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As Its Coronavirus Outbreak Abates, China Is Trying out a New Look. Is It Working?

A ChinaFile Conversation

As the coronavirus spreads globally, China’s government is working aggressively to change its international image. In the span of just a few weeks, China has gone from the embattled epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic to presenting the country as an experienced, charitable international player seeking to stem a worldwide pandemic. China has shipped medical supplies to Italy; one of its richest citizens, Jack Ma, offered to donate testing kits and face masks to the United States. China’s ambassador to the U.N. has written two letters to U.N. member states since the onset of the crisis, the latter one, from March 3, framing China as a key player in stemming the virus’ transmission. There is a darker side to this effort, however, perhaps best exemplified by Chinese diplomats amplifying conspiracy theories that suggest the virus originated in the United States, a tilt in China’s posture toward the U.S. made more stark when its Foreign Ministry announced the expulsions of American journalists from three leading U.S. newspapers.

How will these efforts affect international opinion? How is the outbreak and China’s response to it shaping the country’s standing on the global stage? —The Editors

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It’s entirely unsurprising that the Chinese government would seek to shift attention from the origins of the virus or the cover-up that gave it a head start, and instead build a narrative extolling first its decisive containment actions at home and second its altruistic beneficence abroad. Rumblings of anti-Chinese sentiment from Southeast Asia to Africa in response to the outbreak suggest this may be an uphill battle.

Generally speaking, the Communist Party’s airbrushing of history works somewhat better at home than it does internationally, but Beijing is certainly giving it the old Leninist try. That effort will be facilitated to some degree by at least two factors. First is the increasingly apparent inability of numerous Western countries to contain or cope with the spreading pandemic. Five of the G-7 nations are already among the world’s top 10 infected countries, with Italy registering 10 times more COVID-19 infections than China as a percentage of population. This bolsters the Party’s story line about its superiority over democratic systems. Second is the Trump administration’s spectacular disarray and lack of preparation, which makes Beijing’s performance appear less egregious in comparison.

Yet, public diplomacy “with Chinese characteristics” suffers from some chronic weaknesses. The heavy-handed effort to deny the genesis of the virus in China’s live markets—markets that were to have been shut down after the SARS crisis—undercuts Beijing’s credibility. Its international messaging is also hindered by the bellicose, over-the-top rebuttals of criticism by Chinese diplomats who are scored not on their record of persuasion but by their vigor in unswervingly defending the Chinese nation. This leads to absurd accusations of U.S. Army bio-war plots by the Foreign Ministry and to a telephonic dope-slapping contest between Yang Jiechi and Mike Pompeo. Nasty digs against China by some U.S. officials in the midst of a humanitarian crisis might have been played to win China some sympathy, if not the high ground. But clearly the audience for Chinese diplomatic counterattacks is Zhongnanhai, not the international community.

Perhaps the biggest threat to China’s influence and international standing from COVID-19 is the likely toll on China’s economy from both the unprecedented shut-down at home and the precipitous drop in global demand that is ensuing. An overextended China that needs to retrench and concentrate on social stability and its domestic economy may enjoy far less of an international standing than the deep-pocketed China that seemed to many to be destined for global primacy.

The Xi Jinping government’s early mishandling of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019 caused the epidemic to spread very rapidly to countries that for various reasons have strong connections with China and with Chinese communities—particularly Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, the United States, and Italy. To be sure, China was not the only entity making mistakes in the early weeks of the epidemic. As late as January 23, the World Health Organization denied that the virus was a cause for international concern and expressed doubt that it had spread between humans outside China. By that time, China had already taken strong measures to shut down domestic travel and enhance its medical facilities, though its statistics of infection and death doubled through the first week of February. Only on January 30 did the WHO acknowledge a worldwide emergency.

Today, as the world reels from the medical, economic, and psychological effects of the lightning-fast virus, the Xi regime is somehow collecting plaudits from the international press for its belated but very effective methods of containment. Not only have draconian measures in China succeeded in “flattening the curve”—bringing the rate of new infections down to what can be handled by the health system—but it has made vivid ameliorative gestures. Somehow, China has emerged as a model stakeholder, leading the world in combating escalation of the infection rate and generously helping the less regimented societies still struggling, in some cases tragically, against COVID-19’s comprehensive effects. More people in China have contracted the disease and died of it than anywhere else, but more people have survived it in China than anywhere else. And China’s current reported 80,000-plus cases in relation to its population makes it look admirably healthy in relation to, say, Italy’s more than 35,000 infections and almost 3,000 deaths in a population of 60 million.

