How Coronavirus Shaped China's Diplomacy

 /  July 1, 2020, 11:06 a.m.

Wuhan Policemen Patrol Airport
Wuhan policemen patrol Wuhan Tianhe Airport in masks at the height of the outbreak.

On March 5, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stated that the coronavirus did not originate in China, and that no one knew yet where exactly it had originated. He then tweeted that the American military could have brought it to China. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying made similar assertions on her Twitter, tweeting against criticisms of China and writing that China responded appropriately to the appearance of the coronavirus.

These tweets are just a few instances from the Chinese government’s most recent propaganda campaign. As the first wave of the coronavirus began to subside in China, the government hastened to protect its image. Sensing international backlash, the government began to spread a new narrative: China was not at fault for the coronavirus. It was the first victim of the disease, and it responded responsibly and transparently, buying time for the world with its leadership.

Whether this narrative will succeed is yet unclear. However, as China recovers from its waves of coronavirus cases, its economic might and relatively effective coronavirus containment policies will allow it to increase its global influence at the expense of rival powers like the United States and European countries.  

Criticism of China as the Pandemic Developed

At first, many other countries openly refuted the Chinese government’s coronavirus narrative. By late February, when the coronavirus had fully developed into a pandemic, animosity grew toward China as countries dealt with the consequences of the disease. Iran referred to China’s report that its death and infection counts are decreasing as “a bitter joke.” Meanwhile, in Brazil, a key official of the government accused Beijing of using the pandemic to “dominate the world”. US President Donald Trump has piled on to this criticism by using racial language to blame China for the pandemic. 

Some of these criticisms are not unfounded. The Chinese government is notorious for concealing information it deems unfavorable, and it has done so during the coronavirus outbreak. China concealed information regarding the first cases of the virus, which can be traced back to mid-November. Dr. Li Wenliang, the first whistleblower, was summoned for questioning by the Chinese government, and he was silenced before eventually dying of the coronavirus. Further, Hua was the first to compare the disease with the flu, thus minimizing the potential impact it would have. Beijing was also quick to criticize countries that blocked travel to China. 

Chinese propaganda would have one believe that China faced minimal disastrous situations such as those commonly seen in Italy, France, or the United States, but upon encountering several accounts of the lockdowns, this image quickly disintegrates. Lockdowns were a desperate attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Multiple accounts, such as this online diary, show the brutality of life under the lockdowns. Author Fang Fang recounts China’s graceless response to the coronavirus: with hospitals overfilled, the unlucky sick roamed the streets. Afraid to leave their homes, residents lowered buckets into the street to collect groceries brought to town. In a photograph Fang describes, cell phones are piled up on the floor of a funeral home, their owners having quickly been cremated.

Because of evidence of the miseries running counter to the narrative of Chinese state media, one may think that China suffers from intense disapproval from its population. It is true that China has its fair share of critics. News media lost credibility with its Chinese audience. Young people became particularly skeptical of the Communist Party’s narrative, and their skepticism posed a threat to the government. People openly criticized state media, accusing it of not accurately portraying the horrors of the coronavirus. Criticizing the Chinese government for focusing too strongly on positive news while suppressing negative press, one blog post on the popular social media site Weibo denounced the Chinese government for “turning a funeral into a wedding.”

It is also true that China is incredibly efficient in disposing of dissenters. The resident who kept the online diary was heavily censored, and dealt with sharp commentary from readers. Those video bloggers disappeared. Many of the struggles experienced in other countries—lack of personal protective equipment, medical supplies, hospitals functioning over capacity—were quickly dismissed as rumors, and then censored. Despite this, the Chinese government struggled to maintain its positive image. But facing intense international and domestic criticism, China was aided as the United States and many countries in Europe completely botched their responses. 

China’s Response: Better In Some Ways By Comparison?

In late winter, European states took less aggressive measures compared to China to quash the growing pandemic. France had its first case of coronavirus in late December, although its first confirmed case was recorded in late January. It took French leadership two months after that first confirmed case to implement a lockdown, and despite this, the death count approaches thirty thousand. 

Italy, one of the first European nations to face the coronavirus, experienced a similar disaster. After the first reported cases of the virus, Italian leadership sought out the European Union’s solidarity mechanism, which shares responsibility among EU member nations in times of crisis. However, member nations ignored this request. Instead, France and Germany initiated export bans on medical equipment. Perhaps this exacerbated the medical crisis in Italy, but more importantly, it created a split within the European Union, weakening its integrity and allowing China to step in amongst the chaos. Delivering two hundred thousand N95 masks and fifty thousand testing kits, China became the unlikely hero for Europe. 

