The West must respond as China tries to control the Covid-19 narrative, promoting a Health Silk Road with tools of authoritarianism.
By Taehwa Hong*
On March 24th, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on the bloc to stand ready for a “struggle for influence” in a “global battle of narratives.” He referred to the millions of masks and test kits sent across the world by China, labeling the effort as “politics of generosity.” The warning may sound paranoid as so many call for global cooperation in fighting the coronavirus. Even so, China manipulates the narrative, exploiting the pandemic to refurbish a false image of a responsible superpower and promote its model of authoritarianism.
China first detected Covid-19 in November, but officials hid the outbreak for weeks, punishing doctors who raised alarms. Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi warned in March that China “controlled information, shunned assistance from the CDC [US Centers for Disease Control], limited World Health Organization travel to Wuhan, likely undercounted infections and deaths….”
Nonetheless, China has distributed supplies to nearly 80 countries, shifting the coronavirus narrative in Beijing’s favor. Beijing transformed from a troublemaker to hero. Launching an offensive against the United States, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson asserted that the US Army could have brought the virus to Wuhan. The Chinese embassy to France alleged over Twitter that the US government covered up a coronavirus outbreak last year as flu cases. Others claimed that China had “bought time for the world,” time otherwise wasted by a complacent West.
China aspires to use the opportunity to expand influence. In a call with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, China’s President Xi Jinping discussed building a “Health Silk Road” – alluding to its Belt and Road Initiative. In an essay for African newspapers, China’s ambassador to Nigeria Zhou Pingjian elaborated: “China has given full play to the advantages of its system… China is protecting not only its people, but also the rest of the world….”
Such a Health Silk Road entails two implications. First, China is promoting the superiority of authoritarianism in responding to crises, hoping to export China’s model – the Beijing Consensus. According to China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, “China’s signature strength, efficiency and speed in this fight has been widely acclaimed.” Granted, Beijing demonstrated astounding speed and flexibility once it did respond, controlling population movement and implementing a nationwide quarantine and mass surveillance to track infections. Under China’s system, such draconian measures do not require democratic consensus.
Chinese state media and officials proactively advocate this model while criticizing “irresponsibility and incompetence” of Washington. After all, while Donald Trump contemplated using wartime powers to build ventilators, Chinese factories already had “orders keeping them at full capacity” until May. Simultaneously, China helps illiberal leaders gain technology and knowhow to monitor individuals who challenge official government narratives.
Second, China seeks to prove it is more reliable than Western powers. Beijing’s state media described the US health care system as bungling the initial response, compounded by missteps from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control. Equally importantly, Washington resists leading a global effort to fight the pandemic. The Trump administration banned export of N95 masks to neighbor and longstanding ally Canada and allegedly sought to monopolize a German pharmaceutical company’s vaccine under development.
Meanwhile, the EU clashes over “coronabonds,” with Germany and the Netherlands opposing common debt instruments advocated by Italy and Spain. The bloc faces internal criticism for abandoning Italy. In contrast, China sent medical equipment and personnel to Europe and held a videoconference to share information with central and eastern European states. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic expressed how many poor European nations feel: “I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping” and European solidarity is a “fairytale.”
One might argue that China, the world’s second largest economy, should step in to fill the vacuum, providing global public service. Yet, the Chinese Communist Party imposes costs. There are ample precedents of Beijing exploiting seemingly innocuous infrastructure projects to set up “debt traps” along the Belt and Road. China has leveraged its financial contribution to the World Health Organization to exclude Taiwan, despite that government’s remarkable success in containing the coronavirus.
China already appears set to “translate” the global narrative through investment deals. Huawei, facing allegations of espionage, runs a donation spree in Europe. It provided 800,000 masks to the Netherlands, which initially reported few confirmed Covid-19 cases, as the Dutch government wavers on including Huawei in a June auction of 5G mobile licenses. China has long tied aid to foreign policy favorable to Beijing, such as severing diplomatic relations with Taiwan or turning a blind eye on concentration camps in Xinjiang.
