How China is ruthlessly exploiting the coronavirus pandemic it helped cause

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Serbian Minister of Mining and Energy Aleksandar Antić and Chinese Ambassador to Serbia Chen Bo pose for a photo in front of an airplane carrying equipment for new Serbian Covid-19 labs in Belgrade, Serbia, on April 15, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic that rages across the globe is a fire China helped light. And now, while Beijing grasps a fire hose with two hands, it’s also planting a boot on the world’s neck.

The Chinese government spent weeks denying and downplaying the severity of its growing coronavirus outbreak that eventually spread to the rest of the world. That obfuscation cost nations crucial time in preparing for and potentially curbing the damage of Covid-19. Some experts Vox spoke with believe President Xi Jinping’s regime should be held accountable for the more than 3 million infections and 200,000 deaths that have taken place worldwide.

But China isn’t letting the crisis go to waste. Instead of looking to make amends, Beijing is taking advantage of the chaos to pursue its long-term foreign policy goals more aggressively.

“When it sees opportunities, China moves to exploit them,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, DC. “And we are in a moment where the Chinese definitely see opportunities.”

China has capitalized on the world’s distraction to claim sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, intimidate Taiwan, and assert more authority over Hong Kong in an attempt to quash the pro-democracy movement there.

It’s taken advantage of vulnerable countries in Africa that are struggling to cope with the coronavirus and its economic impact by offering much-needed debt relief — but only if those countries provide lucrative national assets as collateral.

And after the US suspended funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) for allegedly being too cozy with Beijing, the Chinese government pledged millions of dollars in additional support for the organization, giving China even more influence in the global health agency and allowing the country to portray itself as the new champion of multilateralism.

Amid all this, China has launched a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the virus onto other countries — for instance, alleging the virus really originated in the US, or maybe in Italy. It also sent needed medical equipment and doctors to heavily impacted countries where it seeks to expand its influence, allowing Beijing to play the hero of the pandemic instead of the villain.

“Everything they’re doing is a full-court press,” said Michael Sobolik, an expert on China at the American Foreign Policy Council. “Across the board, China is pushing hard.”

Experts say this is all part of Xi’s broader strategy to dislodge America as the world’s sole superpower and expand China’s reach around the world. In other words, he’s merely exploiting the coronavirus crisis to achieve his aims even faster.

Make China Great Again, but faster

Andrew Erickson, an expert on China at the US Naval War College, has no doubts about what Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) want.

“To the extent that any nation has a grand strategy, China surely does. The vision is no secret: Xi Jinping vows to make China great again,” Erickson wrote for War on the Rocks in October 2019. “Xi’s strategy for a modern China of unprecedented power and influence requires recapturing lost glories at home and abroad.”

Xi himself has said as much. During a major speech in October 2017, he named specific timelines for his grandiose goals: China would have a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2021; it would be a world leader in technology and military modernization by 2035; and by 2049, Beijing’s decades-long dispute with Taiwan would be resolved.

Those are big promises made on tight deadlines. It’s no surprise, then, that Xi wouldn’t waste a chance to make progress on those plans. “If you have the opportunity to step on the gas, you seize it,” said Aaron Friedberg, a China expert at Princeton University.

And seize it China has.

On April 14, President Donald Trump announced the US would temporarily halt funding to the WHO, arguing that the global health body is too “China centric” and was too lenient on Beijing in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

And just two weeks later, China publicly pledged an additional $30 million in funding to the WHO. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Beijing donated the money because it was “defending the ideals and principle of multilateralism and upholding the status and authority of the United Nations.”

Few believe it was an altruistic move. Rather, most say it was opportunistic: The US left a leadership void, and China quickly stepped in to fill it. With just a (relatively) small donation, Beijing gets to look like a staunch advocate of global cooperation and a responsible partner in the public health response to the coronavirus, in contrast to the US.

“Thirty million is drop in the bucket,” Sobolik said. “If they wanted to contribute more, they absolutely could contribute more. But it’s really a signal to the White House and the world that the US may not have as much clout as it thinks.”

America’s pause on WHO funding, then, played right into China’s hands. “It’s a gift from the Trump administration,” Glaser told me.

