The term ‘responsible power’ is finding its way into Chinese official lexicon more frequently — including in President Xi Jinping’s report to the 19th party congress. But being a responsible power is easier said than done. As China’s experience with the outside world since the outbreak of COVID-19 testifies, it can be difficult and even traumatic.
Beijing is fighting the virus at home and fending off suspicions and criticisms overseas. Despite its success in containing the virus — following a short period of hesitation and confusion — and its unprecedented assistance to others when the epidemic became a global pandemic, China is not receiving recognition or appreciation for these efforts it thinks dues. Instead, China is receiving much ridicule and accusations of bad faith, especially from the United States — probably the largest recipient of medical supplies from China.
When infection of COVID-19 began in Wuhan in December 2019, people knew very little about the virus. The Wuhan government was caught completely unprepared and initially refrained from taking tough measures to control the virus.
The delay in taking more effective measures to address the epidemic turned out to be lethal. Soon the virus took over the city and spread beyond it. Then Beijing stepped in. It sacked Wuhan’s leaders and took unprecedented measures to contain the virus, including locking down the city of 17 million, sending more than 40,000 medical staff and huge quantities of medical supplies, quickly building two large temporary hospitals and imposing the strictest social distancing policies in history nationwide. Except for essential industries and services, the country was shut down.
As more people were infected and died in China, popular frustration mounted and complaints filled internet chatrooms. People were frustrated with the delay in an official response, the treatment of Dr Li Wenliang who warned his friends and colleagues about the virus, and the difficulty in accessing medical treatment. Against a background of soured relations between China and the United States and increasingly critical views of the West on Chinese politics and foreign policy, the Western media had a field day covering these complaints.
On 31 January, the United States led the world in imposing a travel ban on foreigners who had been in China in the previous 14 days. The United States ramped up hostile action against China, including passing the so-called Taipei Act. Promised US official assistance did not arrive.
Confronted with domestic and international pressures, Beijing took a two-pronged approach to its foreign relations.
First, it engaged in international cooperation. Soon after it realised the severity of the situation, it updated the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States on the crisis, shared the gene sequence of COVID-19 (as soon as its scientists were able to identify it) and agreed to the WHO’s request to send investigators to China.
Second, Beijing went out of its way to fight the Western smear campaign. To counter the conspiracy stories coming from the United States about the origin of the virus, a senior diplomat tweeted openly his suspicion that the US military brought the virus to Wuhan. His allegation contributed to US President Donald Trump’s efforts to rename COVID-19 ‘the Chinese virus’. It took a Xi–Trump summit call to de-escalate the tension.
Despite the one or two months time that China bought for the rest of the world to prepare for the epidemic, European countries and the United States were still ill-prepared. As the number of confirmed cases and the death toll rocketed in these and other countries, China responded by sending medical teams and shipping large quantities of medical supplies overseas.
Beijing believed it deserved recognition both for successfully controlling the epidemic in China and for providing so much assistance to the outside world despite the limited aid it had received during its crisis. But instead of international appreciation, there was only another round of China-bashing.
Perhaps out of concern that China’s efforts would lead to greater Chinese influence and to divert attention from their own responses to the virus, the United States and some of its western allies first attacked China for allegedly politicising aid and sending medical supplies of poor quality. Then they touted the idea that China’s lack of transparency and poor handling of the epidemic was responsible for their woes.
With its popular support waning, the Trump administration decided to use the China issue to rally domestic support for the upcoming presidential election. It propagated the story that China created the virus in a Wuhan lab against the prevailing view of the Western intelligence and science communities.
Infuriated by these accusations, the Chinese government encouraged its diplomats to launch a new round of counter-China bashing campaigns. They took every opportunity to fight the accusations — speaking up at press conferences, media interviews, international meetings and in newspaper articles. Some diplomats went out of their way to be tough and became known as ‘wolf warrior diplomats’. The Chinese official TV station’s commentaries at points specifically named US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon people with evil intent.
Despite this counteroffensive, China continued to live up to its own international responsibilities by delivering aid to other countries and endorsing multilateral cooperation to manage COVID-19 fallout. It fought against US attempts to smear and sabotage the WHO’s efforts to fight the virus. In response to US suspension of support to the WHO, China donated an additional US$30 million to the organisation.
Looking ahead, China’s diplomacy is likely to continue unchanged for the foreseeable future — fending off Western attacks and endorsing international efforts to fight the pandemic. Despite the challenges in its quest to be a responsible power, China does not believe it should give up. To many, it will appear, the search has only just begun.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.