Monday, 20 April 2020

China forced onto the defensive against European backlash

Hans van Leeuwen
Hans van LeeuwenEurope correspondent
London | China's coronavirus propaganda effort in Europe has been pushed onto the defensive, as politicians, press and the public gradually turn against Beijing over its perceived culpability for the COVID-19 pandemic.
French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian was the latest European to take a pop at Beijing, angrily rejecting China's "calumnies" and accusing President Xi Jinping's regime of fomenting divisions on the Continent.
His public foray late on Monday (AEST) will be seen as a boost to the US and Australian push to hold China accountable for how it has handled the COVID-19 outbreak, following Foreign Minister Marise Payne's call on Sunday for an international probe into Beijing's conduct.
China has been trying to recast itself as the country that has successfully beaten the pandemic and can help others to do so, portraying itself as the altruistic hero rather than the cover-up villain.
A Chinese banner on a Belgrade street, part of the country's attempt to recast its virus-battered image in Europe. AP
But its diplomats in Europe have increasingly been pulled into ugly and unedifying spats with politicians and the media, and opinion polling in Britain suggests the public wants to see China held to account.
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Mr Le Drian was responding to a furiously worded open letter, published on the website of China's embassy in France, which anonymously accused Western governments of removing staff from nursing homes and leaving residents to die unattended.
"I cannot accept that the staff of our nursing homes is slandered by anyone, including by the Chinese embassy," Mr Le Drian told Le Monde newspaper in an interview published on Monday.
The offending Chinese letter was later footnoted to make the accusations more general rather than France-specific; and the French ambassador in Paris has since issued an emollient statement welcoming the two countries' cooperation over the pandemic.
French president Emmanuel Macron also used a weekend interview with the Financial Times to question China's handling of the crisis, saying things had "happened that we don't know about".

'Trojan horse'

In Britain, Sky News and several tabloids have reported that British intelligence agencies have joined a US investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The news came as a Survation poll of 1000 Britons found that more than 80 per cent of respondents would back an international inquiry into China's handling of its coronavirus outbreak.
The Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank with a hawkish line on China, said the survey, which it released on Monday, also found 71 per cent support for a British or multinational effort to sue China for damages if it was found to have broken international law.
Meanwhile, Germany's biggest-selling tabloid newspaper Bild has picked a fight with China's Berlin embassy, publishing an itemised €150 billion ($257 billion) "invoice" to China for the cost of the German COVID-19 outbreak.
The embassy wrote an open letter to Bild's editor-in-chief slamming the article as "infamous", and accusing the newspaper of "nationalism, prejudice and xenophobia".
"Germany has to revise its contingency plan, which was well thought out at the time ... In the meantime, well-known international scientists also confirm that China's swift and decisive action has made an important contribution to containing this pandemic," the letter said.
The Bild editor wrote back in a letter that upped the ante with an emotive attack on China's political system and practices. He called China's provision of face masks to afflicted European countries "a Trojan horse".

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