Still, China has a bad record of being the source of globally ruinous zoonotic viruses. The Chinese Communist Party’s late effectiveness in dealing with COVID-19 and its extremely acute gestures, direct and indirect, of “support” for the countries affected would have only modestly boosted its international prestige, were it not for the spectacular bungling of the American government, to whom the rest of the world would normally look for guidance and aid. From the first U.S. case in late January and even after the first case of community transmission in late February, American leadership denied the dangers, failed to restore the mechanisms of preparedness that it had gutted from 2017 on, and left its population profoundly lacking in needed equipment and knowledge. Even today, the U.S. public does not have basic reliable statistics, and only knows that it is at the foot of an inevitable mountainous curve of spreading disease and economic calamity. The Trump administration, it turns out, is the major vector of China’s infectious new credibility, and the primary antibody in its immunity against accountability for repeated global plagues.

As always, the key to understanding China’s diplomacy, or whatever passes for it in Sino-American relations right now, is to consider domestic political incentives. Both the helping hand it extended to Italy and its indulgence in conspiracy theories belie an urgency to seize control of the domestic political narrative on the pandemic. The numerous administrative missteps in Wuhan, coupled with the inevitable economic downturn caused by the ongoing lockdown, have seriously weakened public faith in at least some segments of the Party-state, and pose arguably the most serious threat to its legitimacy since 1989.

Recognizing this, the Party leadership has been understandably eager to regain control of mainstream sociopolitical discourse, which, early in the crisis, was brimming with frustration and anger at perceived government mismanagement and abuse of authority. Doing so requires it to persuasively portray its deeply problematic pandemic management as successful.

International comparisons and blame-shifting offer a potential way forward. The best and perhaps only way for the Party-state to make an even semi-plausible case of this sort is to draw attention to even worse conditions abroad. Not only does this make the domestic response better by comparison, but it also activates Chinese nationalism as a potential source of social support. State media has spared no effort over the past few weeks in highlighting the problems with European, American, Japanese, and Korean containment efforts. Europe and America, in particular, have committed enough blunders in their early response to offer plenty of low-hanging fruit, and Chinese social media has been flooded in recent days with ridicule of everything from the American testing fiasco to Italian social culture. Assuming the virus remains contained in China—challenging given the overseas Chinese rushing home from Europe and North America—these comparisons should deliver at least a moderate public relations victory to the Party-state. The Trump administration’s almost unbelievable ineptitude itself virtually guarantees this.

Extending aid to Italy fits perfectly into these considerations: It may well be a genuine gesture of goodwill, but it’s also a clear assertion of superior know-how and institutional competence, and the domestic audience will likely understand it as such. The international soft-power benefits of the gesture are undoubtedly substantial, if unreliable given the escalating mutual suspicion between China and the West, but they likely pale in comparison, in Beijing’s political calculus, to the potentially enormous nationalistic pride it (and gestures like it) might inspire.

The conspiracy theories are a much tougher sell. The evidence is so thin even the most ardent Chinese nationalist would have a hard time accepting this particular claim. Nonetheless, the political rationale is not so different from playing on nationalistic sentiments to help the Party regain domestic social trust. These tactics share a great deal of common ground with Trump’s incessant and blatantly xenophobic/racist use of the phrase “Chinese virus.” Both play to the lowest common denominator in their respective polities. Globally, nationalistic political discourse is all too often a race to the bottom, as it has been for centuries.

In 2009, as Mexico was starting to understand the looming threat of the new H1N1 flu detected in my country, I was summoned to the Commerce Ministry in China. I had no idea what the meeting was about, so I went unprepared. When I arrived, I was greeted by a vice minister who told me China was monitoring the outbreak closely, and wanted to help. He asked what my country needed to help fight the outbreak. I had no idea. It did not matter. China was ready to send help, and he informed me that they would be sending two 747 cargo planes with protective equipment (face masks, gowns, gloves, etc.) immediately. The following day, I was invited to Beijing Capital International Airport to witness the shipment.

I informed my president of China’s goodwill gesture. He was so moved that he personally went to Mexico City’s airport, at midnight, to meet the planes upon their landing. The president, the country, and the Mexican people were grateful to the Chinese people. I wrote in my journal, “no country in the world has been as generous as China.”

