Traffic jams are returning to cities in China, and shopping centres, bars and nightclubs are reopening after weeks of lockdown as the government declared victory over coronavirus. Normal social and economic order “must be fully and urgently restored”, decreed president Xi Jinping.
China is now seeking to take an international leadership role in the war against Covid-19. A concerted wave of articles, social media posts and public announcements have appeared in a wide variety of languages to laud Beijing’s achievement. “China’s signature strength, efficiency and speed in this fight has been widely acclaimed”, declared foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. “A new standard has been set for the global efforts against the epidemic.”
The coronavirus started in China, and now having brought the disease under relative control, China is shutting its borders, temporarily, to the world. What has happened in between is contentious, mired in accusations and recriminations, much of it around why it took Beijing so long to alert the outside world of the outbreak — a fatal delay which, it is claimed, allowed the devastating pandemic to take place.
There have been ugly repercussions over the controversy — racist attacks and insults on Chinese people overseas, and others with east Asian appearances: reports of Chinese people being refused admissions to hospitals and clinics in some countries, including in Europe.
Donald Trump and some members of his administration, including secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have been accused of helping to fuel this xenophobia by referring to the disease as “Chinese Virus” or “ Chinavirus”. Republican congressmen have demanded that the US make China pay reparations for the cost to the economy for spreading this disease.
On Friday morning, Mr Xi told Mr Trump in a telephone call, according to Chinese state media, that relations between the US and China has reached an “ important juncture... Working together brings benefits to both sides, fighting hurts both, cooperation is the only choice without conflict and cooperation”.
Mr Trump later tweeted: “just finished a very good conversation with President Xi of China. Discussed in great details the Coronavirus that is ravaging large parts of our Planet. China has been through much & has developed a very strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!”
Mr Trump focusing on China is also an attempt at distraction from the criticism he is receiving for his dreadful handling of the pandemic, and we will have to see whether he changes his tone on Chinese culpability as the situation in America lurches from bad to critical.
But the president and his cohort are not the only ones playing the blame game. Beijing has started an orchestrated campaign of denial that the virus even originated in China. They have claimed, without any credible evidence, that Covid-19 was ‘planted’ in China by US servicemen, or that there were early signs of the virus, allegedly indigenous to US and Europe, but they were mistaken for flu.
There have been aggressive attacks on anyone challenging this narrative along with threats of economic retribution. For example when the son of Brazil’s hard-right president Jair Bolsonaro stated in tweet that China was to blame for the pandemic, the Chinese ambassador, Yang Wanming, railed at the “evil insult”. His embassy spoke of dire consequences if he continued with the accusation: “you will fall flat on your face”.
This has been pattern of Beijing’s officials turning on those who question the country’s handling of the outbreak, with a warning to others in a “carrot and cosh” policy. As China’s ambassador to Sweden had warned, “we treat our friends with fine wine. But for our enemies we have shotguns.”
The Chinese rapid rebuttal worked, to an extent, in Brazil. Eduardo Bolsanaro wanted to stress that his country does not want any problems with China and that he had “esteem for the contribution of China in the development of Brazil”. He did not want to offend the Chinese people, he said, but rather gamely maintained his criticism of the Chinese government.
So, through all the claims and counter-claims, let’s look at the actions of the Chinese government.
While, in recent days, Chinese officials were acclaiming their handling of the crisis, the government apologised to the family of a doctor who was punished for revealing the existence of Covid-19 and subsequently died from the virus.
The Chinese Communist Party announced that the authorities were “revoking” their criticism of Dr Li Wenliang. The belated show of remorse has come after sustained protests inside China at the cover-up carried out by the government despite official attempts to shut down the criticism. Dr Li became a symbol of defiance, compared in the social media to the lone protestor standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square.
He and seven other doctors were detained in January for spreading “rumours” for warning of an epidemic. This was two months after the virus was first detected in the city of Wuhan. But the authorities did not disclose it for months. They delayed by five weeks measures to inform the people, restrict travel and carry out adequate testing, while repeatedly altering the criteria for registering new Covid-19 cases.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people were travelling in and out of Wuhan – a city larger than London – daily and 400 million travelled home to see their families in the Chinese New Year. While the doctors were being detained in January, an annual mass banquet of 40,000 families was given the go-ahead in the city.
Beijing tightly controlled travel to Wuhan by international bodies, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), which relied upon Chinese information to inform the world what was going on.
On 14 January, for example, WHO announced that Chinese authorities had seen “no clear evidence of human to human transmission of the novel coronavirus”. The following day the patient who became the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the US arrived from Wuhan. The number of people infected in the US is now over 103,000, surpassing the total in China.
The role of WHO has come under scrutiny, reinforcing the view of critics that the organisation is under undue influence from Beijing. The director-general, Tedros Adhanoum Ghebreyesus, has been unwilling to criticise the Chinese government in any way. He has, instead, been fulsome in his praise for its supposed “openness in sharing information” and for “setting a new standard for outbreak control.”
Questioned at the Munich Security Conference last month about rising domestic outrage in China about government suppression of news on Covid-19, Dr Tedros was adamant that criticism was unfair and “China has bought the world time”. In contrast, John Mackenzie, a member of the WHO executive committee, wanted to stress publicly that international reaction would have been far quicker were it not for China’s “reprehensible” lack of candour about the virulent spread of the virus.
