Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Why China is losing the coronavirus narrative 
It is impossible to see this episode as anything but another disastrous own goal for Beijing 

When Roger Roth received an email from the Chinese government asking him to sponsor a bill in the Wisconsin state legislature praising China’s response to coronavirus, he thought it must be a hoax. The sender had even appended a pre-written resolution full of Communist party talking points and dubious claims for the Wisconsin senate president to put to a vote. “I’ve never heard of a foreign government approaching a state legislature and asking them to pass a piece of legislation,” Sen Roth told me last week. “I thought this couldn’t be real.” Then he discovered it was indeed sent by China’s consul-general in Chicago. “I was astonished . . .[and] wrote a letter back: ‘dear consul general, NUTS’.” 

It is impossible to see this episode as anything but another disastrous own goal in Beijing’s attempts to boost its global standing in the time of coronavirus. From the deplorable treatment of African citizens in southern China to the export of faulty medical equipment, or the official endorsement of conspiracy theories blaming the US military for the outbreak, most of the Communist party’s efforts to control the international narrative have backfired. Some assume the west’s chaotic and early response allows China to step into the global governance vacuum. Even allowing for questionable data, China has so far reported under 5,000 deaths, versus almost 30,000 in the US and nearly 20,000 each in Italy and Spain. But Beijing’s attempts to take advantage of the situation are more likely to leave it isolated and distrusted on the world stage when the crisis recedes. Wang Jisi, a legendary scholar at Peking University, says the virus fallout has pushed Sino-US relations to their worst level since formal ties were established in the 1970s. He describes bilateral economic and technological decoupling as “already irreversible”. 

The shift has been striking in the UK too, where influential Conservatives have called on the prime minister to be tougher on China, the British press has become more critical, and intelligence agencies have promised to focus on the threat from Beijing. In Europe and Australia, governments have rushed to block Chinese companies from buying assets cheaply amid economic carnage. And Tokyo has set aside $2.2bn explicitly to help Japanese companies move their supply chains out of China. But it is not just the US and its allies that have soured on Beijing. North Korea, China’s only treaty ally, was the first country to close its northern border at the start of the outbreak, despite Beijing’s objections to international travel bans. Russia quickly followed. Even Iranian officials have criticised China for hiding the extent of the outbreak. Some of the criticism is clearly unfair. Populist western politicians such as US president Donald Trump have attacked Beijing to deflect and distract from their own failings. There is also a hint of racism in the calls to shut down “disgusting wet markets”.

 But Beijing could have gained far more sympathy if it had switched quickly to a strategy of transparency and co-operation. Instead, it arrested people who criticised its cover-up, and launched a global propaganda campaign to raise doubts about the Chinese origin of the virus and assert the superiority of its authoritarian system. Many multinational companies have been badly burnt since Beijing effectively sealed its borders and cancelled visas last month. The expulsion of much of the US press corps from Beijing will also harden international attitudes. China’s main government mouthpiece has even threatened to withhold medical supplies and block medical exports to the US so it can “cast America into a novel coronavirus hell”. 

All this will accelerate calls in Washington and elsewhere for rapid decoupling from Chinese supply chains. This apparently self-defeating behaviour makes more sense when you consider the domestic political context. This is the biggest crisis that President Xi Jinping has faced since he took power in 2012. The Communist party’s legitimacy has been damaged by early mistakes and the crackdown that followed. Mr Xi knows the coming economic crisis will erode support further. In the 2008 financial crisis, Beijing identified 8 per cent annual growth as the minimum to stave off social unrest. China’s economy shrank 6.8 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Doubling down on vituperative nationalism can distract the populace, even if it damages China’s global reputation in the medium term. That explains why diplomats risked turning someone such as Senator Roth, a hitherto neutral bystander or even potential ally of Chinese trade diplomacy, into an enemy. 

China’s goal was to publicise the resolution in state propaganda to validate party rule back home. But now the Wisconsin senator plans a very different bill. While praising the Chinese people, it will “strip the brutal Chinese Communist party naked for the world to see . . . as well as the damage it has done to the whole world through covering up this coronavirus,” Sen Roth said. It is likely to pass with a hefty majority.

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