China’s aggressive diplomatic tactics to deflect criticism of its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak are not winning Beijing any friends.
“The narrative Beijing has been putting out, that it is not sure about the origin of COVID-19, makes matters worse.”
This is just one step away from a US-China cold war.
Zhu Feng, Nanjing University
Diplomatic spats this week have exacerbated matters. African nations complained formally about reports of discrimination against their citizens in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.
China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, angered Paris after suggesting in a tweet that France was leaving its older citizens to die. A Twitter war broke out in south-east Asia after a Thai celebrity retweeted a post saying the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan.
The Associated Press published leaked internal Chinese documents this week suggesting senior officials were aware of the potential danger of the respiratory illness on January 14, six days before President Xi Jinping’s public warning. This will add fuel to White House accusations that China did not act responsibly.
A couple pose for wedding photos at the Pushi wedding photography studio in Wuhan, where restrictions have been eased. Getty
“China is the first country to walk out of the shadow of the epidemic and China is the world’s biggest manufacturer of protective medical products,” Zhu Feng, dean of the school of international relations at Nanjing University, tells The Australian Financial Review.
“I am still not sure if this will be an opportunity or a burden for China to improve its foreign relationships.
“Each side has its own conspiracy theory. I am concerned because this is just one step away from a US-China cold war.”
A tweet last month by China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, saying that the US army might have introduced COVID-19 to Wuhan, inflamed tensions. But US politicians promoting conspiracy theories that China developed the virus in a weapons laboratory in Wuhan are just as bad.
“Trump is determined to use China as a scapegoat to win political support in the US,” says Wu Xinbo, dean of international studies at Fudan University.
“My worry is that China will be a focal point in the US election this year. Although China was a common topic in the previous election, it was not a focal point.
“This will poison the atmosphere between China and the United States.”
Academics in mainland China are careful not to directly criticise Beijing’s foreign policy approach and will not comment on whether the outbreak has weakened or strengthened Xi’s position.
But they say China’s citizens should be careful not to appear too proud about the way the country has contained the outbreak at a time when the rest of the world is suffering. “China should keep it low-key. To say the world owes China a favour is childish nationalism,” Professor Zhu says.
The international backlash against China does not match the mood inside the country
While there are many silent dissenters, the state-controlled media has fuelled a widespread belief that Beijing’s heavy-handed containment measures saved the country and helped the rest of the world.
While there is distrust outside China about the official figures, the Chinese governent’s willingness to lets its 1.4 billion citizens back into offices, schools and restaurants indicates it is confident the outbreak is under control.
There are rumours China will go ahead with its annual meeting of the legislative body, the National People’s Congress, in Beijing in May or June if it can eliminate the risk of a second outbreak. This would be an important platform for Xi to declare a formal victory over the coronavirus.
Convincing the rest of the world that China did the right thing will not be so easy.