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In Coronavirus War Of Words With The U.S., China Pulls No Punches

A large screen broadcasting an evening newscast along a Beijing street in March shows Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a protective mask during his visit to Wuhan earlier in the day.
Kevin Frayer
Getty Images
A large screen broadcasting an evening newscast along a Beijing street in March shows Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a protective mask during his visit to Wuhan earlier in the day.

In early February, China's ruling Communist Party was facing one of its biggest political crises in more than three decades. A rapidly spreading outbreak of the new coronavirus was a "massive risk and challenge" to social stability, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned top party officials in an internal speech that was later published publicly.

But with new domestic infections near zero, China has claimed victory over a virus that much of the world is still struggling to curtail. Newly confident and sensitive to criticisms that it initially covered up the outbreak, China's leadership is now seeking to recast the pandemic as a political win by arguing that its centralized, top-down governance system made it uniquely well-suited for containing and managing the virus; according to official figures, the virus has claimed fewer than 5,000Chinese lives.

"The way the Chinese handled the coronavirus is coupled with technology, with culture and with very effective government coordination," said Wang Huiyao, president of the Beijing-based think tank Center for China and Globalization. "That's something unthinkable in Western countries."

Emboldened, China has also taken a bellicose, sometimes-threatening approach to countries that are critical of its response to the coronavirus. China has pressured European Union officials to tone down or outright remove language describing disinformation that Beijing put out during the pandemic — a story The New York Times first reported. On Twitter, Chinese diplomats have lashed outat those criticizing China's handling of the pandemic.

China has been especially aggressive in countering a narrative pushed forth with no evidence by senior U.S. officials, including President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that the virus originated — perhaps accidentally — in a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government's top infectious disease specialist, say the novel coronavirus probably developed in nature. "The sole purpose for some U.S. politicians trying to fool others with their obvious lies is to shift the blame of their own incompetence," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said last month. China's state broadcaster recently released a satirical cartoon video depicting Lego characters representing China and the U.S., with America's Statue of Liberty making contradictory statements and throwing insults as China's mask-wearing terra cotta warrior patiently explains.

"One of the most striking elements of Chinese diplomacy at this particular time is just how undiplomatic it's been," said Elizabeth Economy, Asia director at the Council on Foreign Relations.

When Australia joined the U.S. in demanding an investigation into the origins of the virus in China, Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor-in-chief of the Global Times state tabloid, likened Australia to "chewing gum stuck on the sole of China's shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off." "You do not know how aggressive, how unreasonable the West can be in making up their fictions," Hu told NPR.

A colorful provocateur who supports his country's more aggressive diplomacy, Hu justified China's more hawkish behavior as a natural response to American aggression. "China is getting better and better, while the future success of the U.S. is not assured," said Hu. "When the U.S. continually attacks China, mocks China, can you expect us to say nothing?"

While striking a more combative tone may have found support among its own more nationalistic citizenry, Beijing may not have expected the global backlash it is now encountering.

Faulty Chinese medical products, including face masks, have led some European countries to reject medical donations from China. Racism against thousands of Africans living in China's southern city of Guangzhou has wiped out much of the goodwill Beijing built up on the African continent. Several American lawmakers have argued that the U.S. should waive China's sovereign legal immunity; that would allow at least two states suing China for damages from the coronavirus to proceed to court.

China has shifted blame by accusing the U.S. military, without providing evidence, of first bringing the virus to Wuhan when it competed in sports games last October. The claim has gained traction on the mainland.

Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson known for his bellicose Twitter presence, has suggested several times that the coronavirus did not originate in China. State media outlets have repeatedly accused the U.S. of downplaying the severity of its outbreak.

"We think Americans came to the Wuhan seafood market in October when there were military sports games being held in Wuhan," said one former vendor at the Wuhan market where the first cluster of human coronavirus cases was reported. The seller would not use his name because he wants to open a new store and does not want to be associated with the market. "The Americans are behind it all," he said.

Known for his bellicose Twitter presence, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has suggested several times that the coronavirus did not originate in China.
Greg Baker / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Known for his bellicose Twitter presence, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has suggested several times that the coronavirus did not originate in China.

Behind China's hostile rhetoric is a strong sense of aggrievement that other countries have overlooked its role in containing the coronavirus pandemic.

"People in China feel a sense of pride because they had to sacrifice and that the leadership in the [Chinese Communist] party led them in an effective way," said Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who's now chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.

Others sense a more nefarious purpose behind the China bashing. "The ultimate purpose behind fanning the flames for racial discrimination and assigning responsibility is to demonize China and suppress China's rise," wrote Lin Yueqin, a scholar at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in April.

Ultimately, what may be driving Chinese leaders' strident messaging is less a desire to impress other countries and more one to reassure its own citizens that China is standing up to American criticism.

"Either the Chinese diplomats are delusional, or they are simply doing their very best to prevent the international narrative from seeping into domestic Chinese discourse and undermining the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. And I would wager that the second is probably more likely than the first," said Economy, of the Council on Foreign Relations.

While assigning blame might score points with populist elements in both China and the U.S., it comes at a cost for an important geopolitical relationship.

"The epidemic at home was a real domestic crisis for the party leadership, and I think they've gone into overdrive to shore up domestic support," said Shirk, who is writing a book titled Overreach, about Chinese politics and diplomacy. "But what's happened is they're overdoing it in a way that's causing this international backlash against them. So it's very counterproductive."

Instead of collaborating on a global health crisis, the two countries are now even further apart, according to U.S.-China relations experts.

"The situation has decayed so much that to turn things around now and restore the level of international trust that China had previously enjoyed is all but impossible. It would be a challenge for even the most talented, cultivated and practiced diplomats," Zi Zhongyun, a widely respected scholar of U.S.-China relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in late April.

The voices of reason are increasingly being censored and silenced in China, leaving only those at the extremes of the political spectrum, Zi lamented.

"And as for the ignorant and the shameless online thugs," she wrote, "well, they get a free pass."

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Corrected: May 11, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Zi Zhongyun as a "he." Zi is a woman.