China Blew a Chance at Global Leadership Responding to Covid-19
(Illustration: Nichole Shinn For Bloomberg Businessweek)

China Blew a Chance at Global Leadership Responding to Covid-19

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In mid-April, China engaged in what appeared to be a particularly pointless fight. With France’s death toll spiking from the novel coronavirus and its economy shuttered, China could well have offered commiserations and support. Instead, it lobbed rhetorical grenades at Paris.

Beijing had taken umbrage at remarks by French officials that it had mishandled the outbreak. China’s embassy responded with a tart post on its website that suggested France had abandoned nursing home residents to die from hunger and disease. Paris then summoned the Chinese ambassador, one of an aggressive group of propagandists known as “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, for a dressing-down.

Beijing pushed back, warning France that it risked damaging ties unless it canceled a contract to supply arms to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. Never mind that the contract simply involves supplying new equipment for frigates sold to Taipei almost 30 years ago.

The nursing home remarks prompted an unusual public statement from Paris on an issue Beijing is highly sensitive about, as described by François Heisbourg, senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “The French went out of their way, sent a public communique saying, ‘Yes, we are sending this stuff to Taiwan in the framework of our contract with that country,’ ” says Heisbourg, who’s worked in the French foreign and defense ministries. “To make sure that the Chinese were getting our meaning, we actually went out of our way to piss them off.”

The incident with France—and squabbles that Beijing has replicated with other countries—is perplexing. As the virus snaked out of Wuhan and accelerated around the world, China had an opportunity to be magnanimous—and prove that its championing of globalization was more than just rhetorical. Its doctors, scientists, and officials had grappled with Covid-19 for months. When it came to fighting the virus, it had personnel and equipment and the expertise. Instead, the country lumbered and blundered gracelessly.

Initially, it seemed China recognized the diplomatic potential. The U.S. hadn’t assumed its usual leadership role in a global crisis. Indeed, Donald Trump had criticized European nations over the pace of their border closings as the virus spread. China could have stepped up as the U.S. stepped away. That way, Beijing could have defused some of the suspicion that had long bedeviled it over the virus, including doubts about when exactly the outbreak started in Hubei province. Instead, both countries have fallen into the strange dynamic of engaging in brittle diplomacy aimed not so much at each other but at restive domestic audiences. In China, President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party need it to keep control at home; in the U.S., Trump needs to win an election in November.

Rather than seizing the chance to bring countries further into its orbit, China appears to have sent the message that it sees its rise to global primacy as inexorable—and that other nations should simply bow to that fact. After all, China was a cornerstone of supply chains worldwide. It had splashed enormous sums of money on infrastructure projects in the developing world and bought into key companies everywhere. Its military reach is growing. It didn’t need to win over others.

“Equality among nations is not a natural concept for them,” says William Reinsch, Scholl chair in international business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a U.S. Department of Commerce official in the Clinton administration. “They are busy telling the world that their model of a heavily state-directed economy and a repressive undemocratic political system works better than the Western system and is the wave of the future.”

There were positive signs from China as the virus first spread outward. Beijing announced over several weeks it would send medical equipment and teams to other countries. It would help Italy, Spain, Serbia, Estonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and—yes—France. But some of the equipment proved faulty—or was followed by an invoice. China continued to respond stridently to criticism of its handling of the early stages of the Hubei outbreak. The narrative around aid turned to questions about the lack of gratitude from the beneficiaries of China’s munificence. Beijing’s state media started issuing lecturing commentaries. And the Wolf Warriors got to work on their Twitter feeds.

Xi struck a conciliatory tone when he spoke via video on May 18 at a World Health Organization governing body meeting in Geneva. China will make its coronavirus vaccine a global public good once it’s available, he said, and provide $2 billion over two years to support the fight against the pandemic, especially in developing countries. Still, it may have come too late to swing the narrative. China chose to take the higher ground after much feuding and criticism, and the Geneva shift could be seen as self-serving, an opportunistic heightening of Xi’s differences with Trump—which the U.S. president predictably responded to with a threat to withdraw completely from the WHO.

One of the biggest takeaways from the pandemic is how much China and other nations continue to talk past each other. That’s not new, but it’s increasingly critical as an issue given China’s status as the world’s second-biggest economy and as a rising strategic superpower. Communication is especially important as Beijing and Washington vie for dominance with a fragile first-phase trade deal at stake. It’s key for nations in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere as they consider how or whether to incorporate 5G technology from China telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co. and for poorer countries as they ask if China’s loans bind them to Beijing’s political bidding.

China can justifiably claim self-defense, that it was rebutting criticism in the blame game over Covid-19. Trump had at first praised Beijing, then needled it using the loaded term “Chinese virus.” Washington’s accusations haven’t stopped. On May 17, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos that China had its “patient zero” as far back as November—at least a month before the outbreak was first reported in the country’s media. Said Navarro: “The Chinese, behind the shield of the World Health Organization, for two months hid the virus from the world and then sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York, and around the world to seed that.”

