Over-reactions to the Coronavirus: a Chinese view on the war of words and geopolitical competition
The coronavirus is a common threat to the public health of all human beings. But it is not wise to over-react. The virus itself must be taken very seriously indeed. But the geopolitical competition that also is a feature of this crisis should not lead to an ever more intense war of words. Great powers are blaming one another and have launched into a war of conspiracy theories. They tend to over-politicize the actions of their rivals, which leads to blurring boundaries between public health and geopolitical competition. And as governments seize the opportunity to prove their own effectiveness while criticizing their counterparts, blind arrogance and poor willingness to cooperate are the result. Such over-reactions will ruin the foundation for multilateral cooperation which alone can solve this global pandemic.
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Over-reactions to the Coronavirus: A Chinese View on the War of Words and Geopolitical Competition
Conspiracy Theories: A Vicious Circle
President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo blame China for covering up the outbreak and reacting slowly in the early stages, suppressing the real death rate, and manipulating the WHO. Some even allege that China created the coronavirus in a laboratory in Wuhan. That has already been proved to be an unfounded conspiracy theory by scientists from different countries, including Belgium.
These accusations, rather than leading China to make concessions, only caused an even more furious response. Chinese diplomats rarely express their personal opinion in public, let alone their emotions. But the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted to condemn the American government, suggesting that the Coronavirus was first found in the United States, before the outbreak in China, and then brought to Wuhan by infected American soldiers during a military sports meeting. Many Chinese citizens buy this story of Americans inventing the Coronavirus as a bio-chemical weapon against China. And even those who don’t often insist that China is not the only origin of the coronavirus, but that it originally occurred in different countries at the same time, and that hence China should not be the scapegoat.
These mutual conspiracy theories create a vicious circle. Every country hopes to shift the blame onto its rivals. Even when some countries are willing to assume responsibility in fighting the virus, others suspect a hidden agenda. During previous health crises, such as SARS and H1N1, different countries acted on the basis of humanitarian principles, contributed by doing what they were respectively good at, and provided assistance to one another. This time, however, not only does the US not take a leading role, it even threatens to stop funding the WHO. China attempts to step into the void, but obviously its efforts and influence are not widely welcomed. The result is an absence of global coordination and leadership.
In addition, conspiracy theories further strengthen mutual distrust and sometimes even hatred between people from different countries, especially between the Chinese and “the West”. Although public opinion is not the only or the most important variable that determines foreign policy, it can affect its direction. Many complain that China is behaving increasingly aggressively, but the more “the West” blames China for the corona crisis and the more it criticizes the Chinese anti-virus actions, the more indignant and crazily patriotic the Chinese people will become. The negative attitudes of the Chinese people then give the Chinese government an excuse to take more aggressive international action, which provokes more reaction from “the West” in turn.
This vicious circle may end up with China and the US tragically walking into the Thucydides trap. That can yet be avoided, however, if the war of words is stopped now.
Over-politicizing and Its Dangerous Effects
Everything can be politicized and securitized: energy security, economic security, and, of course, now health security. Public health is directly linked to the survival of a country. But the security narrative makes politicians and the media view the coronavirus from the perspective of traditional geopolitical competition instead of global governance. As a result, the pandemic, more than a pure health crisis, becomes deeply connected to political and security issues.
China is suspected of using “mask diplomacy” and the “health silk road” to expand its influence. Many argue that China donates medical apparatus and masks to European countries, or sells them at a low price, because it hopes to promote its 5G telecom business and infrastructure projects. In this view, China plays the role of benefactor for the purpose of enhancing its attractiveness to the target countries and persuading them to side with China. EU Member States that fall for this might become a Trojan horse, influencing EU decision-making to China’s advantage. It is also feared that China will use 5G telecom to collect health and other private data on European citizens.
It is of course true, whether the Chinese government admits it or not, that China wants to earn a good reputation and set up its international image as a responsible leader. Nevertheless, it does not make any sense to demonize “mask diplomacy”, for two reasons.
