How China is rewriting the coronavirus narrative to distract from mistakes at home

Chinese international aid outreach distracts from early failure to contain coronavirus

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Chinese Leader Xi Jinping is playing a strong hand abroad in order to distract from mistake made in the early days of the coronavirus epidemic, regional experts contend
Chinese Leader Xi Jinping is playing a strong hand abroad in order to distract from mistake made in the early days of the coronavirus epidemic, regional experts contend Credit: Xinhua

China is rewriting the history of its handling of the coronavirus outbreak with Beijing looking to take on the role of global Good Samaritan as the disease takes hold in Europe and America, regional experts have warned.

 As cases subside at home – national health authorities announced on Friday zero new transmissions for the second consecutive day - China’s autocratic leadership has moved swiftly to snatch a propaganda victory out of the disaster. 

 While thousands of patients remain in hospital and the death toll of more than 3,200 ticks upward daily as some new infections arrive from travellers returning from abroad, the Chinese government's news-making machine has gone into overdrive.

But the heavy-handed messaging glosses over Beijing’s sluggish initial response, including silencing whistleblowers, and the looming questions over whether disaster could have been averted. 

Members of a Chinese aid team arrive at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, late Thursday, March 12, 2020. Credit: Xinhua

 While Xi Jinping, leader of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, declared victory in the “people’s war” against the virus, many Chinese know their government was slow off the mark.

 “It is the cover-up of the Communist Party for the first two months or so, which created conditions to generate a global pandemic,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute. 

 Despite praise from the World Health Organisation for China’s subsequent moves to arrest the outbreak, a recent study by the University of Southampton found that 95 per cent of infections in China could have been prevented had the government acted three weeks sooner.  

 To rehabilitate its image and shore up the Party’s credibility, Beijing is now distracting attention from its failures at home by framing itself as the world leader in virus response – a model for other countries and a shoulder to lean on.

 China, the world’s largest producer of medicines and protective masks, is sending assistance and selling medical equipment to nations grappling with the coronavirus, bolstering diplomatic ties while shoring up Party credibility at home.

 Beijing last week offered more than two million face masks and 50,000 testing kits to the European Union. In recent days, planes with one million face masks and other medical materials have landed in Prague. And in Italy, 300 Chinese intensive-care doctors touched down this week. 

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic talks in front of medical experts from China after they arrived to the Nikola Tesla airport with medical supplies to help country's fight against coronavirus (COVID-19) Credit: Reuters

China has also shipped 2,000 rapid diagnostic tests to the Philippines, which has been unable to rapidly diagnose patients, leading to the silent spread of the disease and one of the highest death rates in the world.

Even Malaysia, historically wary of Chinese attempts to gain influence, has expressed gratitude toward China for dispatching 100,000 masks and other medical supplies.

“China wants to be seen as a helping hand, not only having contained the virus earlier than anyone else, but also being the major donor of assistance to other countries in need,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. 

Nations are already dripping with praise for China’s actions, particularly in the periphery states that have found themselves shut out when the EU froze exports of certain medical supplies to non-EU states in a bid to preserve stocks.

Serbian president Aleksandr Vucic said on Monday he had appealed to his “brother,” Xi Jinping, for assistance. 

 “By now you all understand that great international solidarity does not exist. European solidarity does not exist. It was a fairy tale on paper,” Mr Vucic said in a televised speech as he declared a national emergency. “Today, I sent a special letter to the only ones who can help, and that is China.”

A memorial for Dr Li Wenliang, who was the whistleblower of the Coronavirus, Covid-19, who was initially silenced and condemned by Chinese authorities. An apology was later issued.  Credit: AFP

 Chinese state media has been quick to amplify positive international headlines about Beijing’s support for other countries, ignoring the fact that “Europe is short of face masks and medical equipment partly because we sent a whole load of them to China in January and February,” said Mr Tsang.

 When thanking Beijing for sending supplies, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, noted the EU had donated 50 tonnes of equipment to China at the height of the country’s outbreak. 

China is even trying to slot itself as a leader in coordinating Asia’s response. On Friday, the foreign ministers of China, South Korea and Japan held a video conference to discuss how to prevent infections arriving from overseas, while minimising damage to their economies.

In the ultimate move to divert attention and responsibility away from itself, China’s diplomats have begun to seed doubt about where the coronavirus emerged, going so far as to accuse the US military for bringing the disease onshore.

 Seeding conspiracy theories acts as a “distraction against the growing criticism against Xi Jinping and how the government has managed the crisis,” said Mr Cabestan. 

Beijing is working to “convince their own population that the government has handled this well,” said Charlie Parton, a senior associate at the Royal United Services Institute and a former veteran diplomat in China. 

 “Part of that is an external propaganda wave they can then play back into the country as ‘this is China saving the world.’”