Xi has also used the distraction of the coronavirus pandemic to exert more authority in Hong Kong and crack down on the pro-democracy movement there.

On April 18, more than a dozen pro-democracy activists and lawmakers were arrested in Hong Kong, marking the largest single-day roundup in years. One of those detained was Martin Lee, the 81-year-old founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, who has since blasted Beijing for trying to impose complete authority over the city.

“Hong Kong people now face two plagues from China: the coronavirus and attacks on our most basic human rights,” he wrote in the Washington Post three days after his arrest. “We can all hope a vaccine is soon developed for the coronavirus. But once Hong Kong’s human rights and rule of law are rolled back, the fatal virus of authoritarian rule will be here to stay.”

Beijing has also started to publicly weigh in on domestic Hong Kong politics in a new way. For instance, in mid-April, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the Chinese state agency that closely oversees Hong Kong, criticized some of the city’s lawmakers for filibustering debates, which it said has led to a backlog of legislation.

Taken together, experts say Beijing is using the coronavirus as a cover to cement its authoritarian rule over Hong Kong and stamp out the pro-democracy movement once and for all.

China is also trying to spread that rule elsewhere.

Beijing has long laid claim to disputed islands in the South China Sea. To stake its claim, Chinese naval vessels have pushed other claimants, like the Philippines and Vietnam, out of the area so it can have full control of the islands and the oil and natural gas resources around them.

That practice hasn’t stopped during the pandemic. Earlier this month, for example, a Chinese ship sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea and claimed other regional islands for itself.

“China may be hoping to both send a message to other countries involved in the South China Sea that China will not back down under any circumstances, and send a message to a domestic population about the strong leadership of the party,” Kelsey Broderick, a China analyst at the Eurasia Group consulting firm, told CNBC on April 13.

China’s military, meanwhile, continues to place pressure on Taiwan, including by regularly flying fighter jets near Taiwanese airspace and sending flotillas close to the island. This is relatively normal behavior — Beijing puts on this kind of show of force all the time — but the US clearly sees an extra layer of threat in these times. US warships, which usually sail by Taiwan about once a month, have been in the area at least twice in April.

And China is also flexing its muscles on other continents, especially in Africa. Many African governments struggling to respond to the coronavirus are asking for debt relief so they can invest more in health care, sanitation, food, and social programs to keep millions of people safe during the pandemic.

China, one of the continent’s largest creditors, is balking at the idea of large-scale debt relief out of fear it might set a bad precedent of debt forgiveness. And according to the Wall Street Journal, Chinese leaders have asked officials from at least one country, Zambia, to provide collateral — in this case, Zambian copper-mining assets — in exchange for economic help.

Experts Vox spoke with aren’t surprised by this, as they say China has a very transactional view of foreign policy: If Beijing gives something, it gets something. Giving African countries billions of dollars in economic loans only to never see a return on that investment would be anathema to how Chinese officials view the purpose of loans.

But acting this way in the time of Africa’s need may sour once-budding Sino-African relations. It doesn’t help that racism against Africans in China has increased during the coronavirus crisis, leading many to be barred from hotels, restaurants, shops, and more.

Frank Nnabugwu, a Nigerian businessman who lives in the city of Guangzhou, said authorities wouldn’t let him return to his rented home. “The security guards said to us: ‘No foreigners are allowed,’” Nnabugwu told the Guardian on Monday. “I was upset, very upset. I slept on the street.”

Put together, it’s clear China hasn’t reevaluated its foreign policy during a dangerous period for which it shares blame. It’s instead redoubled efforts to see it come true. That, in effect, is China on the offensive.

But Beijing is also using other measures — mainly a large-scale disinformation campaign — to play defense.

China is using Russia’s disinformation playbook to deflect blame. It’s not working.

As calls for China to take responsibility for the pandemic grow, Beijing has chosen to push back in a major way. And to do that, it’s taken a page out of Russia’s playbook, said Jessica Brandt, an expert on Chinese disinformation at the German Marshall Fund.

First, China is peddling conspiracy theories about the virus’s beginnings. It’s well established that the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, before it spread to the rest of the world. Yet Chinese officials, including Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, have falsely suggested the coronavirus first sprang up in the United States. The same goes for Italy, as Chinese propaganda has also pointed to the European country as a potential starting point for the disease.

