DANIEL VAUGHAN: China’s global charm offensive

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, China has opened up multiple propaganda fronts across the world.

The primary offensive you know from the news. Using various intermediaries, China has pushed narratives that accused the U.S. Army of releasing the virus or that any accusations against China are simply racist. Neither are very persuasive, and both come from a vanilla understanding of U.S. media beliefs.

But apart from the main form of propaganda, which is easy to spot, China is also engaging in a global charm offensive to repair its reputation. The stories in American media that glowingly praise China for sending supplies and aid to other countries overlook that China is doing this not to help the world, but to rebuild trust — so China can move forward with its global mission to undermine the United States’ position as the preeminent world superpower.

Ironically, the entire coronavirus episode seriously undermines China’s previous global charm tour, the nearly trillion-dollar international spending spree known as the new silk road, China’s Belt and Road Action Plan, released in 2015. The goal was simple: build infrastructure that connected the world, an international interstate system of sorts, that allowed trade to flow more freely between China and its trading partners. But in the COVID-19 era, the world is now shutting off travel and business with China.

The reason for this is simple. It’s not just that the virus originated in China — that might be forgivable by itself. It’s that China knew the virus originated in Wuhan and did nothing to stop the spread for weeks on end. Jim Geraghty at National Review put together a clear timeline that shows Chinese authorities were aware — as early as December — that human-to-human transmission was occurring in Wuhan. And now, U.S. intelligence services confirm what everyone suspected: China has covered up the full extent of their coronavirus outbreak.

Why would anyone have open relations with a country that’s not only the source of the virus but whose actions are directly responsible for the growing number of dead across the globe? A study cited by Axios found that “if Chinese authorities had acted three weeks earlier than they did, the number of coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95% and its geographic spread limited.”

China lied. People died.

The only question at this point is: how many will end up dying? China seems to realize this is a terrible position to be in at the moment. Their position as a world power is vulnerable because people can’t trust them. Hence their need to blame the United States. But they also have to rehabilitate their image — which is where the new charm offensive comes in, as they donate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to other countries.

The plan so far is sending tests, masks, and other health equipment to countries ravaged by the coronavirus. It’s not an apology, but it is a way for them to deflect anger from the international community in a post-corona world. If they can’t beat the virus, they can at least keep the world ever more dependant on China for supplies.

Reports out of Australia say that China has stockpiled two billion medical masks, and 25 million other medical items and equipment. They’ve also started tightening quality control measures on their factories that will slow supply to the rest of the world, and tamp down on negative stories that China’s supplies are sub-par.

That last point, on quality, is China’s second failure in this entire story. They let the virus loose on the world, and then supplies they sent to try and win back trust, are no good. China sent 640,000 tests to Spain — they didn’t work. China sent 150,000 tests to Turkey — they didn’t work. The same thing happened with Chinese tests sent to Turkey. The Netherlands reported that 1.3 million masks and 600,000 other pieces of equipment from China were no good and put their healthcare workers at risk.

China isn’t alone; Russia has also been sending useless supplies to other countries in a bid to weaken U.S. influence. Foreign Policy Magazine has dubbed both countries “Bad Samaritans.” As they described it, “China and Russia have introduced a new category in humanitarian aid: the Bad Samaritan. The Chinese and Russians may be offering a helping hand, but unlike in the Scriptures, they expect something in return.”

China is not a benevolent superpower, nor do they have the best interests of the world at heart. They lied about the virus. They lied about their help. They’re directly impacting the global supply chain of medical supplies. And they’re busy propping up their image at every turn instead of helping the world survive a pandemic.

In the post-corona world, there will be a moment of populist anger towards China. That anger will be warranted. What will happen with that anger is still up in the air.