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Why China Tried Blaming The US And Italy For Coronavirus
A strategy behind the squabble?
Along with China coming out into the world and taking a more pronounced role in global supply chains and infrastructure development comes a new breed of official. Dubbed “Wolf Warriors” after a popular series of uber-patriotic Chinese movies, they take to Twitter and Facebook, defending China’s reputation in the world, emboldened by Xi Jinping’s call to show more “fighting spirit”. Each week, there seems to be a new threat issued by a Chinese diplomat to the country they’re posted in or some other squabble taking place on social media involving a Chinese official, confusing the narrative, and, very often, seeding disinformation. Some could say they are taking a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook, or, perhaps more accurately, Russia’s. Whatever the case, we have entered a new age of international discourse, as government officials around the world have started taking control of their own message — often with disastrous results.
With the novel coronavirus pandemic the world witnessed this type of discourse take an ugly, almost inexplicable turn for the worst. Offended by U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s reference to Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus,” some individuals working in China’s diplomat corps retaliated by challenging the established convention to colloquially label new diseases by the places where they were first identified — e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Spanish Flu, African Swine Flu, Ebola, Hanta Virus, etc… — and deemed associating the virus with China as racist and Sino-phobic.
Stoking the fires of this reactionary sentiment was Lijian Zhao, the former secretary of the Embassy of China in Washington DC and current deputy director general of China’s foreign ministry. Zhao didn’t stop with a routine PC browbeating but began pushing a new narrative altogether: that Covid-19 didn’t have its origin in China, as everyone assumed, but in the United States of America, and that Washington was actually the ones who tried to cover it up.
This was the exact opposite take of what was readily assumed to be true: that Beijing knew of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan for two weeks before alerting the public and taking action, and that they attempted to cover it up by persecuting doctors who blew the whistle. It was basically the same play book that they unsuccessfully deployed during the first SARS outbreak with two key differences: the scale of the epidemic and the fact that they allowed millions of Chinese to travel internationally in the lead up to the Spring Festival holiday, rapidly spreading the disease worldwide.
This was an interesting attempt at a misinformation clusterfuck by Zhao, but he didn’t stop there, going on to insinuate that the US military may have been the ones who brought the virus to Wuhan, clearly trying to shift blame for the pandemic away from China and onto its primary Western adversary. Other Chinese officials picked up on the refrain and reverberated these accusations as far away as Kazakhstan, where some locals found them reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda.
“China's diplomacy remains inept,” said Jonathan Hillman of DC’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “As the crisis unfolds, for example, some Chinese officials are peddling conspiracy theories on Twitter that will likely harm Beijing's image globally rather than helping it.”
And help it didn’t. The unsubstantiated accusations of Covid-19 originating in the US and being spread by the US military did not sit well with the US administration and provoked a retaliation. President Trump doubled down on his efforts to continue referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus” and a debate over the terminology and origin of the virus drew an emergency meeting of the G7 to a stalemate. The question of “who’s to blame” quickly became central to both Washington’s and Beijing’s soft power strategies, using the issue as a litmus test to divide the world and find out what side everyone is on.
While the response from Chinese diplomats may seem like a mere attempt at muddying the waters of misinformation, their may be a deeper strategic element behind them. Lijian Zhao, the hawkish deputy director general of China’s foreign ministry, seems to have a good deal of support in the highest echelons of the CCP, who apparently approve of the stir he created.
“These diplomats are not engaging the world with diplomatic language, but they are trying to please the domestic audience. This is not diplomacy. This is very dangerous,” Qin Xiaoying, the former director of the Communist Party’s international propaganda department, was quoted as saying in an article on Reuters.
The Chinese state-owned media picked up on their diplomats’ messages and jumped into the fray, seeding doubt domestically about the virus’s origin by implying that the US or Italy may have had it first, which resonated through the country and is now accepted by a significant portion of the population.
“It’s a popular belief for sure,” said Cody Chao, a medical doctor from China who said that even his parents believe the allegations that Covid-19 came from the USA. “Who wants to take responsibility anyway?” he added sarcastically.
Chao said the main word here: responsibility. This perception of responsibility may prove to have a major impact on China’s overseas ambitions along the Belt and Road. A virus that ravaged the global economy not only emerged from China but the dominant narrative has Beijing looking overtly inept as it spread beyond its borders. This isn’t only a matter of losing face but of legitimacy in their pursuit to become a — if not, the — global leader in the 21st century, which is primarily what the Belt and Road is about.
If China is found culpable of not properly stifling SARS-Cov-2 then some nations may theoretically attempt to hold them liable for the losses that they suffer from the pandemic — or at least use this as leverage to get better deals on loans and joint projects. This potentiality was clearly outlined in a tweet from the president of the Mining Forum of South Africa:
These viewpoints are not only relegated to Africa, as many in the US are also calling for Chinese debt cancellation over the pandemic, with the topic a popular discussion point on social media.
While in the UK, an element in the government is demanding a 'rethink and a reset' in regards to the country’s relation with China and the Henry Jackson Society think-tank just published a report which urged the government to sue China in international court for £351 billion to compensate for damages wrought by coronavirus.
While these sentiments are not likely to amount to much, it does show the reasons why Beijing has tried so hard to distance themselves from blame for the pandemic. The hope, perhaps, is that China can push back hard enough that the world — and history — settles for a nice middle ground that politely finds nobody at fault.
However, as Covid-19 spreads from region to region and wider swaths of the planet experience the personal and economic hardships associated with lockdown and illness, anger at China is only going to rise. From a brief scan of social media, it is clear that much of the world has not been convinced by China’s “charm offensive” of sending medical aid to ailing countries, or the misinformation of Lijian Zhao, or Beijing pressuring other states to commend their coronavirus response. Like those shipments of defective medical supplies, China’s efforts to re-write history have backfired big time.
A tide of adverse public sentiment against China has already been growing along the corridors of the Belt and Road, and for some countries the coronavirus pandemic may be enough to make them reconsider their role in Beijing’s masterplan for the 21st century.