BRUSSELS – Australia has asked for an investigation into the origin of the virus. Germany and Britain are hesitating again to invite Chinese technology giant Huawei. President Trump has guilty China for contagion and is trying to punish it. Some governments want to sue Beijing for damages and repairs.
Around the world, there is a backlash against China for its initial handling of the crisis that helped to release the coronavirus into the world, creating a deeply polarizing battle of narratives and delaying China's ambition to fill the leadership vacuum left by the United States. .
China, never receptive to external criticism and wary of damage to its domestic control and its long economic reach, responded aggressively, combining medical assistance to other countries with severe nationalist rhetoric and mixing demands for gratitude with economic threats.
The result only increased China's repercussions and growing distrust in Europe and Africa, undermining China's desired image as a generous global player.
Even before the virus, Beijing exhibited a fierce approach to public relations, an aggressive style called "Wolf Warrior" diplomacy, named after two ultrapatriotic Chinese films that show the evil plots and inflamed death of American-led foreign mercenaries.
With clear encouragement from President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party's powerful Propaganda Department, a younger generation of Chinese diplomats has demonstrated their loyalty to defiantly nationalistic and sometimes threatening messages in the countries in which they are located.
"You have a new brand of Chinese diplomats who seem to compete with each other for being more radical and eventually insult the country where they are published," said François Godement, senior Asia consultant at Paris-based Institut Montaigne. . "They got into fights with all the northern European countries that they should be interested in and alienated them all."
Since the virus, the tone has only increased, a measure of how serious the danger is that Chinese leaders consider the virus at home, where it has fueled anger and destroyed economic growth, as well as abroad.
In the past few weeks, at least seven Chinese ambassadors – to France, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and the African Union – have been summoned by their hosts to respond to accusations ranging from spreading disinformation to “racist abuse” of Africans. in Guangzhou.
Last week, China threatened to suspend health care in the Netherlands by changing the name of its representative office in Taiwan to include the word Taipei. And before that, the Chinese Embassy in Berlin publicly fought with the German newspaper Bild, after the tabloid demanded $ 160 billion in compensation from China for damage caused to Germany by the virus.
Trump said last week that his government was conducting "serious investigations" into Beijing's treatment of the coronavirus outbreak.
He pressured American intelligence agencies to find the source of the virus, suggesting may have accidentally emerged from a Wuhan weapons lab, although most intelligence agencies remain skeptical. And he expressed an interest in trying to sue Beijing for damages, with the United States seeking $ 10 million for every American death.
Republicans in the United States acted to support Trump's attacks on China. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit in federal court, trying to hold Beijing accountable for the outbreak.
A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, called the process "frivolous", adding that "it had no factual and legal basis" and "only invites ridicule".
The lawsuit appears to aim less at ensuring victory in court, which is unlikely, than at urging Congress to pass legislation to make it easier for US citizens to sue foreign states for damages.
"From Beijing's point of view, this contemporary call is a historical echo of the reparations paid after the boxers' rebellion," said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for European Studies in Russia in Europe, referring to the anti-imperialists, anti-Christians and ultranationalists uprising around 1899-1901 in China that ended in defeat, with huge reparations for eight nations in the coming decades. "The party's cultivation of the humiliation narrative makes it politically impossible for Xi to agree to pay any reparations."
Instead, it is imperative that Mr. Xi turn the narrative over, leading it from a history of incompetence and failure – including the suppression of early warnings about the virus – in a victory over the disease, a victory achieved through the unity of the party.
In the last iteration of the new Chinese narrative, the enemy – the virus – didn't even come from China, but the US armed forces, an unfounded accusation by the combative spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, Zhao Lijian.
Chinese diplomats are encouraged to be combative by Beijing, said Susan Shirk, a scholar from China and director of the 21st century China Center at the University of California, San Diego. Zhao's promotion to the spokesman and his statement about the U.S. Army "signal to everyone in China that this is the official line, so that you have that megaphone effect," she said, adding that it makes negotiations difficult.
But in the long run, China is sowing distrust and harming its own interests, said Shirk, who is working on a book called "Overreach", about how China's domestic policy derailed its ambitions for a peaceful rise as a global superpower.
"When China started to control the virus and started this health diplomacy, it could have been an opportunity for China to emphasize its compassionate side and rebuild trust and reputation as a responsible global power," she said. "But that diplomatic effort was hijacked by the party's Propaganda Department, with a much more assertive effort to leverage its assistance to receive praise for China as a country and system and its performance in preventing the spread of the virus."
In recent days, Chinese state media have published numerous inflammatory statements, saying that Australia, after announcing its desire for an investigation into the virus, was "gum stuck in the bottom of China's shoe". Beijing warned that Australia risked long-term damage in its trade partnership with China, which accounts for one-third of Australia's exports.
“Perhaps ordinary people will say, 'Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian meat? & # 39; ”China's ambassador, Cheng Jingye, told The Australian Financial Review. Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne rejected China's attempt as "economic coercion".
Even in European countries like Germany, "China's distrust has accelerated so rapidly with the virus that no ministry knows how to deal with it," said Angela Stanzel, a China expert at the German Institute for International Affairs and Security.
In Germany, as well as in Britain, in addition to new questions about the convenience of using Huawei for new 5G systems, concerns have also grown about China's dependence on vital pharmaceutical materials and products.
France, which traditionally maintains good relations with Beijing, has also been furious at critical statements by Chinese diplomats, including an accusation that the French had deliberately left their older residents to die in nursing homes. This sparked a rebuke from France's foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and anger at lawmakers, despite an early reciprocal exchange of medical care like masks.
The German government recently complained that Chinese diplomats were requesting letters of support and gratitude for Beijing's help and efforts against the virus from government officials and the heads of large German companies.
The same happened in Poland, the US ambassador in Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, said in an interview, described the Chinese pressure on President Andrzej Duda to call Mr. Xi and thank him for his help. Chinese announced at home.
"Poland would not get this material unless the call was made, so that they could use it" as propaganda, said Mosbacher.
There is some unhappiness in China with the current diplomatic rhetoric. At the a recent essayZi Zhongyun, now 89, a longtime United States expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, sees parallels in the harsh nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric of today's wolf warriors with the period surrounding the boxers' rebellion against Western influence in China. .
Zi said that these reactions were in danger of getting out of control.
“I can say without a doubt,” she concluded, “as long as boxer-type activities receive the official seal of approval as 'patriotic', as long as generation after generation of our Chinese colleagues is educated and instilled in a mentality of boxer, it will be impossible for China to take its place among the modern civilized nations of the world. "
The reports were contributed by Isabella Kwai in Sydney and the research by Monika Pronczuk in Brussels.