In the long run, China will promote medical authoritarianism, exporting “health surveillance” technologies purportedly to prevent another epidemic outbreak, a steppingstone for universal surveillance. For strongmen seeking power centralization, Beijing’s facial recognition software already offers allure. Hungary, consolidating its top-down management model, moves closer with China. So-called “smart cities” in the Middle East and North Africa and “safe cities” in Pakistan increasingly display sophisticated Chinese-made CCTVs.
The West must respond to this battle of narratives by rejecting Chinese conspiracy theories as the communist party tries to sow confusion among any who blame China and reject authoritarian superiority. As demonstrated in Wuhan, autocratic governments are less likely to receive information critical to slow crises because local officials fear the repercussions of sharing bad news. A parallel is found in the disastrous Great Leap Forward between 1956 and1962, during which the communist party continued grain exports despite devastating shortages. With information control crucial to regime legitimacy, authoritarian leaders are less likely to share accurate data with other countries or permit international observers. As David Shullman of the Center for a New American Security argues, the West must “underscore successes of democracies such as Taiwan and South Korea.”
On a substantial level, liberal democracies should forge closer partnerships among themselves and with the world. Neighbors failed to support Italy, a member of EU and NATO. The West should promptly support Italy and other nations with materials and knowhow, removing export restrictions.
At the same time, the West should not burn bridges with China. China’s attempt to influence the coronavirus narrative partly stems from Xi’s desire to tighten his control by boosting China’s global prestige. The West should give Beijing room to maneuver, encouraging cooperation with the rest of the world. The Trump administration’s use of the term “Wuhan virus” is unproductive. The priority should be on preventing China from deceptively winning hearts and minds rather than humiliating the regime to undermine domestic legitimacy. Areas for potential cooperation include vaccine research, clinical trials, fiscal stimulus, data-sharing and more.
So far, the United States has failed in leading the world against Covid-19 by imposing a travel ban from Europe without prior notification or blocking a joint statement of G7 foreign ministers because there was no support for the term “Wuhan virus.” The country has led during pandemics. George W, Bush established a global coalition to address the AIDS crisis in Africa, mobilizing more than 50 countries and raising $80 billion. Barack Obama rallied more than 60 countries to combat Ebola in West Africa.
In the short term, the United States should build an international coalition that coordinates with the WHO, UN, and Global Health Security Agenda to establish a common screening standard, mobilize global resources and gather scientific data in search of a vaccine. In the long term, the nation should invest in medical infrastructure to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks. The Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy pledged to invest more than $500 million per year on health, basic education and Food for Peace – vital bulwarks against epidemics. The United States should build on this initiative, moving beyond its narrow focus on traditional security issues.
In the same vein, the United States should rebuild domestic medical capacities, bolstering the Strategic National Stockpile and preparing testing capacity and protective gear for medical workers. On an economic level, the country must consider reducing reliance on China for vital drug ingredients and supplies such as masks and gloves. Steel imports from the EU and Canada do not create strategic vulnerabilities; medical imports from China do.
The West is not completely failing in this struggle for influence. Trump promised to send ventilators to Europe. The Federal Reserve opened dollar-swap lines that kept the world economy from freezing. France and Germany combined donated more masks to Italy than China. German hospitals care for patients from Italy. However, the West must go beyond securing the home turf. A “new normal” will emerge, hinging on how nations respond to China’s coronavirus narrative. The world seeks strong, intelligent authority and China will take advantage of this trend. Defeating Covid-19 requires apolitical, universal cooperation. Securing a liberal post-Covid-19 future requires skepticism and vigilance.
*Taehwa Hong is a former intern with the Korea Economic Institute of America and an opinion writer for Asia Times. His work has been featured in The Business Times, Huffington Post, The WorldPost, The Peninsula and YaleGlobal Online.