About three days later, we started getting calls at the embassy from Mexicans who were being removed from their hotels and put under quarantine in hospitals. None of them were sick; they were being quarantined for being Mexican. China then cancelled the sole direct flight between Mexico and China. They closed their embassy and consulates in Mexico. They stopped issuing visas to Mexicans, detaining those who arrived in China, whether or not they had been in Mexico recently. When I tried to reach out to my counterparts at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, no one would take my call. At one point, they picked up the phone and hung up as soon as they heard we were calling from the Mexican Embassy. They had no explanation for us, no information. Nothing.

The Mexicans detained in China started calling the media in Mexico, talking about their plight. In the midst of the outbreak, every single news program had a quarantined Mexican phoning in from China, telling the audience how they were being detained. The outrage in Mexico was immediate and severe. Mexico issued a rare advisory against traveling to China. The bilateral relationship spiraled to the lowest point in its history. It has never fully recovered.

I mention all this to illustrate how you do not buy goodwill with aid. You buy goodwill with actions, and China comes short in this aspect. The fact that the United States goes through a dark period in its engagement of other countries, particularly allies, does not mean the world will flock to China’s arms. I think the world understands the role China played in mismanaging this outbreak. It did not need to get to this point. It did because the Chinese government covered it up until it was a catastrophe. Those are China’s actions, the ones they will be remembered for, not the aid.

In times of great adversity, material assistance can earn any donor goodwill quickly and efficiently. China’s resource reserves of masks and test kits were strained in January and February when the COVID-19 virus hit it the hardest. As March’s reported infection numbers dwindle across the country, aside from Hubei, technical assistance and material donations to infected populations abroad provide a window for effective diplomacy. These moves undoubtedly alleviate stressed medical systems in Europe and the United States, which was sent masks and test kits from billionaire Jack Ma.

Putting aside the direct impact of its contributions, aid and assistance from China is undoubtedly also a political move by its government. China’s international political ambitions, which carry on in parallel to these material aid campaigns, have not been put on pause in the least. Domestically, disciplinary measures against individuals uncovering unflattering information persist, such as the indefinite and opaque detention of Chen Qiushi, a citizen journalist investigating Wuhan’s government. Internationally, official messaging from Chinese diplomats that the virus originated outside of China, fueled by vague comments by U.S. Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield, have fanned agitated arguments with their American counterparts. Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa faced similarly quick retorts from his country’s Chinese delegation after writing an op-ed identifying the virus as originating in China.

The timing of these responses is key, as combative language was unlikely to win China friends in the midst of its crisis in February. When the virus was at its peak, Chinese officials focused on spreading what they term “positive energy” through media channels, shaping narratives of good and heroic medical workers to obscure misconduct by other public servants. One three-minute video produced by the People’s Daily, which went viral on social media platform Weibo, emphasized togetherness and the capacity for Chinese people to overcome the disease together. At that time, state-run media channels flooded domestic and international feeds with courageous tales of hospital staff, and of volunteers delivering supplies to communities on lockdown. However, March’s lower infection rates have allowed the propaganda bureau a new window of opportunity to assert China’s long-held political positions wherever it can. Beijing may have welcomed stories filed by the reporters of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal on ordinary people overcoming the virus, but that didn’t save them from expulsion.

Xi Jinping’s China is unlikely to back down from perceived slights even under normal circumstances. But as its global standing is bolstered, in part by its rapid COVID-19 testing and by material foreign aid, there exists a political opportunity to hit back at the United States for tariffs, increased policy scrutiny, and other political challenges.

Of all the matters China treats as pressing at this time of global urgency, nothing is of greater urgency than the matter of perception. The Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with perception, to the detriment of all other calculations. This is why China must maintain a vast system of human and technical controls on information, and enforce a regime of “guidance” at every level of the Party-state bureaucracy on what is now virtually a real-time basis, commanding hundreds of thousands of press workers and propaganda apparatchiks.