Still, China’s accusations that other countries were mistreating their own citizens came across as tone deaf. So what explains the reaction? Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of state-run Global Times and a fierce defender of China via his social media feeds, said on May 9 on Weibo that “the best way to solve the problem of western public opinion against China is not to try to change them, because we don’t have the tools to do so, but to adjust ourselves to a world where the stronger and better you are, the more criticism you will face.”

But foreigners may not be the audience for this display of nationalistic ire. Striking a patriotic tone is standard fare for China’s leaders in times of domestic challenge. The Communist Party’s No. 1 concern is mitigating the risk of social unrest, an obsession heightened by the economic devastation wrought by Covid-19. Beijing may not set a numerical target for gross domestic product growth this year. One way to minimize domestic political damage is to rally people behind the idea that China is under attack overseas.

“The unity of a country of 1.4 billion people, that is the daily challenge of anybody who governs China, and they don’t want it to fall to pieces,” says Heisbourg of the IISS. “So what they do or say about the pandemic is going to be dictated 99% by what they see as the domestic implications. What we think about them is not as important. Not unimportant, but it’s less important as the domestic aspect.”

Chinese officials have long argued the country is behaving naturally as a rising power. They say China is being more responsible because, unlike colonial powers, it isn’t trying to enforce its political doctrine on other countries or to physically take them over. Critics say Beijing achieves the same outcome through the sheer force of its economic clout. Rory Medcalf, a professor who heads the National Security College at the Australian National University, says China under Xi has become less sensitive to what the world thinks of it. “It invests heavily in propaganda and influence campaigns,” he says. “But these are essentially about convincing the Chinese people that the party-state is respected abroad, rather than genuinely generating that respect.”

Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Nanjing University, says some of China’s diplomats have made the pandemic-related bickering worse as they fall over themselves to please Beijing. Rather than feeding back sober analyses about their host governments, the Wolf Warriors see their first task as aggressively pushing China’s view. “The failure of its coronavirus diplomacy is largely due to China’s political system where various branches want to suck up to the top leader instead of reporting the factual situation,” Zhu says. “As all countries face a crisis, China should be modest instead of having the mindset that ‘you should thank China’ and viewing it as an opportunity to expand global influence. In short, China’s coronavirus diplomacy has done poorly.”

The nationalistic barbs about everything from the origins of the virus to the behavior of the WHO from both Trump and Xi are aimed at domestic audiences, not each other. But the risk is that one of these sparks will start an unintended conflagration. The words can be bruising. Misunderstandings about China, said Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai on April 30, is “attributable to some American politicians and their hostile rhetoric. … Some of them have simply gone against conscience.”

Arguing over the virus risks tipping into two key areas: trade and Huawei. While China has stepped up imports of American soybeans in recent weeks, starting to fulfill pledges under the first phase of the trade deal to buy more farm goods, the Global Times reported this month that China was mulling voiding or renegotiating the deal after U.S. criticism of its handling of the pandemic. Trump also mused in a Fox Business Network interview that “we could cut off the whole relationship” and has ruled out renegotiating the deal signed in January. On May 15, the U.S. Commerce Department said it would require licenses before allowing U.S. equipment to be used by Huawei or its 114 subsidiaries, prompting Beijing to warn the export curbs may threaten the global supply chain. U.S. officials have frequently accused Huawei of being a security threat tied to the Beijing government, an allegation the company denies.

CSIS’s Reinsch says China and the U.S. underestimate each other. “The Chinese see themselves as a rising power and the U.S. as a declining power, and Xi Jinping’s policy has been to press what he sees as a growing advantage by confronting the U.S. indirectly rather than directly,” he says. “The U.S. sees its position as stronger and more morally correct and believes the Chinese system has inherent weaknesses that leave us in a stronger position. That’s a comment about the senior leadership on both sides.”

There are already tentative signs that some midsize powers are seeing a lessening of global leadership by Washington and starting to chart their own course. For one, Australia would happily find a way to diminish its reliance on Chinese trade, which Beijing uses to bully and inflict economic pain on Canberra. “China has accumulating problems at home: an aging population, debt, discontent, and environmental stress,” says Medcalf. “It risks a kind of imperial overstretch, trying and failing to dominate and intimidate at once many other nations along with its vast, angry periphery of Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan,” he says. “The Covid-19 crisis could accelerate the trends undermining Chinese power.”

Beijing may believe its rise is inevitable. But, says Reinsch, “Western economists and political analysts, not surprisingly, disagree. I think in the long run democratic, market-based systems win, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be short-term setbacks.” —With Dandan Li and Ania Nussbaum
 
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