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The world continues to reel under the impact of Covid-19. Even as a vast majority of scientists across the globe seem to agree that SARS-Cov-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the pandemic is not manmade, the upcoming World Health Organisation (WHO)-led international enquiry is aimed at settling the matter for good. Apart from the origin of the virus, the world is also eager to find out how the Chinese leadership that swiftly contained the virus outbreak inside the country failed in preventing its spread beyond its borders? More importantly, it also needs to be probed if, and/or why the Chinese leadership failed in alerting the world about the human-to-human transmission trait of SAR-Cov-2 on a real-time basis.  However, there is general scepticism on the potential outcome of the investigation as China is widely expected to turn the international investigation into a ‘conducted tour’ that would absolve itself of any culpability. Even as China, true to its reputation, has not regretted, or even expressed any remorse for its part, whatever that be, in the spread of the pandemic, it is interesting to look at how they handled the global backlash that followed the Covid-19 outbreak. 

To ward off the accusations flying at it from all directions, China soon projected itself as a victim of the pandemic, and subsequently a benefactor of the world in the latter’s fight against the calamity.  It donated face masks, personal protection equipment (PPEs), ventilators, medicines etc., though limited in quantities, to some countries, selected with ‘certain’ criteria that suited its overall geopolitical strategy. Interestingly, it even pushed to ‘export’ its so-called ‘successful governance strategies’ in handling the pandemic. As a part of this, it encouraged Chinese companies, both in the public and private sectors, to ‘donate’, and later sell selected healthcare-related software that was claimed to have been used successfully to trace, track and monitor citizens identified as suspected and confirmed cases of Covid-19.

However, there were allegations of knavery behind some of these seemingly charitable activities. An example relevant in this context is this: even as a host of countries across the globe were avoiding conducting an adequate number of Covid-19 tests on their citizens as the respective governments continued to struggle to acquire the requisite number of testing kits, a city like Wuhan was fully equipped to carry out over 11 million tests within two weeks in May 2020 when a person who has been showing symptoms of the disease for about three months was ultimately tested positive! That the country has every right to stock up any number of such material is not questioned here.

Further, the Chinese who believe that “the best defence is a good offence” unleashed a massive disinformation campaign in the country and abroad. It used all conceivable platforms, particularly the new media and social media, to discredit the democratic countries across the globe, particularly the US, the UK and France for their alleged failure in containing Covid-19 in their respective countries. Its diplomats, generally shy, lowkey, careful speakers unleashed attacks on host governments in an unprecedented way, attracting the epithet wolf warrior diplomats.  The Chinese campaign focused on the alleged failure of the democracies in protecting the lives and livelihoods of their citizens as opposed to the ‘Chinese governance system’ that it claimed was successful in these matters. Condemning the demands of Western democracies for an impartial investigation into the origin of the virus, it said that a “vast majority of countries believed that the containment and control of Covid-19 was need of the hour …… and politicising the origin of the virus has no audience”. In fact, it was clear from the beginning that the Chinese campaign was mainly aimed at calming down its own citizens who were alleging in domestic social media platforms that their leadership was hiding many facts related to Covid-19, including the actual number of deaths.

China also adopted several strategies to whip up nationalist feelings among the masses, as it had done whenever there were difficulties at home. For example, as many China watchers believe, one of the reasons for the timing of the 1962 border war with India was the difficulties and challenges Mao Zedong faced domestically after the total failure of the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign.  Likewise, as Xi Jinping faced increased pressure related to Covid-19 on various fronts, China unleashed a series of political, economic and military manoeuvres against India, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, France, the US and some claimant nations in the South China Sea dispute as all the respective governments were fully engrossed in their fight against Covid-19. After all, the Chinese have learnt from Sun Tsu “to strike the adversary when he is weak and vulnerable”. They also used the opportunity to get the controversial National Security Law passed by the National People’s Congress [in Beijing] to contain dissent and movements seeking democratic rights in Hong Kong that hitherto it had failed in getting approved by the Legislative Council of Hong Kong SAR. This, observers feel is the severest blow to the concept of one country two systems. Interestingly, the government/CPC-controlled Chinese media regulated the coverage of such developments in a way that people’s attention stayed on these matters even as care was taken not to allow things to go out of control at home. 

Following its time-tested practice of sacrificing lower-level cadres to ensure that the image of the Chinese Communist Party or its top leadership is not tarnished, they took severe punitive actions against senior Party and government functionaries in Hubei province and Wuhan city for their alleged ineptitude in handling the coronavirus outbreak. They even modified the previous numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases and related deaths in the country, giving unconvincing excuses for the earlier mistakes. The Chinese leadership believed that such actions would offset, at least in the immediate term, the simmering discontent among the masses, as discussed below.  

As the United States started attacking the WHO for its alleged China-centric stand on the Covid-19 issue, i.e., “mismanaging the spread of the novel coronavirus, and of not acting quickly enough to investigate the virus when it first emerged in China in December 2019” and halted financial contributions to the world body, China took the moral high ground and exhorted other countries to support the world body in fighting the pandemic. It followed it up by making a contribution of US$ 30 million for the “fight against coronavirus pandemic, particularly in developing countries”. This was in addition to US$ 20 million donated earlier. The government/CPC controlled media there turned hyperbolic in condemning the US, asserting that its “selfish and indifferent moves once again clearly exposed a severe lack of international responsibility”. Many observers believe that the US then trying to retrieve the situation by writing to the WHO that it would permanently end all funding to the organisation if it did not “commit to substantive improvements within the next 30 days” might have been influenced to an extent by the anti-US Chinese propaganda.