Just this week, the leadership released the findings of its investigation into the case of Doctor Li Wenliang, who was one of the first medical professionals to report in late December on coronavirus cases in Wuhan. As a result, he was subjected to a stern and brutish police reprimand that later infuriated Chinese public, showing how the early attempts of health professionals in Wuhan to press for action and awareness about the growing epidemic were callously suppressed. Li’s death in early February galvanized public anger over the early mishandling of the outbreak. Now that the leadership is slowly and insistently turning the narrative on its head, insisting it was always in control, the verdict on the Li Wenliang case flat-out rejects the idea that he was ever working against the grain. It stresses that he was a Party member, and that he was just one among many health professionals working courageously with the Party in its fight against the epidemic. Any suggestion otherwise is the work of “hostile forces,” says another state release. The narrative is forcibly twisted back into the Party’s grotesque shape. The original letter of reprimand is not yet revoked, but Li, we are told, has been given a posthumous commendation from the National Health Commission for his sacrifice.

I’m focusing here on the domestic side, but in fact even most instances of international messaging over the capabilities of Xi Jinping and the Party are directed chiefly toward domestic audiences, the primary point being to shore up the Party’s domestic legitimacy by manipulating the idea of foreign perceptions. Italians, don’t you know, were singing the Chinese national anthem from their balconies! We can treat whether China will win this war of perceptions as a complicated question of global discourse power, the retreat of the United States, and so on. But we should also remember that this global pandemic arose to a decisive extent from the Chinese Communist Party’s monomania about perception. This obsession with appearances has created misery time and again in China. For all Xi Jinping’s talk of pragmatism and performance, perception rules. And under this political logic, no one is safe.

Now that official Chinese statistics show COVID-19 has plateaued in China, propaganda organs there are seeking to transform its image from autocratic regime whose rigid censorship prevented its controlling the epidemic into a well-organized juggernaut of mass mobilization wielding an “efficient crisis management mechanism.” Meanwhile, an ominous parallel tendency threatens to push what’s left of the still functional parts of the U.S.-China relations into an abyss.

Just as the U.S. has an extremist fringe of paranoid, ultra-nationalist conspiracy mongers, a faction in China portrays America’s civil society and government as an implacable “hostile foreign force” bent on thwarting China’s “peaceful evolution,” undermining the Chinese Communist Party and pushing “regime change” through stealth tactics of piecemeal change. This element (strong within the Party and military) tends to view China’s relationship to the U.S. as an antagonistic clash of opposing interests, political systems, and values in which compromise is the road to Chinese ruin. The Trump administration’s similarly oppositional posture means the bilateral relationship’s almost four-decade “engagement” framework is now all but dead.

In 2012 as Xi settled into office, Yuan Peng of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations penned a tract in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily entitled, “Where Are the Real Threats to China,” warning that while America was pre-occupied with the 2009 financial crisis, China had a five-year “window of opportunity” to “gain strategic advantage, revitalise itself and consolidate its hegemonic position,” purging hostile America-manipulated forces he dubbed the “New Five Black Categories”: rights lawyers, underground religious adherents, dissidents, Internet leaders, and vulnerable groups he viewed as threatening China’s social stability and Party-dominated reform.

Now, as America flounders in stemming the pandemic, China appears (for the moment) triumphant and again militant voices proclaim American decline and Chinese ascendancy.

One dog whistler of this ilk, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, has been tweeting charges that the virus was introduced into China last fall by Americans during a U.S.-China military-military exchange.

Zhao observed that China’s “signature strength, efficiency and speed” against the coronavirus has set “a new standard for the global efforts against the epidemic.”

Xinhua criticized the “so-called political elite in Washington,” for “irresponsibility and incompetence,” something not difficult to do. Extremist writer Bai Yun recently wrote an article that circulated online proclaiming that, “The U.S. has now failed and been weakened to the extreme. . . And now that hunters have surrounded the prey, the only suspense is whether or not they can kill it and how they will kill it.”

This is a dangerous mindset. It overestimates China’s strength and pushes all sorts of buttons in Washington.The U.S. has been weakened by the ineptitude of the Trump Administration, but Xi should be very cautious of overreach. China’s leaders have a tendency to act out the kind of bullying China itself once suffered as a victim of “great power” predation. Whatever one may think about America’s own history of bullying or its present state of fallen grace, there remain few countries drawn to China’s example by anything but its wealth and power, things that alone won’t ever win the People’s Republic of China the kind of respect Xi craves. Still, the pandemic has cast the competitive gauntlet of global leadership down between two countries, political systems, and value sets. It remains to be seen who will most successfully emerge from this epic joust.