This is a classic Russian disinformation technique, Brandt said. Instead of coming up with a new theory based on facts, the regime repeats a false claim until it makes enough people doubt the truth.

“For China to be using official channels to promote conspiracy theories is new,” Brandt told me.

Brandt also noted that there’s been a 300 percent increase in the number of Chinese officials on Twitter over the past year, starting around the time the Hong Kong protests began in summer 2019. That’s likely part of the country’s effort to better spread disinformation far and wide.

Chinese officials are also sending medical equipment and physicians to countries in Europe that are struggling to deal with coronavirus outbreaks. The regime made a big deal about offering support to Italy in March, when it had one of the world’s worst outbreaks. It has also sent supplies and resources to Serbia, the Netherlands, and Spain.

Beijing’s reason for doing all of this isn’t pure altruism or even a recognition of its own responsibility in helping create the crisis in the first place. Rather, experts say China is trying to counter negative press about its early mishandling of the virus outbreak.

Instead of being the irresponsible government whose failures unleashed a deadly pandemic on the world, China is trying to look like the world’s savior, graciously providing critical supplies to countries in need.

But the countries it has chosen to help aren’t just the ones who need it the most. They’re also countries that Beijing has been working to build close ties with for the past several years — both to expand its economic reach in Europe and to weaken US alliances in the region.

Italy, for example, was the first major European country to sign on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s trillion-dollar plan to build infrastructure and economic ties across three continents in order to dominate global trade.

By providing Italy and other key European nations with critical aid during the pandemic, China further cements its ties to those countries and chips away at their relationships with the US.

“China and Europe will inevitably get closer,” the Chinese Ministry of National Defense’s Zhou Bo wrote for the South China Morning Post last week. “A divided Europe, further dismayed by the worsening transatlantic relationship, will naturally look east.”

All in all, China is doing only things that help China — nothing more. “Communist Party leaders are working overtime to polish China’s image as a global leader in the response to the Covid-19 crisis,” Jennifer Staats, an expert on the country at the US Institute of Peace, told me.

The problem for China, though, is that the plan has started to backfire.

China’s methods make cooperation, including with the US, nearly impossible

China’s global PR campaign has yielded some fruit.

“We should thank them with all our hearts, they have proven to be great friends of Serbia and Serbs,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on March 21, after China delivered medical equipment to the country. “I am waiting for Xi to visit Serbia and hundreds of thousands of people will welcome him.”

Other European officials, including Italy’s foreign minister, have also helped praise on Beijing. But some countries are starting to get fed up with Beijing’s pressure tactics and posturing.

Take Australia. When the Australian government launched a global effort to open an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak, Chinese officials threatened economic retaliation.

“Maybe the ordinary people will say, ‘Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’” Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, said in a recent interview with the Australian Financial Review. “The parents of the students would also think … whether this is the best place to send their kids.”

But instead of caving to Beijing’s demands, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne spoke out. “We reject any suggestion that economic coercion is an appropriate response to a call for such an assessment, when what we need is global cooperation,” she said in a statement Monday.

Countries have also been complaining about the low quality of China-provided supplies. For instance, some of the tests Beijing gave to European nations don’t work. Spanish scientists have found that testing devices from the Chinese firm Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology correctly identify a positive case around 30 percent of the time.

That hasn’t grown China’s prestige on the continent. “You can’t chest-beat and deliver substandard quality,” Brandt said.

In total, experts say that China’s aggressive attempts to exploit the pandemic for its own benefit have made it harder for governments — especially the United States — to trust and work with the country. “I think at this point it’s going to be hard to cooperate, even though it would be in the interest of” every country, including the US, said Princeton’s Friedberg.

That could have deadly results. If China doesn’t work in concert with other countries, experts say, the disease could continue to spread. After all, it’s a rich, powerful country that can help find a vaccine, fund further pandemic research, and help safeguard borders.

China’s actions, then, not only make the world less safe but also don’t help it attain the global prestige the regime seeks. “Across the board, I don’t think that they’re winning on this,” Friedberg added.

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