DPG China Monitor

Vol. III, Issue 3

Date: April 07, 2020

The most significant development of the month was the lifting of the two month long lockdown in Hubei Province on March 25, and loosening of restrictions in its capital city Wuhan, the epicentre of China’s Corona virus outbreak. The move was symbolic of China’s perceived victory over the epidemic, even as the rest of the world, including the United States, continued to reel under the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the worldwide infections crossed the one million mark and deaths soared beyond 55,000, global cooperation against the epidemic was hard to come by. Covid-19 became a new flashpoint between China and the US. Throughout the month, Beijing and Washington openly clashed over the source and name of the virus as well as each nation’s response to the outbreak and coverage of the epidemic by their respective media organisations, among others.

On one hand, there was a growing chorus in the western world about holding China accountable for the global spread of the epidemic because of its “disinformation” campaign and its “malicious” influence over the global body, the WHO. There were equally demands for apology and even compensation from China, and calls for boycott of ‘Made in China’ products. Amidst this outcry, the counter-arguments emanating from Beijing were that China itself was a victim, and allegations of China having deliberately spread the pandemic were baseless and politically motivated; that China had no doubt underestimated the severity of the situation in the early stages due to limited knowledge about the virus, but this was not with a view to concealment; that when and how the virus came into the world was still a matter of investigation and conclusions about the source were premature; that it was not China’s concealment that had led to the present situation in the world, but the passive and careless response of nations; and that in contrast to the actions of others, China had quickly cut the chain of transmission and bought time for all and was now providing assistance to afflicted countries.

“Letting China bear the blame and even clamouring for Chinese apology or compensation can only be said to be wishful thinking and has no legal basis. It is no longer more than a century ago and China is no longer free to be coerced and looted by external powers. Some American and British politicians still live in the old century and refuse to wake up,” declared an article in the Huanqiushibao.

Even as China accused the West of politicising the epidemic and spreading nationalist and even racist sentiments, Chinese media endorsed the view that the global spread of the virus was another ‘Suez Canal moment’ in the world of international relations, marking major reorganisation in the international order. Whichever country's policies and actions against the epidemic could win the respect and trust of the international community would determine the future of the world order.

Meanwhile, by highlighting poor performance of the Western democracies in handling the epidemic and playing up the nationalist card, China’s state media managed to put out a remarkable spin for domestic public opinion. Where less than a month ago people were fuming over their government’s “mishandling” of the epidemic situation, they were said to now consider themselves fortunate to be in China, the “safest” and “the most secure” place in the world. The dominant message was that China's system does have shortcomings, but its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Rather than criticising, the Chinese people were urged to be “thankful” of the government, which ensured that the situation did not go out of control like in Italy or the US and a comprehensive “whole-government-to-society model” strategy could be worked out leading to the timely containment of the deadly virus.

Such was the national sentiment in China that its internet space broke out in triumphant celebrations and vulgar mockery as the epidemic wreaked havoc in the US and parts of Western Europe. China’s state media had to issue instructions to tone down the arrogance level and keep China’s success story a low key affair. Yet another propaganda narrative of “China saves the world” was also pushed by the state media, comparing China to “Noah’s Ark" in the turbulent waves of the global pandemic situation, which not just withstood the onslaught of the virus but also became a stabiliser of the global order.

However, despite all the gloating and bragging, there was a growing sense of unease and scepticism in China about the ‘anti-globalisation’ trend further gaining currency as a fallout of the pandemic, with a real possibility of the world reducing its supply-chain dependence on China. In the given dynamics, China cannot wait for the complete elimination of the virus and must resume production on a ‘fast forward’ mode, so as to secure China’s position in the global supply chain. Further, to offset the negative impact of a possible decoupling between China and the Western world, particularly the US, China is resorting to a policy of spurring domestic consumption, while also focusing more on the economic prospects of the East-Southeast Asia region, with the China-ASEAN FTA, China-Japan-Korea FTA, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) at the core.