China’s coronavirus aid seeking to shift narrative away from Beijing’s cover-up, experts say

26-Mar-2020 Intellasia | ABC | 6:02 AM Print This Post

As new cases of COVID-19 in China appear to slow to a trickle, Beijing is offering support to other countries in their respective fights against coronavirus.

China is sending medical supplies and protective equipment such as face masks to dozens of countries and has given $20 million ($35 million) to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 appeal.

“You throw a peach to me, and I give you a white jade for friendship,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters last week.

“It is China’s traditional virtue to repay goodwill with greater kindness.

“We will strengthen cooperation with other countries in response to the COVID-19 challenge and together build a community with a shared future for mankind.”

But at the same time as it is offering assistance to some of the worst-hit countries in Europe, Beijing has found itself in a war of words with Washington over who should be held responsible for the initial outbreak.

Here’s what you need to know.

Offers of both aid and sales of essential medical supplies from China are coming thick and fast, but we’ve attempted to compile a list of what Beijing is providing.

According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it has announced assistance to 82 countries, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the African Union.

Among the countries it is helping are Pakistan, Laos, Thailand, Iran, South Korea, Japan, Cambodia, the Philippines, Egypt, South Africa, Iraq, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Cuba and Chile.

China has also been aiding countries in Europe, the region with the largest number of COVID-19 cases at the moment, notably Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Serbia, and the wider European Union.

More than 20 medical experts and about 26 tonnes of relief supplies have been sent to Italy, with ventilators, monitors, protective gear and essential medicines among the supplies.

China has given Spain 500,000 face masks and has sent 1 million masks to France. The wider EU will receive 2 million surgical masks, 200,000 N95 face masks and 50,000 testing kits.

Pakistan has received about 15,000 testing kits, while Japan has received 100,000 face masks. South Korea has been sent 5 million face masks.

Short of medical supplies, China has also been hosting video conferences with health officials around the globe, offering its insight and experiences as the first country to deal with a major outbreak.

Why is China offering assistance?

China’s aid push comes at a time when strains on the international system are becoming increasingly apparent, with many countries prioritising the needs of their own citizens over those of their neighbours.

This tension has been notable among EU states, where the highest number of infections are currently being recorded.

Germany and France came under fire within the bloc earlier this month when they moved to safeguard their stocks of domestically produced medical supplies.

They subsequently wound the measures back, but the moves raised fears the pandemic may undermine solidarity within the union.

The US, which during past pandemics such as Ebola has played a leading role in global efforts, has not been at the forefront this time around.

Given the international discord, China has received praise for the help it is offering, but China expert Graeme Smith from the Australian National University (ANU) said China was looking to paint its initial response to the crisis in a different light.

“This is used to play into the regime’s narrative that rather than having been the source and the cause of the outbreak, China is both the narrative for how to control it, and effectively saving the world from this pandemic,” he said.

“It is about controlling the domestic narrative in China, rather than necessarily being about global altruism.”

Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Hawaii-based East-West Centre, said China could be seeking to bolster its reputation as “a responsible country”, at a time when other nations appeared to be scrambling.

“This is why China has so strenuously pushed the notions that the disease is contained in China, that China did the rest of the world a favour by acting quickly and effectively, and that China is now a major international benefactor by giving medical suppliers to other virus-hit countries,” he said.

“This kind of image could help prepare the ground for international acceptance of China as a great power.”

‘Alternative facts’ in the time of coronavirus

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faced a lot of heat over its early handling of the crisis. Surprisingly, much of this criticism came from everyday people in China.

In a bid to deflect some of this criticism, the ANU’s Dr Smith said China was taking a page out of the Trump administration’s playbook, turning to some “alternative facts” about the global spread of coronavirus.

“Everyone around the world knows the main reason the virus is so bad is because [Chinese authorities] tried to cover it up at the start, but what you try to do is you try to create a counter-narrative to sow doubt,” he said.

“That in many ways is part of the battle. It isn’t to have the more plausible story, it’s to have another story or alternative facts, as Donald Trump likes to call them.”

One of these alternative facts has been the fairly astounding argument from Chinese officials that the current pandemic may not have even started in China.

Earlier this month, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian took to Twitter to suggest COVID-19 originated in the United States, parroting a conspiracy theory that is gaining traction on Chinese social media.

This conspiracy theory contends that coronavirus is really an American biological weapon brought to Wuhan by the US Army when it took part in the 2019 Military World Games in the city last October.

To be clear, this is not a widely held theory. It is thought coronavirus originated in bats, which infected another species of animal, with the virus finally spreading it to humans.

The first cases of human coronavirus infection were connected to a seafood and live-animal market in Wuhan.

“[The conspiracy theory] plays into bad stuff that the US has done in the past, the fact that the US for example is not a signatory to the Convention on the Use of Chemical Weapons, things the Chinese regime can use to turn its public against the US and thus not against itself,” Dr Smith said.

China and the US have behaved ‘egregiously badly’

In an attempt to refute the narrative being put forward by China, the US President has recently taken to referring to coronavirus as “the Chinese virus”.

This has not gone down well in China and others elsewhere have also said the term is offensive including Americans of Chinese descent, who have reportedly been facing harassment in the US amid the outbreak.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Trump’s use of the term was “an act of stigmatisation”, and suggested US officials were trying to distract from their own failures.

“Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, the US attempt of blame-shifting will not help it to contain the disease at home or unite the international community,” Geng said this week.

Roy from the East-West Centre said there were valid grounds for criticism on both sides.

“Both governments have conducted themselves egregiously badly at certain points of this crisis,” he said.

“In the first couple of months, Chinese authorities tried to silence the reporting and cover-up an emerging disaster, a knee-jerk reaction by a regime accustomed to hiding anything that looks like bad news.

“The principal errors on the US side include failing to move quickly to make necessary key supplies widely available, and the White House initially downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic.”

However Dr Smith said it was “indefensible” for Trump to associate coronavirus with a whole race of people.

“‘Wuhan virus’ tenuous, ‘China virus is very iffy, but ‘Chinese virus’… is so far beyond the line that it almost beggars belief that this man can be supposedly leading the free world,” he said.


Category: China

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