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Coronavirus: How China Built Its 'Saviour' Image While the West Stayed in Denial of Global Health Crisis

Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a protective face mask speaks to residents as he inspects the novel coronavirus pneumonia prevention and control work at a neighbourhoods in Beijing. (Image: AP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a protective face mask speaks to residents as he inspects the novel coronavirus pneumonia prevention and control work at a neighbourhoods in Beijing. (Image: AP)

The Chinese officials have, on international forums like Group of 20, said that their country has made sacrifices in containing the spread of virus and would take these initiatives forward to other countries affected.

New Delhi: The Times Square in New York stands deserted in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, which is in stark contrast to recovery celebrations taking place 7,500 miles to its east in the Chinese city of Chengdu. Moving ahead to Fujian province, a team of Chinese virus experts can be seen heading to catch a flight bound for Italy reeling under the attack of the deadly virus.

The Wall Street Journal has dug out three images posted on the Twitter feed of China’s state news agency Xinhua that revealed the "effort by the Communist Party to craft the story of the pandemic and cast China in the role of global saviour".

The observation is not new — a similar one has been put forth by Bloomberg as well as other journalists. Reporters have also been writing about the need to fix the diplomatic board in order to make China answer the doubts over its role in the time of pandemic.

On international forums like G-20, Chinese officials have said their country has made sacrifices in containing the spread of the virus and would take these initiatives forward to other affected nations.

"When the epidemic started to explode everywhere, it was China who the entire world asked for help, and not the United States, the 'beacon of democracy,'" the WSJ quoted a tweet from China’s embassy in France as saying. "It is China who lent a helping hand to more than 80 nations. Not the United States."

China's conduct, post containing the spread at home, sparked the narrative of how it is using "the global spread of the disease to bolster an increasing vocal, assertive bid for global leadership that is exacerbating a year-long conflict with the US", said the report.

America’s conduct on the world stage has created a void, as observed by senior journalists in the past, enabling China to claim that space and at the same time shape the narrative in its favour on how it handled the early stages of the outbreak. There is a lot of criticism against China, but it has colonised the agencies to tell the world what it wants to tell, the report seemed to indicate.

It recorded that Chinese government agencies, companies and charities have donated more than 26 million face masks, 2.3 million testing kits and other supplies to 89 countries. China’s Foreign Ministry said the number of countries receiving its coronavirus-related help has reached 120.

There was anger in Italy when help came their way much sooner from distant China than closer nations like Germany or the USA.

Shipments from their shores were marred by rules and whatever help was sent from France was not communicated well while China sent Italy millions of masks. These masks were packaged and printed with the lyrics of an Italian opera aria.

French officials said they struggled to compete with the story of China stepping in for a disjointed Europe, as reported in the WSJ — "In early February, when China was still the epicenter of the outbreak, the European Union and the US donated a combined 30 tons of medical equipment to China with little fanfare."

Emulating the role of USA in tackling Ebola in Africa, the Chinese government sent experts and teleconferenced guidance to medical staff in countries across Europe and Asia.

Andrew Small, an expert on EU-China relations at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank, who spoke to WSJ, said, "It’s been striking how quickly they’ve been able to pivot. But I think basically almost as soon as the crisis started, they had a propaganda battle to win on this."

China is going all out to show that it is bearing the responsibility of a great power.

Countering all these observations, the ministry said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal, "China has no desire to seek credit, but also definitely doesn’t accept baseless accusations."

On March 10, amid all criticism President Xi Jinping went to Wuhan, signalling the party’s confidence in its approach. This was in contrast with, US President Donald Trump downplaying the crisis in a meeting with senators on the same day. Trump said, "We’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away."0

This was followed by Trump calling it a "Chinese virus" and indirectly putting the blame on China for the pandemic. China’s Foreign Ministry raised doubts about the virus's origin – Wuhan and clarified that it has no scientific basis.

Interestingly, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian came up with the theory that US Army members who visited Wuhan in October introduced the virus. In reaction to this the US State Department summoned China’s ambassador over the claims.

There is information and charges of misinformation in the midst of this global health crisis.

As the work of recovery started picking up, China started sending supplies to hard-hit lands in the Middle East, chiefly Iran. "Now donations and sales spread around the globe, often accompanied by glowing reports in state media. Chinese companies jumped into the effort," reported WSJ.

As per the report, charities connected to Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., have donated more than 14 million masks. Also shipped, along with 500,000 testing kits, from Shanghai to Memphis, Tenn. Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei Technologies Co. has donated millions of masks to several EU member states including Spain, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland and Ireland.

It was observed that the largest deliveries from China sent to Europe "have gone to populist, nationalist or euroskeptic leaders who have pushed to play a part in China's big international Belt and Road infrastructure initiative."

About 3 million masks were sent to Hungary with package worded as "Hajrá Magyarország!" or "Bring It On, Hungary!" This was welcomed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban who found it impressive. "The situation I see can be described as this: In the west, there is a shortage of basically everything. The help we are able to get is from the east."

The Czech Republic got 1.1 million masks from Shanghai. President Miloš Zeman pushed to make his country "China’s gateway to Europe."

US offered press briefings assuring help but the sentiment that ruled was entirely different. "The United States is not offering leadership. Europe doesn’t exist…. For the first time in decades, the west is lost," said Francesco Sisci, an Italian sinologist and columnist for the Catholic newspaper Settimana News. "In this vacuum, China’s offering an example. They are there, and they are helpful."

The strongest appreciation for China came from Italy.

EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell reflected on the scenario in his blog post. "We must be aware there is a geopolitical component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the 'politics of generosity,'" Borrell wrote. "Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors," quoted WSJ.

However, China also faced criticism from Netherlands and Spain over the quality of Chinese-produced masks and testing-kits. Government spokeswoman Hua Chunying hit back at criticisms that China too got defective material but believed in the good intentions of those who helped.

To ward off suspicion over colonial designs behind China's generosity, she said that China can't be indifferent in times of global crisis.

The country further reminded others that during the 2008 financial crisis, "China unleashed an immense stimulus package that helped buoy the global economy."

Eventually, China and USA picked up the communication on fighting coronavirus together. Trump called Xi last Thursday to discuss cooperation in fighting the pandemic. In the days leading up to the call, Trump said he would stop using the term "Chinese virus."

Barbora Chaloupková contributed to this article.