China's heavy-handed tactics during the pandemic appear aimed at manufacturing an image of competence and benevolence, for both domestic and global consumption
You couldn’t make up this tale of imperial arrogance: As the world began to face the gravity of COVID-19 in late February, Roger Roth, president of the Wisconsin Senate, received emails from the Chinese consulate in Chicago urging him to pass legislation praising China’s response to the coronavirus — with a proposed draft resolution attached.
The result was exactly the opposite of what China sought, in what may be part of a global backlash. An outraged State Sen. Roth (R-Appleton) drafted and passed a state Senate resolution proclaiming that the “Wisconsin Senate stands in solidarity with the Chinese people, condemning the actions of the Communist Party of China in the strongest possible terms.“
That episode may be emblematic of a global boomerang effect. The Middle Kingdom is finding that its hoped-for quasi-tributaries are saying “No, thanks.”
Across Europe, Africa and Latin America, as well as the U.S., Beijing is seeking to rewrite the narrative on China’s role in the pandemic, even as China reveals that it understated Wuhan cases and deaths by at least 50 percent. Spewing contrived conspiracy theories on social media to shift blame, pressing newspapers to publish praiseworthy op-eds from Chinese officials and issuing shameless requests to politicians for praise, China is making a full-court press.
Its heavy-handed tactics appear aimed at manufacturing an image of competence and benevolence, for both domestic and global consumption, while erasing the opprobrium of its early malpractice in Wuhan that facilitated rather than contained the spreading of the virus.
In recent weeks, however, a snowballing of anger and resentment has begun in response to other examples of what is the flip side of China’s much-heralded “mask diplomacy” — so, influence operations have begun. One big backfire: The United Kingdom paid China $20 million for coronavirus test kits that did not work. China was outraged when the son of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro blamed Beijing for the virus and its education minister questioned China’s intentions. A group of African ambassadors in Beijing wrote a letter to China’s foreign minister, complaining that Africans in China were being evicted, denied service in shops and forced to quarantine and be tested. Officials in India and Nigeria questioned China’s utility in the crisis, and both countries were rife with suspicion and conspiracy theories.
In the U.S., even as planeloads of masks, protective gear and ventilators continue to arrive from China, there is a zealous campaign by the administration and Congress to blame all things COVID-19 on China.
To be fair, and regardless of motivation, China has provided substantial medical assistance to Spain, Italy and Serbia in Europe, to Pakistan and to Latin American and African nations. And Beijing has won its share of praise for all of that. Yet, is the common wisdom correct that China’s dispatching of doctors and medical aid globally is bolstering its benevolent internationalist image and positioning Beijing for a post-coronavirus world at the expense of a bumbling, inward-looking U.S.?
No doubt some beneficiaries in recipient countries are grateful to Beijing. But the net effect in much of the world appears to be increasing doubt and suspicion about China’s intentions. Transparency is a prerequisite for the international cooperation that China’s President Xi Jinping is touting — and has been absent so far. U.S. intelligence reports that China is vastly understating the number of COVID-19 victims, and research studies in Hong Kong and the U.S. estimate it may be by five to ten times higher. The COVID-19 story is still unfolding, and when the dust settles, China’s understating of its numbers, combined with weeks of denial after the initial outbreak in Wuhan, may draw the world’s wrath.
One reason why China demands praise for its model of response to COVID-19 from aid recipients is local. The most devastating blow to Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which may in turn be driving its global PR campaign, may be its own domestic legitimacy: Xi has changed the social compact in China, removing social space, and has tightened control of all discourse by academics and think tanks, as well as on the web.
China’s “Mandate of Heaven” concept of politics and leadership requires rulers of adequate benevolence to whom the ruled defer. The CCP’s legitimacy has been performance-based. Now, not only is its legitimacy at risk from a sagging economy that’s experiencing its lowest growth since the Qing dynasty (-6.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020), but with the CCP’s deception about COVID-19, Xi has failed his end of the bargain by not keeping Chinese safe.
Many Chinese netizens seem unforgiving of Beijing’s suppression and punishment of truth-telling Wuhan doctors like Li Wenliang. Dr. Li, who died of COVID-19, has been lionized as a hero on digital Chinese sites like WeChat. There are even rumblings of dissension among his many enemies resulting from Xi’s ruthless consolidation of power and destruction of institutions like the term-limited presidency.
Unfortunately, there is little for the U.S. to gain from China’s misadventures. Xi’s saving grace has been Donald Trump. Nothing has encouraged China more than the vacuum created by the appalling narcissistic performance of the U.S. president.
It was no accident that, just hours after Trump declared the U.S. was halting funding for the World Health Organization, Beijing announced it would increase support for the United Nations agency. The WHO stunt was an example of Trump’s “America First” actions. The U.S. blocking of G-7 and G-20 statements unless those used the term “Wuhan virus” was official petulance that infuriated U.S. allies and partners. Broadly, the image of a flailing, incompetent U.S. domestic response and Washington’s refusal to lead a global response to this pandemic, as Presidents Bush and Obama both did in similar global health crises, has been a blow to U.S. stature and credibility.
So, the bottom line appears to be a continued global leadership deficit: No zero-sum gains and, with both major powers diminished, a fragmenting global system – and a China that is not ten feet tall but, instead, vastly overplaying its hand with costly domestic and global setbacks.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-2012. Follow him on Twitter @RManning4.