A new “red scare” is developing in the U.S.
While Beijing is busy with a global propaganda crusade following the spread of the coronavirus from China to around the world, foreign policy hawks in Washington are seething.
Donald Trump lashes out at Beijing’s response to the crisis at daily press conferences amid growing reports of anti-Chinese sentiment among Americans. As a scholar of international affairs and former policy advisor to the German Embassy in Beijing, it is clear to me that China is turning the crisis into an opportunity. It is touting its role in the world and praising its governmental system and enormous countrywide surveillance network for successfully battling the coronavirus.
Yet, this is the nature of international relationships. The U.S. or any other great power would be tempted to do the same. China is exploiting the situation while the U.S. and the Western world are occupied with their own problems and have little time for anything else.
During most of Trump’s years in office, relations between China and the U.S. have been tense. Much of this has centered on the huge American trade deficit with China which Trump strongly criticized even before he became president.
In the 2016 election campaign, Trump accused Beijing of “raping” the U.S. and talked about “the greatest theft [of American jobs] in the history of the world.” While referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a good friend, Trump has accused China of intellectual property theft, unfair trade practices and lack of market access for U.S. companies.
In late 2018, the U.S. president unleashed a painful trade war with sharply escalating tariffs, but it did little to resolve Trump’s grievances. Neither the U.S. nor China could win this harmful conflict and a provisional trade deal was signed on Jan. 15, 2020.
The truce lasted exactly two weeks. On Jan. 31, Trump announced a travel ban on visitors from China.
In his many remarks on the crisis since, Trump has not hesitated to resort to language criticized as xenophobic and anti-Chinese, such as referring to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus.”
Meanwhile, the administration has done little to discourage a conspiracy theory that has the virus originating from a Chinese research laboratory near Wuhan and not from a live animal market in the city – which most scientists believe. On April 15, Trump said the U.S. was investigating the lab claim and ratcheted up the rhetoric further a few days later by suggesting that China would face consequences if it was “knowingly responsible” for the pandemic. Meanwhile Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said China needs to “come clean” over the emergence of the virus and how it spread.
Certainly there are many questions that need to be answered over the true extent of the disease in China – on April 17 Beijing revised the number of fatalities in Wuhan up by 50% – but the rhetoric from the White House may be contributing to anti-Chinese sentiment directed not at the government in Beijing, but at people in China and of Chinese descent.
On the ground in U.S. cities and towns, Asian Americans are reporting being subjected to verbal and even physical abuse.
The Chinese government isn’t blameless when it comes to conspiracy theories. With the likely nod of Beijing’s all-powerful seven-member Standing Committee of the Politbureau, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian speculated wildly on Twitter that it might well have been the U.S. army which brought the virus to Wuhan.
There have also been plenty of reports that foreigners, in particular Africans who live in China, have faced severe discrimination and abuse since the coronavirus crisis broke. They are unfairly accused of having imported the virus to China.
Meanwhile, both Washington and Beijing have put in place tit-for-tat restrictions on each others’ media outlets, severely limiting the number of journalists who are allowed to work in their respective countries.
It accompanied growing reports in the western media about China’s slow initial response to the virus and the silencing of the late Dr. Li Wenliang and other doctors who had attempted to alert Chinese authorities about the looming pandemic as early as December 2019.
Despite a sluggish start which contributed to the initial spread of the virus, China has since trumpeted the success of its policy of locking down entire cities and provinces. The country has now been able to open up for business again.
Beijing is also praising itself as a benign global hero by donating and selling huge amounts of much-needed face masks, ventilators and other protective gear to countries round the world, including the U.S.
In so doing, China is subtly using the opportunity to expand its global influence, not least its soft power appeal. Beijing has embarked on a global “charm offensive.”
While this may be regrettable from a Western perspective, would any other big country behave differently? If the roles were reversed, I believe the U.S. would also be tempted to exploit its position for political advantage.
It seems this is the instinctive reaction of any great power. But there is no reason for panic about this. Without doubt, relations between China and many of the countries it is helping have become closer. But they still need to be cemented in the long run – this may or may not happen.
Ruling the world?
China, like many great powers, has a track record of not following through with its promises of financial help.
Just ask the countries who have signed up to Beijing’s huge and creative Belt and Road initiative that seeks to pump Chinese money into infrastructure projects around the world, or the 17+1 China-Central Eastern Europe initiative linking China with governments in central and eastern Europe, including many EU countries. There is much disappointment about broken or semi-fulfilled financial promises and agreements.
And some of the face masks and other gear donated to European countries have proven faulty or of inferior quality.
For the time being, the world should be pleased that China is able and willing to help out with much needed equipment as well as doctors and nurses to help fight the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. and elsewhere.
It does not mean that once the crisis is over, China will be able to run the world. In fact, the U.S. should build on Beijing and Washington’s haphazard and sporadic cooperation during the current crisis to improve relations with China in a more lasting way.
This article by Klaus W. Larres first appeared in The Conversation on April 4, 2020.