The European Union thus suffered an undermining of European solidarity: as China increased its presence in Europe, it augmented the pre-existing cleavages within the European Union. Chinese diplomacy ranges widely by country—in smaller EU nations, such as those in central and eastern Europe, Chinese influence is more subtle, manifesting in structural assistance projects such as the acceleration of the “green transition,” or the development of eco-friendly transportation infrastructure. 

For more powerful countries like France or Germany, this influence takes a much more aggressive form. Unlike its policy toward smaller EU nations, Chinese influence is less material. The Chinese Foreign Ministry instead focuses on asserting power diplomatically. For example, as China attempts to change perceptions of itself, attitudes toward China in more powerful EU nations have become hostile. The writers of the first draft of the official EU report on the coronavirus pandemic referenced China’s disinformation campaigns claiming that the United States was responsible for the outbreak. In particular, it noted that China had falsely accused French politicians of using racial slurs to refer to the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom.

China blocked the release of that first draft. Pressuring the European Union, they ensured that the new report would be less critical of Beijing. The rewritten version was published with toned-down language. While it is unclear whether this instance indicates China’s future successes in influencing foreign criticism, it does indicate that China is willing to respond materially if it feels that its legitimacy is being threatened.

The US Response

The United States was behind from the start. Its pandemic response team had been “largely disbanded” by the National Security Council, and other national health institutions had been considerably weakened. In 2017, Trump had proposed a $277 million cut in pandemic preparedness funding, which was rejected by Congress. A $1.35 billion budget cut was made to the CDC’s prevention and public health fund. These damages had been done several years before any confirmation of the coronavirus even surfaced.

The mistakes continued into 2020, even after the virus had reached US shores. The president dismissed warnings about the coronavirus as “alarmist”, hosting campaign rallies through January and February. By the end of February, more government officials advocated for a more serious response, but Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin resisted.

This increased production time and further slowed the dissemination of testing kits. The United States also ran out of masks and, like many other developed countries, had shortages on medical equipment. 

The stock market declined. The Trump administration was criticized for the small scope of several of its economic recovery programs. Concerned by the declining American economy, the Trump administration decided to open up businesses and public spaces in a bid to stop economic decline rather than wait for the virus to show signs of slowing down. States began to re-open prematurely. As of late June, all fifty states are in the midst of some re-opening process, but the manner in which the re-opening occurs varies by state, and it is increasingly clear that some states are being much less careful than others. 

These deficiencies in the US response hurt Americans, and it also allowed for Chinese propaganda to capitalize on US failures. In comparison to countries that managed the pandemic effectively, such as South Korea or Taiwan, the United States faltered, despite the coronavirus reaching the United States later than South Korea or Taiwan. American failures serve as evidence toward Chinese state narratives that China bought time for the world as the first victim of the coronavirus.

Ahead of the Curve

Given that China has finished its first wave of coronavirus cases and is weeks ahead of the West, it can focus on preparing for potential subsequent waves. In late May, amid a second wave of coronavirus cases, more strict lockdowns have taken place throughout China. Successful trials of a new coronavirus vaccine, developed with the help of CanSino, a Chinese firm, have inspired widespread hope. While economies around the world suffer greatly due to the lockdowns, China has begun an economic recovery by refocusing its economic goals to increased consumer spending rather than its sustained, rapid economic growth.

China is expecting a W-shaped economic recovery pattern, which involves a period of growth followed by a period of decline (granted the probability of more waves of the coronavirus and more lockdowns to follow), followed by another period of growth. Because of the unpredictable nature of coronavirus waves, it is unknown when the next economic decline might occur, and the Chinese government is preparing for these uncertainties. On May 22, the Chinese National People’s Congress presented a series of stimulus policies, focusing on creating nine million new jobs and a 3.5 percent increase in consumer price index (CPI). Increases in CPI indicate inflation, which, in a moderate amount, is often associated with high economic growth. High growth can lead to more employment, and thus the cycle of growth continues until the next major outbreak.

For now, the economic recovery plan seems to be working, and further success seems expected. The Chinese economy is opening quickly and efficiently. As of April 16, manufacturing had risen to about 80 percent capacity. The main concern now is who will buy the products made by the manufacturing sector. Consumers are concerned, and many of them have changed their spending habits. If Chinese industry is not able to regain the trust of its consumer base, China’s economic recovery is much less likely. 

Different sectors of the Chinese economy are intertwined in complicated ways, but because a significant portion of the Chinese economy is dependent on its manufacturing sector, overall consumer spending relies heavily on its success. With many Chinese workers working in manufacturing, consumer spending is reliant on their ability to earn a disposable income which can then be cycled through the rest of the Chinese economy when they purchase goods and services. For consumer spending to increase, however, the manufacturing sector needed to reopen.