In the first place, it is not unusual to provide humanitarian assistance to other countries. When Ebola struck the Africa, several countries sent doctors to help. In the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in China, many EU Member States also exported rapid detection kits and masks to China, which saved lots of lives. Did China, the EU and the US seek to control Africa by saving Ebola victims? Did the Europeans aim to change the Chinese regime by offering medical supplies to Chinese citizens? It is unwise to over-interpret such actions of public diplomacy.
Second, soft power and public diplomacy alone cannot easily change the direction of international relations and the distribution of power. On the one hand, “a friend in need is a friend indeed”; but on the other hand, there are no permanent friends but only permanent interests. No matter how sincerely the Italian Foreign Minister and the Serbian President expressed their appreciation for China’s help, for example, it does not follow that they will agree with China on all political issues other than cooperation on the coronavirus. EU Member states (and neighbouring states) will definitely choose to stand with the EU first, as long as the EU defends their interests and supports them. The EU should stay confident that its norms and laws will continue to guide the actions of Member States, instead of suffering from exaggerated fears that China will manipulate the Union.
In sum, China’s “mask diplomacy” (or propaganda as many call it) may have some influence on the target countries but cannot fundamentally change the world.
A Broadening Gap between “Us” and “Them”
All countries are trying to prettify their responses to the coronavirus, in order to prove the legitimacy and effectiveness of their own governments, and at the same time many criticize the inefficiency and ignorance of others.
Many in Europe and the US assert that democracies respond better to the outbreak than authoritarian regimes, because they are more transparent and politicians are responsible towards their constituency. For example, South Korea and Singapore are seen as doing better than China. But measured against EU standards, South Korea and Singapore are perhaps not typical democratic countries; they took enforcement measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus at some cost to privacy and personal freedom. At the same time, many in China claim that the success of the fight against the coronavirus is due to “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, and mock the Western governments for their futile efforts to slow the spread of the pandemic, which sadly results in high mortality. Most Chinese truly believe that democracy only leads to chaos when faced with a state of emergency. It is not difficult to imagine how the image of Western countries failing to tackle the coronavirus is used as a negative example to demonstrate how successful China is, which inspires national pride and enhances people’s support for the Party.
In fact, both China and the US (and sometimes the EU) construct themselves vis-à-vis “the other” as opposed to “us”. “The other” stands for to low efficiency, sacrificing the lives of common people, telling lies, and creating victims; while “us” means effective governance, saving as many lives as we can, transparent information, and the victim. Both sides want to justify their own political regimes and earn support from the people by broadening the gap between “us” and “the other”. This is another reason, actually, why “mask diplomacy” will have but limited impact: people already have prejudices against one another, and they are hardening, hence they will not be easily persuaded by the rhetoric of “others”.
Pride and prejudice blind people. Both citizens and decision-makers become less willing to criticize their own governments, rethink the pros and cons of different political institutions, and learn from one another.
The various countries should stop the meaningless war of words, and focus on pragmatic cooperation. Different countries have different political cultures and traditions, and will therefore tackle the pandemic differently. It would be better for every country, including China, to criticize its own defects and rethink its own policies, instead of staring at the mistakes of others.
The distribution of power and the nature of international relations cannot be changed easily by propaganda or public diplomacy. Furthermore, the target audience of “mask diplomacy” and the war of words is the countries’ own citizens more than foreigners. When making decisions about how to react, policy-makers should not rely too much on other countries’ official media or politicians’ speeches therefore, because the radical views that one often finds there are aimed more at domestic society rather than really attacking foreign countries.
However, in today’s context of geopolitical competition between the great powers, it is hard to completely avoid politicizing the pandemic. What we can do is to suggest policy-makers to stay rational and not to over-react. Render to Health the things that are Health’s; and to Politics the things that are Politics’.
Ms. Jing YU is a PhD candidate at the Ghent Institute for International Studies at Ghent University, writing under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop.