As the world is knocked to its knees in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, quality global leadership is perhaps needed more than ever. With the United States and the EU largely in disarray and focused on their own battles, the door was left wide open for China to step up and take more of a global leadership role by providing assistance to countries in need, assuaging the economic woes that the crisis has wrought, and finding solutions that could help get us out of this mess.
Instead, China took off the gloves and started swinging.
As much of the world was still simmering from the reports about the attempted cover up of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, Beijing went on the offensive. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian and other diplomats began blaming other nations for pandemic. First, the US was targeted, with the accusation that Covid-19 started there first and was spread to Wuhan via the US military. When that proved ineffective, they moved on to Italy, claiming that they may have had the virus first — a low blow as Italy was being walloped by the virus at the time and had been publicly showing gratitude to China for their assistance, including the blasting of the Chinese national anthem from balconies.
These actions were generally seen as a strategy to muddy the narrative and divert blame from the Chinese government for any perceived mishandling of the crisis. There is a very fine line between responsibility and liability, as we previously covered:
If China is found culpable of not properly stifling SARS-Cov-2 then some nations may theoretically attempt to hold them liable for the losses that they suffer from the pandemic — or at least use this as leverage to get better deals on loans and joint projects.
A pissing match then ensued between the US and Chinese officials and a slew of negative press about China began coming out of the UK — with elements of the government giving credence to the theory that Covid-19 was leaked from a Chinese laboratory and proposing a 'rethink and a reset' in regards to the country’s relation with China and Chinese companies like Huawei.
Compounding China’s already precarious PR situation was the fact that the country’s “mask diplomacy” efforts completely backfired. As we previously covered:
Many of the test kits, masks, and other supplies that China sent out as aid or sold to countries being ravaged by Covid-19 were faulty, potentially dangerous, and overtly unusable. The rapid test kits that China sent to Turkey were only 30 to 35 percent accurate, and were subsequently rejected by the government. Spain had to withdraw 9,000 faulty Chinese test kits from use, the Czech Republic found that 80% of the 150,000 tests they purchased from China didn’t work, and Ukraine and the Philippines experienced the same fate. Slovakia purchased 1.2 million test kits from China for $16 million only to find that they were unable to properly detect Covid-19.
At this moment, China wasn’t looking too good, and it was difficult to imagine things getting much worse … and then the reports began coming out about the mistreatment of foreigners living in the China:
It is now being widely reported in the Chinese media that all new cases of COVID-19 are being brought in by foreigners — a message that’s partially being drummed up due to a terse political climate with the USA. What is often missing in these reports is that 90% of China’s 595 imported coronavirus cases were actually from Chinese nationals returning home.
“They are viewing foreigners and potential vectors for disease at a time when everybody is incredibly concerned about not having another outbreak,” said James Palmer, the author of The Death of Mao. “Letting a foreigner in is just considered too risky. There’s no upside for you. If you let a foreigner in and the foreigner has the virus … that’s now become something that’s truly politically dangerous for you.”
A wave of anti-foreign sentiment then swept over the country that was particularly directed at those from Africa or who were of African descent, which was partially due to a handful of Africans in Guangzhou testing positive for Covid-19:
According to the data provided by the city's health commission, Guangzhou had reported a total of 119 imported COVID-19 cases by Sunday. Among them, 25 were foreigners and 94 were Chinese. Of the 25 foreign patients, 19 were from Africa.
Twitter soon became full of photos of “No blacks allowed” messages being handed out to Africans attempting to enter restaurants — including McDonald’s — in China, as well as videos of Africans effectively rendered homeless after being evicted from their apartments or denied admittance to hotels. Then there was a rather disturbing video of Africans being marched through the streets by the police and a video of an African guy and his baby who were locked inside their apartment by the authorities.
The international and African media soon latched onto these stories:
CNN interviewed more than two dozen Africans living in Guangzhou many of whom told of the same experiences: being left without a home, being subject to random testing for Covid-19, and being quarantined for 14 days in their homes, despite having no symptoms or contact with known patients.
Form the WSJ:
Joan Namutebi, a Ugandan businesswoman who lives in Guangzhou, said she is sealed inside a two-bedroom apartment with her three children, under new quarantine orders that forbid her to walk out her front door. During a previous lockdown, she said, the family had been allowed to walk around the grounds of the residential complex twice a week.
“The Ugandan government should get us out of here,” Ms. Namutebi said, sobbing into the phone over the sound of a screaming toddler. “I have no food left in the house. My children are going to die of starvation.”
As could be expected, this caused an uproar in Africa, where they were not only being impacted by a virus that was first identified in China but were also hearing news about how their compatriots were being mistreated and blamed for the spread of that virus.
African diplomats and government officials were also keen to show their displeasure. The African Group of Ambassadors in Beijing got together and penned a formal letter of complaint to China’s foreign minister, stating that “The singling out of Africans for compulsory testing and quarantine, in our view, has no scientific or logical basis and amounts to racism towards Africans in China.” Over a dozen countries across Africa called meetings with their respective Chinese ambassadors for thorough browbeatings:
However, the Chinese media remained impervious, stating that “The China-Africa friendship is rock-solid and will not be affected by a single incident.”
But will it?
We have already seen how negative public sentiment can impact the fortunes of the Belt and Road. Opposition parties in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Maldives, and Zambia have all won elections by running on platforms that heavily criticized China’s activities in their countries, and BRI projects big and small have suffered because of it. In Kazakhstan, anti-China demonstrations have been enough to alter the course of government policy. In Kyrgyzstan, such demonstrations have shut down Chinese projects.
The New Silk Road is about more than steel and concrete and the schematics of engineers; it’s about more than intergovernmental agreements and MOUs and diplomacy; it’s even about more than FDI and loans and aid packages. The New Silk Road is ultimately about people, and how the local population feels about China coming in with their bags of money and big plans has a major impact on what happens next.