Too Little, Too Late?

In the intermingled global economy, every country hit by the coronavirus is being challenged by this dependency on the manufacturing giant and economic powerhouse. China serves global supply chains. The world relies on China, not just for medical supplies during the pandemic, but for everyday goods—electronics, clothing, furniture, and so on. 

This dependency is far from ideal in times of crisis. When the coronavirus lockdowns began in late January, manufacturing sectors of the Wuhanese economy had to be shut down. Manufacturing plants closed. Workers went home. The production of frivolous and life-saving items alike stopped. Shortages of PPE and ventilators ensued.

If lockdowns continue, and if the following waves of the coronavirus are more severe, Chinese manufacturing may halt again. When manufacturing is centralized in one location, products are more at-risk of shortages: one accident or mishap (e.g., the coronavirus) could not only halt manufacturing for one product, but many. This type of shortage is especially dangerous during a pandemic, when every country is scrambling for necessary medical items that cannot be purchased from any country except the one that needed to halt manufacturing.

In light of these dangers during the pandemic, companies everywhere are beginning to look to move their supply chains. Fearing severe domestic consequences from a lagging economy, China’s propaganda attacks on the integrity of American and European governments may prove to be an attempt to prevent internal dissent. 

With supply-chain diversification becoming a new consideration for businesses everywhere, China has the most to lose. Approximately 40 percent of the Chinese GDP depends on the manufacturing sector. As countries decide to source parts of their supply-chains from elsewhere, it is clear that those countries will have to wait for those newer supply-chains to fully develop, but regardless of what is to be moved, China will have lost. 

If China accepts supply-chain diversification and allows for Western companies to relocate without repercussion, the West may be able to free itself from its dependence on China. But that result may not be so straightforward in reality. First, it is still unknown what the Chinese economic recovery plan will look like in practice. Although the recovery plan is focused on reviving the economy by encouraging consumer spending through the creation of more jobs, as mentioned before, spending has changed significantly since the pre-coronavirus era. Chinese people with more disposable income are spending their money much more carefully, which runs counter to the fact that American and Chinese companies alike are still relying on Chinese consumer markets for revenue.

With regard to the Chinese domestic economy, manufacturing jobs may be lost. Disposable income, as well as consumer spending, will decrease. What may rise, however, is dissatisfaction with the government. China has only just now finished combating the most powerful criticisms of the regime’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. If the economy takes a turn for the worse, the Chinese government must then fear that its legitimacy will no longer be taken seriously, not least from international spectators, but from its own citizens. 

An Insecure Future 

After the 2008 financial crisis, China released a massive economic stimulus plan for its citizens. The plan cost $586 billion and covered all types of economic sectors, from housing to electricity to transportation. Government spending was allocated toward government projects, creating new jobs and new sources of disposable income. It worked.  

However, the immense amount of spending in 2008 lingers today. China suffers from a massive amount of debt from the economic stimulus package of 2008, which is why Chinese government spending for the coronavirus stimulus plan cannot be as large as the one in 2008. Any money China chooses to spend needs to be spent wisely; since China has also been spending on international projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (which has cost about $200 billion in total thus far), its pockets are far too shallow to continue spending in drastic measures for the coronavirus crisis. 

Granted these current conditions, social instability is as great of a threat toward the state as ever. China’s official unemployment rate is 6 percent, but the real percentage of jobless Chinese people is said to be closer to 20 percent. The Chinese government is very rarely even willing to admit a statistic like a 6 percent unemployment rate, so it is likely that the situation is much worse. For such a looming state presence, China lacks many of the social security benefits that are key to many Western economies, particularly in terms of unemployment insurance. As people lose their jobs, the limited coverage of the Chinese social safety net will have a particularly destabilizing effect on Chinese society. As the job market becomes increasingly competitive due to recent university graduates entering the workforce, the Chinese government may have even more reason to fear social upheavals.

In this sense, China’s insecurity is glaringly obvious. Fearing internal dissent and regime destabilization, China churns out propaganda at home and abroad. It was effective in some ways: it was able to successfully infiltrate European solidarity in the wake of the virus, and it also successfully capitalized upon American mistakes, garnering the praise of notable American celebrities. Despite those efforts however, China’s propaganda war may not be enough. The economic factors outside of China’s reach may serve as the cause of potential instability.

Donna Son is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. The image used in this article was taken by China News Service and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. No changes were made to the original image, which can be found here.

Donna Son


<script type="text/javascript" src="//" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>