China, which was the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, quickly established itself as a role model for dealing with the crisis by deploying unprecedented humanitarian diplomacy in Europe, distributing masks, sending medical experts, and manufacturing medical equipment. Countries which have been the hardest hit from a healthcare point of view such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and even Serbia, have all received medical equipment made in China in recent weeks. The situation has been similar in Africa where the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has delivered 20,000 tests and 100,000 masks to each of the continent’s 54 countries. Founded by the legendary Jack Ma, the group also opened a one-stop online medical consultation center specializing in Covid-19 which is accessible from anywhere in the world.
Numerous Questions About the Chinese’s Handling of the Covid-19 Crisis Remain
“Is China winning?”, asked The Economist in a special issue published in mid-April. The “Chinese patient” is slowly getting back on his feet, benefiting from a resilient economy, while the United States and Europe are crawling out on their knees after many weeks of fighting Covid-19. According to the latest projections by Oxford Economics, China’s GDP could even grow by 0.8% by the end of 2020.
It’s enough to make you cringe. Several countries, including the United States, France and the United Kingdom, are accusing Beijing of taking advantage of the crisis to strengthen its geopolitical footprint under the guise of medical aid. They point to the government’s lack of transparency, which they believe may have had an impact on the global spread of the virus. “There are obviously things that happened [in China] that we don’t know about,” said Emmanuel Macron in a recent interview with the Financial Times. Another touchy subject is the actual number of Covid-19 deaths which Zhongnanhai (the Chinese government’s headquarters) suddenly adjusted upwards from 3,305 to 4,633 without any explanation as to why. Or what about the censorship that is systematically imposed on anyone in China who questions the authorities’ response to the virus…
Beijing Mobilizes Against the “Lies and Deception Spread by Western Media”
Faced with this barrage of criticism, Xi Jinping’s government retaliated with an offensive strategy combining attacks against the West and all-out influence campaigns.
“China is trying to change the story of its failure at the beginning of the epidemic by blaming the United States,” said Joseph Nye, an American international relations theorist at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, to iD4D. A full-scale information war that stands in stark contrast to “China’s position during the SARS epidemic in 2003,” recalled this former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Clinton. “At that time, Beijing was actively cooperating with the United States and the international community.” Proof that times and power relations have changed.
The Chinese diplomatic network and its ambassadors are on the front line, not hesitating to criticize the “unpreparedness” of Western governments during this health emergency. In early April, Lu Shaye, currently stationed in Paris, announced his intention to “set the record straight” regarding the lies and deception spread by Western media. The former mayor of Wuhan wrote a letter (which can still be read here) which provoked the ire of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stating that he believes “the nursing staff of the nursing homes abandoned their posts overnight and collectively deserted, leaving the residents to dies of hunger and disease.” He was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain.
China Engaged in a “Global Battle of Narratives”
In Beijing, the state media is also involved. Their favorite target? The United States whose “accusations expose their own human rights problems,” said The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s historic publication, accusing Washington of looking for a scapegoat to cover up its own shortcomings. This new Cold War is taking on the appearance of a cartoon parody on social media. This video posted at the end of April on the Chinese embassy’s Twitter account in France is proof positive. With more than 2 million views, it depicts Washington’s alleged stubbornness in criticizing Beijing’s medical efforts.
This New Type of Lobbying is Akin to a “Global Battle of Narratives” and a real political struggle of competing models. China’s objective is to undermine Washington’s credibility in order to assert itself on the international stage as the only responsible power dealing with the crisis. The importance of communication on the Covid-19 crisis is “crucial”, according to an article in the Beijing magazine Caixin said Zhao Qizheng, former head of information for China’s State Council. As far back as March, Beijing was already suggesting that the virus actually originated in the United States. Since then, the Chinese government has been reportedly pressuring Brussels to attempt to soften criticism against it in a report written by the European Union’s European External Action Service.
Wolf Warrior Diplomacy
This anti-American stance taken by China did not, however, first arise with Covid-19. “Even before the virus, Beijing took a tough approach to public relations” said Steven Erlanger, European diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times. “It’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, inspired by ultra-patriotic Chinese films depicting […] the devastating deaths of American-lead foreign mercenaries.”
This Extraordinary Health Crisis could Accelerate the World’s Shift Towards China which many believe to be inevitable given its economic, demographic, and geopolitical importance. However, Joseph Nye refutes this scenario: “I am skeptical of claims that this pandemic will change the world order. China will not benefit and the United States will remain the dominant power.” While acknowledging that the Trump administration’s response—which initially denied the health impact of Covid-19—“damaged its reputation,” he said the United States will retain “undeniable geopolitical advantages over China.” He also specifically cited the strength of American soft power considering that “China is at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to positive influence and only ranked 27th on the latest Soft Power 30 ranking.”
However, 2020 could be a turning point in China’s image. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte did not fail to praise Beijing’s efforts to provide medical equipment during the Covid-19 crisis. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić thanked his “brother” Xi Jinping for his help. He even kissed the Chinese flag which is unprecedented…
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