There are also questions about the delay by the WHO on declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Its emergency committee was split on the issue and with the final decision left to him as the director-general, Dr Tedros decided to wait, despite being forced to admit that there was now “an emergency in China”. PHEIC was declared the following week, by then Covid-19 had surged tenfold with 7,781 cases in 18 countries.
As China tries to shake off its image of infector to the world, it is keen to show how much of a benefactor it has become to other nations. This has been partly made possible because there is a vacuum to be filled in the absence of American leadership in marked contrast to the Ebola outbreak of 2014 when Barack Obama set up an international summit and created dedicated unit in the National Security Council to focus on the problem of pandemics.
That unit was disbanded by the Trump administration. In the early days of the pandemic, Trump claimed that the virus was a “new hoax” by the Democrats that it was “under control”, that it could “have a very good ending for us” and “boost jobs”. He banned travel from the European Union, which he sees as an adversary, and tried to bribe a German company to ensure that a vaccine it is working on is handed over for the sole use of the US.
Doctors and equipment, including masks, have been sent to Italy. Masks and gloves have been sent France, Poland, Netherlands and Serbia by Beijing.
There have been a few missteps. Around 340,000 testing kits bought by Spain from China are not working properly, according to El Pais. “The rapid tests, manufactured by the Chinese company Bioeasy, based in Shehzhen, have a sensitivity of 30 per cent, when it should be higher than 80 per cent”, health officials told the newspaper.
China has said it will send a shipment of 1.8 million masks to Italy and Spain, and a million surgical gloves and masks to France, as well as shipments to Poland, Netherlands and Serbia. Around 50 per cent of world’s productions of masks take place in China, which also received donations of the items from other countries when it was suffering its epidemic.
The donors included Iran, which was to suffer one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 outside China, the shortage in Iran had been worsened by Chinese companies buying up masks produced there in the previous months.
But China has ramped-up its manufacture of equipment and the help to Europe comes at a time when there have complaints in the Continent about states not helping each other.
Beijing has focused on the division. China’s ambassador to Belgrade, Chen Bo, for instance, while assuring that Beijing was “paying a lot of attention to Serbia’s need” also said that Chinese people were “very pleased” by the words of the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic who had lashed out at the European Union, saying “European solidarity does not exist, that was just a fairytale on paper.”
There had also been criticism of fellow Europeans from Italy when the country faced the Covid-19 onslaught without, it felt, anything like proper backing. Maurizzio Mazzari, the Italian ambassador to Brussels, said at the time: “Italy has asked to activate the European Union mechanism of civil protection for the supply of medical equipment for individual protection, but unfortunately not a single European Union country has responded to the Commission’s call.” Last week, as Chinese help begun to arrive, Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, said: “We will remember those who were close to us in this difficult period.”
There have been increased cooperation within Europe since then, with Germany, for example, offering spare hospital beds to Italian patients. But there is still a lack of unity, ranging from the risible reason from Boris Johnson’s government on why the UK missed a European Union deadline to obtain extra ventilators – allegedly a missed email – to the failure of leaders to agree on an economic programme to get through the crisis.
On Thursday, during a video-link conference, Italy accused other European Union states of a damagingly timid response to the pandemic. Even as the summit was going on Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte released a statement rejecting a pre-prepared draft statement because, he held, it was too weak.
Italy is calling for a ‘European recovery bond’, or ‘coronabond’, to lift member states out of recession. The scheme is backed by a number of states including France and Spain, but opposed by Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.
So is China going to win the propaganda and leadership campaign having declared victory over coronavirus?
Dimitar Bechev, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s European Centre, said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste. There is no better illustration than the medical supplies and crews of doctors China has been supplying to Italy and other European countries battling COVID-19.
“Beijing does carry a large share of the blame for the global pandemic over how authorities mishandled the situation in Wuhan... But now it seeks to shape the narrative of the crisis unfolding before our eyes. China has fired the opening salvo in the battle of narratives. It has an advantage. An authoritarian regime can massage COVID-19 statistics in ways Europe or the United States cannot. But this is no answer to the question of who stole whose crown.
“It is too early to write off the EU however. Some [states] have done better than others in responding to the crisis: imposing lockdowns early enough, proactive testing, ramping up capacity in hospitals," Bechev said.
"On the economic front, the European Central Bank will be buying government and corporate bonds to cushion the impact of the upcoming recession. A coordinated fiscal response is likely too. Though COVID-19 will wreak havoc, Europe will be muddling through as during the Eurozone crisis.”
Elisabeth Braw, senior research fellow, modern deterrence project at RUSI (Royal United Services Institute) commented “China has been very cynically exploiting the situation. It is putting out a false account of what happened, much like the way the Russians did after the Skripal poisoning, but they are doing it better.
“Most countries are too stretched in their resources at the moment to counter this propaganda. There is an attempt to do so by Trump and his people in America, but that is being done in such a clumsy way that it is divisive and counter-productive.
“Sending help to the European countries is a calculated move by China. It is an attempt to weaken the European Union. European states bear a responsibility for this — they did not help Italy in the early days when they could have, they behaved in a selfish way. Now of course they themselves are caught up in the pandemic and it is much harder to give that help. There will have to be an economic package, economies like Italy are too important to be allowed to go down. But when this is all over, the EU must look at having a system to deal with such acute emergencies.”
On the arguments over calling Covid-19 ‘Chinesevirus’, Ms Braw suggested “other diseases have been named after people who discovered them. Why not call this one after the doctor who tried to warn about its spread, was punished, and then died? He really was someone who sacrificed his life for others. Surely, this will be a fitting tribute?”