China had initially rejected the demand from a vast majority of the WHO members for an independent international investigation into the Covid-19 outbreak and related issues. Sensing that the general mood had been against it, in a sudden U-turn, it gave up its initial resistance and agreed to allow the investigation at the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) in May 2020. In fact, it went a step further and cosponsored the resolution it was not willing to agree to only a few days earlier.  In the process, it managed to delay the investigation by taking the stand that even as a “comprehensive review of the global response to Covid-19” was necessary, it would yield better results [if the same was done] only after the pandemic was brought under control”. Significantly, it also succeeded in watering down the content and tenor of the resolution.  Some believe that on the one side it was a tactic to allow the anti-China sentiments that prevailed at the time globally to cool down, and on the other, give itself the time required to “prepare” for the investigation.

As the US threatened the WHO with severe punitive measures as mentioned above, China further exploited the situation and decided that its President address the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) to soften the growing criticism among the member countries. In a carefully drafted speech, President Xi underlined “how people around the world have looked out for each other and pulled together as one. With love and compassion, we have forged extraordinary synergy in the fight against COVID-19”, he added. He topped it up with a commitment to support the demand that any COVID-19 “vaccine development and deployment should be made [for the] public good to ensure vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries”.  China also used its influence to successfully block the participation of Taiwan in the WHA. This, notwithstanding the unanimous view globally that whatever be Taiwan’s political status, people there cannot be deprived of their right to good health. It is pertinent to mention here that Taiwan had officially alerted the WHO about the human-to-human transmission capability of the novel coronavirus as early as on 31 December 2019! That the world body ignored the warning, primarily because it was leery of Beijing’s potential reaction, is another matter.

As the pandemic was wreaking havoc across the globe, China stepped up its interactions with smaller countries that look up to it for investments, trade and other forms of benefits. Interestingly, it has decided to recalibrate several projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in different parts of the world to suit the changes in its post-COVID-19 economy and those of the potential host nations.  It also went about aggressively across the globe picking up real estate assets, shares and stocks of good companies that had suffered in the aftermath of Covid-19 but had the potential to bounce back later, prompting several countries, including India, to put restrictions on China’s such ruthless opportunistic manoeuvres.  What surprised some observers was that it was the Chinese central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), that picked up interests in a leading Indian private bank even as a section in the general public in India mistook it for a normal commercial act by Bank of China, a leading government owned commercial bank! If this one act by the Chinese central bank did not throw enough light on China’s future long-term intents with regard to India, and the world, what more is required to understand that, one wonders!

Even as there are reports of several manufacturing units moving out of China to other countries, and to some extent to India as well, the country may not be overly worried at this, particularly with regard to the low-value manufacturing sector. It is primarily because this development is happening at a time when the country is in the midst of its efforts to move away from low-value, low-end manufacturing to transition into a country like Germany, excelling in manufacturing innovative high-value, high-tech products. It has already moved ahead with automation in many sectors. This is a ‘natural trajectory’ other Asian economies like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, some ASEAN countries etc. followed in their journey to where they are today. It had hoped to accommodate a good number of those who lose jobs in this transition in various BRI projects across the globe. However, the fresh round of job losses consequent to the post-COVID-19 depressed demand from domestic consumers as well as overseas customers in the manufacturing and services sectors is, indeed, a cause of worry for the Chinese leadership. Such recurrent loss of jobs by millions and the delay in finding employment for the millions of new aspirants coming out of universities and technical institutions could lead to people questioning the ability of the Communist Party to meet their aspirations, resulting in social unrest.  

As discussed earlier in this platform and elsewhere by this author, the Chinese are engaged in an exercise aimed at ‘establishing’, albeit at an ‘appropriate time’, that the SARS-CoV-2 virus did not originate, but only emerge in Wuhan. It is expected to claim that the virus entered the country through southern China from another country in Asia, Western Africa or South America where bats inhibiting coronaviruses are found. They also seem to be ready with an alternate theory that the virus would have entered China on a human carrier or a contaminated package imported from a Western country like the US or France, or a South American country like Brazil or Ecuador. China believes that with such a ‘revelation’ by the WHO investigation and some major concessions in trade and commerce coming its way, the United States, with or without a change in presidency, will be keen to ‘honourably exonerate’ it [China] of its alleged ‘culpability’ in the ‘coronavirus affair’, leading to a thaw in the current chill in bilateral trade and commercial relations. 

The Chinese presume that the US is likely to salvage, even if temporarily, some of its waning glory and influence as a realisation has since dawned on the latter that allies and partners needed to be treated with more sensitivity. And, China on the other side would keep showering friends with even more debt-linked largesse and keep the others who don’t succumb to its will under constant pressure. The Chinese assess that such a scenario would mark the beginning of a new world order where it can deal with the US as an equal player in the global arena.  At the same time, the current Chinese leadership also believes that its journey to regain its lost place in the comity of nations and exercise its mandate to lead the world as the principal superpower under a new-fangled tianxia concept has since begun. Its ambitious leadership often appear to feign a lack of understanding of the international order and related niceties to take advantage of this flux to manoeuvre the initial phase of that arduous journey. And, there are several examples even in the recent past that shows that it does not hesitate to use crude force where it feels it is necessary to achieve this coveted long-term goal. 

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

By Muraleedharan Nair

After completing studies at the University of Kerala, Muraleedharan Nair did a Post-graduate programme in Marketing and Advertising from Bhavan’s Rajendra Prasad Institute of Communication and Management, Mumbai. He has held various positions in the Government, in India, and abroad. Besides publishing research papers in various books and journals, Mr Nair writes commentaries in newspapers and magazines regularly. He also participates in conferences, seminars, and panel discussions on strategic affairs at different universities, think tanks, TV channels, All India Radio, etc. A Senior Fellow with the Centre for Public Policy Research, he speaks Urdu and Chinese.