Emergency Management Office. We received a batch of masks donated by Fujian Province and gave them to people fighting against COVID19 across the state.”
“Well, thank you, Andrew. Good to know that our donations helped,” Terry-cotta says. “Please, do take care there, buddy.”
The governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, tweeted about the donation on April 28, thanking “Oregon’s sister state in China,” insisting that the state would “pay it forward” in the future.
Notably, YouTube is banned in China, so the audience for this video is the English-speaking world, with a clear emphasis on the United States. The animation is just one of many new videos released by Chinese state media over the past few months that seeks to change the narrative about China’s role in the pandemic. American politicians like President Donald Trump have insisted that China should be punished for the pandemic under the theory that it didn’t do enough to stop the outbreak which originated in Wuhan.
The effort by Chinese state media is clearly an attempt to sway American opinion and ironically takes a page out of the American playbook of exerting soft power through popular media channels. In the 20th century, the U.S. dominated the world as much through popular media like movies and TV as it did through physical force and guns — though there was plenty of the latter, to be sure.
Now it appears to be China’s turn to exert that same soft power in the 21st century, using new tools like YouTube, Facebook, and Periscope to get its message out during the New Cold War, even if those same platforms are banned in China. Terry-cotta may or may not take off as a popular media figure, but the idea behind Terry-cotta is going to be with us for a long time.