Is Beijing a noble victim, skillfully controlling an unpredictable viral epidemic and now helping other countries in their own efforts, or the villain, ultimately to blame for the misery that is spreading around the world?
Considerable efforts have been made to push back the first line. China has donated large quantities of medical supplies to parts of Europe and Africa. The Chinese state media, which have disproportionate influence in much of the developing world, has also praised the World Health Organization (WHO) and others for its response to the initial outbreak and his recovery, unlike many parts of the world. world is struggling to cope.
The coronavirus crisis represents a key opportunity for China to consolidate its status as a superpower and world leader, especially since the United States has struggled to contain the epidemic, and US President Donald Trump has alienated some allies with its “America first” approach to the crisis.
At the same time, however, Beijing has not been able to avoid further scrutiny and criticism – primarily, but not only from Washington – of how the initial delays in the country’s response may have spoiled opportunities vital to contain the now global pandemic, as well as skepticism about its reports on coronavirus figures and the country’s recovery.
In perhaps a sign of how Chinese leaders are determined not to let this moment pass or to be seen as a global villain, the response to such criticism has been energetic and often angry. He was spurred not only by state media, but also by a new generation of diplomats who get their message straight to foreign audiences on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
When reports of mistreated Africans and victims of discrimination in southern China this month about fears linked to coronaviruses – arousing criticism and concern from several governments on the continent – Beijing should have demonstrated willingness to take the incident seriously
In recent years, China has invested billions in strengthening economic and diplomatic ties across the African continent and has long boasted of its commitment to uplift developing countries in the region, without the kind of economic and political conditions imposed by the United States.
And yet, rather than condemning those responsible for the alleged anti-African discrimination, Chinese diplomats and state-run media strongly denied the news, accusing Western media and the United States government of trying to widen the gap between Beijing and its allies in Africa. In recent days, some have even criticized the African media for having been “misled” by information published in the international press.
“Traditional Sino-African friendship will not be disturbed by the instigation of certain forces,” said Hua Chunying, director of the Information Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Twitter
Earlier she accused
The US State Department lied about allegations of racial discrimination, which were reported by CNN and other media and highlighted by African diplomats in China, adding that “Asian Americans were victims of racism during the pandemic. How could @statedeptspox explain this? “
Hua only joined Twitter – which is blocked by the big Chinese firewall – relatively recently, one of the many Chinese diplomats and foreign ministry officials who took the platform to spread their message.
A pioneer of this approach is Hua’s subordinate and his replacement as spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian. A former high-ranking diplomat in Pakistan, Zhao was one of the first Chinese officials to go to Twitter, where he regularly spoke with foreign media and politicians.
During the pandemic, Zhao became the main Chinese defender and critic of Western responses to the virus. In March, Washington summoned the Chinese ambassador to the United States to complain about the tweets published by Zhao, suggesting that the US military may have been responsible for the introduction of the coronavirus into Wuhan, where cases have been detected. for the first time last year.
While parts of the Chinese state media have long adopted an aggressive, often jingoistic tone, the country’s diplomats have generally been more calm and sensitive, at least in public.
“Chinese diplomats were once known for their low and conservative profile in China and the world,” said the Global Times, a state-sponsored Chinese nationalist tabloid, in an article this week. “Internationally, our diplomats were seen as enigmatic and the Chinese were called” impenetrable “. It was a time of much less adversity or the need to fend off excessive criticism from the glorious West.”
Last year, Hua wrote an influential article in a party newspaper calling on diplomats to adopt a “fighting spirit” and to “strengthen the international voice (of China)”, remarks which have been taken up by the Chinese minister. Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a gathering of high-level diplomats in December.
Bringing this “fighting spirit” to Twitter “is only the latest manifestation of a long-term project,” analyst Mareike Ohlberg wrote last year in a report published by the Mercator Institute for China Studies. “The (Communist Party) objective was, and remains, to change the global debates on China – and on anything else that interests it – to bring them closer to its own position. Its intention is to gradually change the conversation and increase the Party’s “speaking power”. “
The Global Times article praised the new “Wolf Warrior” style diplomacy recently, referring to a popular series of Chinese action films in which the country’s military conducts daring operations in the whole world.
“As China rises and approaches the central stage of the world, aided by the relative decline of the West, many Western countries feel uncomfortable, which is at the root of their unjustified accusations against China, “the newspaper said. “As Western diplomats fall out of favor, they get a taste of Chinese” Wolf Warrior “diplomacy.”
The importance of changing the conversation around the coronavirus and its management by China is clear, which may explain why the more aggressive approach favored by diplomats like Zhao and Hua ended up dominating Beijing’s response.
James Green, senior researcher at Georgetown University and former US diplomat, told CNN in an email that “to bypass the mismanagement of the initial coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan and the loss of human life and economic growth at the national level, the CCP propaganda organs are overpowered to match the new narrative: China and the CCP save the world of the coronavirus plague – and the world is grateful to you! “
Zhao said on Wednesday that “those who accuse China of not being transparent are unjust and insulting to the great sacrifices made by the Chinese people,” and denounced “false allegations spread relentlessly by US officials.”
Natasha Kassam, researcher at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and former Australian diplomat in China, said that “some of the strongest voices on Twitter have recently been rewarded with promotions”, including Zhao and the former Chinese ambassador to South Africa , Lin Songtian
However, she added that it is still unclear whether this type of decision was the result of a dictatorship from above, or of officials trying to get the attention of their superiors, as well as approve coverage in state media and on Chinese social platforms.
“So often we assume that Chinese officials are speaking to the outside world, and we ask ourselves – why would they say that?” Said Kassam. “It is more likely that individual leaders will adopt an aggressive tone to demonstrate their loyalty to the center.”
Jeff Moon, who was a US diplomat in China as well as a US deputy trade representative for Chinese affairs under President Trump, said that “what has changed is not the substance or the tone of Chinese public diplomacy, but the fact that we are now taking China’s official propaganda more seriously because of China’s growing global influence. ”
Green agreed that the “narrative of the evolution of global power balances permeates every casual statement or remark with apparent gravity and importance”, in a way that would not necessarily be the case in the past.
Indeed, Moon argues that the more aggressive approach taken by diplomats today could be more of a return to historic form, when Beijing officials denounced “capitalist race dogs” and accused Washington of pursuing change diet.
“Other countries have not taken these statements seriously until they have started to have a tangible impact on world affairs,” said Moon. “The Covid-19 crisis is the latest – and perhaps the most significant – example of how Chinese policy statements affect world affairs. There is a new generation of Chinese officials using Twitter and others tools aggressively, but it’s a change in tactics rather than strategy. “