China and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Internal Doubts, External Mistakes

Main Image Credit Hong Kong disruptions at the airport due to pro-democracy protests. Courtesy of Studio Incendo/

China’s international narrative may sound confident and assertive. But it betrays domestic concerns, and is often counterproductive.

A String of Celebrations and Targets

Next year’s CCP centenary is part of a cycle of so-called ‘centenary goals’ which culminate in 2049. Both centenary goals were written into the Chinese Constitution in 2012 and inform a wide range of domestic and foreign policy milestones. Two important socioeconomic targets have to be reached soon in order to underline the party’s centennial: a doubling of the national GDP in comparison with the figures a decade ago, and the ‘elimination of poverty’ (defined as personal annual incomes below RMB 2,300 – roughly £260) by next year.

The achievement of these goals is viewed as essential to support the legitimacy of the CCP and the achievement of what President Xi Jinping calls the ‘Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation’, in which China returns to its rightful place on the global stage. 

Anything but Smooth Sailing

However, Beijing has faced increasing internal and external challenges.

The incarceration the Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in what the government terms ‘re-education centres’ or ‘vocational schools’ has drawn widespread condemnation, notably from Western nations. Meanwhile, the impending withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan has caused concern in Beijing over the potential security vacuum that might emerge on its doorstep.

Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020 produced record mass protests and violence on the streets. This offered a glimpse of a future under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement that China also proposes to Taiwan. This was decisively rejected by the Taiwanese public in the January 2020 elections, in which the incumbent pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party government and its President, Tsai Ing-wen, won a second term despite Beijing’s efforts to pressure and persuade Taiwan to accept future reunification.

Beijing’s assertive conduct in the sovereign waters of littoral states in the South China Sea through the use of its maritime militia, surveying vessels, and coast guard, continue to heighten tensions. To Beijing’s irritation, countries like the UK have vowed to play a greater role upholding the rules-based international order in the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, China now finds itself central to a global discussion around the rules-based international order, in which the US and allies are wary of Chinese revisionism.

At the same time, Xi’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative has lost some of its shine, with concerns over, for example, unsustainable lending practices and concerns that this is part of a greater Chinese ambition to garner strategic political influence and promote Chinese technical and governance standards, while utilising infrastructure for dual-use civilian and military purposes. As a result, Chinese activities abroad now face growing Western scrutiny. It has also catalysed responses designed to offer alternative infrastructure development, such as the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative, and the EU’s Strategy for Connecting Europe and Asia.

If this were not enough, China’s role in multilateral forums is facing increased criticism after the perceived failure in objectivity by the World Health Organization in its handling of the global pandemic.

However, perhaps the most acute challenge will be the impact of the pandemic on China’s economy at a time when the CCP is desperate to demonstrate success in the run-up to the 2021 milestone celebrations. Beijing was already facing challenges. In 2019, China recorded its slowest year-on-year economic growth in 27 years, compounded by the trade war with the US. Against this background, in January 2020, Xi remarked that China faces ‘a race against time to reach the Chinese Dream’.

Between January and March 2020, Chinese GDP shrank by 6.8% – the first year-on-year contraction since 1976. Even if China’s economy begins to slowly recover in the next six months, the international markets upon which it depends may not yet have caught up owing to the domino-effect of the pandemic. BRI projects will not be spared, with their labour restricted and supply chains frozen, and host country economies equally affected. A recent study by the Rhodium Group estimated that China has so far renegotiated debt with 40 countries to the tune of $50 billion, even before the pandemic.

Understanding Target Audiences of Beijing’s Narrative

China’s coronavirus narrative is directed primarily at domestic audiences, where online criticism has been further censored, while outspoken critics like Ren Zhiqiang have been placed under investigation. The virus, according to the narrative being propagated by government spokespersons, did not originate in China and its spread was a failure of local government, not central leadership, despite some evidence to the contrary. The official line argues that the central government has excelled at handling the crisis. The government also seeks to drive up nationalist sentiment by illustrating that it retains a prominent global position through its foreign assistance, while maintaining a robust domestic deterrent and operational readiness to protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity through an unaffected People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

For foreign audiences, the narrative of a global leader ready to help initially gained traction in countries where pro-Chinese sentiment amongst governing elites was already apparent, such as in Italy, Serbia, Pakistan, and Iran. The twin objective is to deflect from any discussion of the pandemic’s origin in China and the government’s initial mismanagement of it. To Asian neighbours and to the wider international community, the PLA’s manoeuvres in the South China Sea and around Taiwan act as a warning that China has not been weakened militarily.

When ‘Damage Control’ Creates More Damage

Promoting the conspiracy theory that a US Army delegation brought the virus to Wuhan might work to enhance Chinese nationalist sentiment, but seems likely to ensure an even more difficult relationship with the US. Likewise, floating the idea that coronavirus may have originated in Italy is another own-goal: at a time when Sino-scepticism in the EU is on the rise, Beijing can hardly afford to lose friends in Europe – not least since Italy was the first G7 country to sign up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And for African countries which have to varying extents looked to China as a political and developmental model, the recent discrimination against Africans in Chinese cities like Guangzhou, where Africans have been evicted from their homes, threatens to severely strain bilateral relations.

Yet despite these counterproductive moves, Beijing will continue to promote its ‘gestures of goodwill’. Beijing has learned its lesson from the initial public relations disasters of poor-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) and faulty virus testing kits. It has rectified this by implementing tougher quality control measures on PPE exports. But such measures are unlikely to fully deflect attention away from Beijing’s role in the pandemic. The probable waves of coronavirus in the future will regularly remind the world of the costs imposed by a virus which originated in China.

There are signs of a growing recognition of this counterproductive element, including in a recent article by Fu Ying, the former Chinese Ambassador to the UK and incumbent Chairperson of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee. While not referring to the pandemic specifically, Fu elaborated on how China’s strategic communications needed to evolve in order to bridge China’s communications deficit with its intended audiences overseas. This included a need to display more humility and tolerance, potentially a sign that ‘Wolf Warrior’ discourse is unhelpful. The term, named after a 2015 patriotic film – described as China’s version of ‘Rambo’ – refers to an aggressive style of diplomacy and strategic communications employed by Chinese diplomats and spokespersons.

However, this ‘fighting spirit’ will do little to advance China’s position on the global stage post-pandemic. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has recently stated that the ‘UK cannot return to business as usual with Beijing’ after the coronavirus crisis. Similarly, Margrethe Vestager, Vice-President of the EU Commission and EU Commissioner for Competition, has urged European governments to buy stakes in EU companies to mitigate the threat of predatory Chinese takeover bids, as European economies are weakened by the coronavirus health crisis. Japan is incentivising its companies to move production lines out of China.

In short, without a course correction, the road ahead will not be as smooth for China as its media outlets portray it to be.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Veerle Nouwens

Senior Research Fellow

International Security Studies

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