Meanwhile, Chinese leaders are at pains to demonstrate their engagement with international organizations, creating a contrast with the United States, which has blasted the World Health Organization and threatened to cut off funding for it, and declined to participate in a high-level global summit on joint efforts to develop a vaccine. Chinese President Xi Jinping is calling many other world leaders to chat about pandemic cooperation; he also has held talks with the Group of 20, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the African Union. Chinese diplomats have used op-eds and press statements to highlight appreciation for their country’s assistance, such as the extravagant praise from Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Beijing recently announced that it would send $2 billion to the WHO to combat the coronavirus, and officials said that if Chinese scientists discovered a vaccine, Beijing would share it with all countries.
Beijing sees the crisis as a chance to acquire more global leadership just as the United States abdicates it, a notion that worries some observers. In some ways, this could be good: Beijing has played a relatively positive role on climate change, for instance. But in many areas, like Internet governance, China is seeking to promote a closed, authoritarian model, one that could help keep repressive regimes in power. And a more powerful Beijing might further dominate its neighbors, making parts of Southeast Asia a potential U.S.-China flash point.
Yet China’s effort to use the virus to gain more global power is likely to yield mixed results, at best. In many countries, its sales pitch is failing.
Nations that need supplies and loans may welcome Chinese aid, but few — especially nearby states that have no illusions about Chinese power — will forget that China covered up initial details about the virus, hindering international containment. Even now, it is hard to fully trust Beijing’s reporting about its domestic outbreak, undercutting its claims of having a successful model to fight the coronavirus. China regularly cooks its economic figures and recently revised upward its estimate of the number of people who have died of covid-19 in Wuhan, the first epicenter, by 50 percent. “Let’s not be so naive as to say [China has] been much better at handling this,” French President Emmanuel Macron told the Financial Times. “We don’t know,” he said. British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab told reporters, “We can’t have business as usual after this crisis, and we’ll have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it could’ve been stopped earlier.”
China’s stilted diplomacy also undermines its global authority. Its efforts often come across as halting: The New York Times found that Xi’s calls with foreign leaders stick to rote, almost identical talking points, which makes reports about them appear propagandistic. Lijian Zhao, a foreign affairs spokesman for the Chinese government, slams other countries and promotes wild rumors on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Beijing is aggressively promoting its pitch on social media platforms and in global state media outlets. It has spent billions to upgrade the reach and quality of outlets like its flagship China Global Television Network and Xinhua, and newswire Xinhua in particular has gained an audience in many countries. Yet Beijing’s efforts here have proved clumsy and ineffective, featuring wild and unbelievable claims, such as that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to Wuhan, as well as disinformation tactics that have been exposed relatively easily: A recent study by ProPublica found some 10,000 fake Twitter accounts linked to the Chinese government, all involved in influence campaigns. Many were poor-quality fakes and easy to spot, not as sophisticated as Russian disinformation efforts. One now-suspended account, ProPublica noted, “was new, created in January 2020, and it offered no personal or biographical details. It followed no one else on Twitter and had a single follower for its obsessive posts about the coronavirus outbreak and the Hong Kong protests.”
And the reach of pro-government media is much less extensive than Beijing wants. From Africa to South Asia to Southeast Asia, Chinese outlets often do not crack 1 percent of viewers or listeners, according to studies conducted for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which I obtained during research for a forthcoming book on China’s global information efforts. The Trump administration regards such outlets as a threat and has imposed multiple new restrictions on their operations inside the United States.
China’s PR offensive has other serious problems as well. Its outreach extends to both democracies and authoritarian states, both allies and countries with which it has frosty relations. But the few countries (such as Serbia and Pakistan) that have lavished praise on China and touted it as a potential global leader already had close links to Beijing, and they are often authoritarian countries. Other, more powerful nations that Beijing must win over to bolster its influence, such as France and Italy — the first big European state to join the Belt and Road Initiative, and a major target of Chinese diplomacy — have not necessarily been swayed by China’s public relations campaign. The leader of Italy’s League party, Matteo Salvini, told the Italian Parliament that Beijing’s initial coronavirus coverup could qualify as a crime against humanity.
China’s near neighbors are not happy, either. The fact that Beijing has not paused its assertive approach despite the pandemic — it continues to aggressively maneuver in the South China Sea, and it just put in place new laws giving it more control over Hong Kong — has angered people across the region. Meanwhile, although Beijing has at times seemed to suggest that democracies are less prepared to address the pandemic, this claim has been undermined by the effective responses of vibrant democracies like Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and South Korea, among others.
Several countries also recognize that the aid they desperately need comes as transactional diplomacy. China had already loaned many nations massive sums for infrastructure projects like ports in Sri Lanka and power plants in Pakistan. Now some borrowers, which put up those important physical assets as collateral, cannot pay back their loans; but if Beijing seizes that collateral, it will engender massive hostility in recipient states. What’s more, some Chinese coronavirus supplies sent abroad, like testing kits and personal protective equipment, have turned out to be faulty, angering local populations. Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic, whose country bought $16 million worth of defective Chinese antibody tests, told reporters, “We have a ton and no use for them.” Last month the head of Finland’s emergency supplies agency resigned after the country bought millions of dollars of Chinese masks that proved unusable.
It’s also unclear whether Beijing’s methods of controlling the virus will work in the long term, as the country attempts to reopen. Its curtailment of personal freedoms was severe, even by the standards of a highly authoritarian country. The Xi administration faced significant domestic dissent for its mishandling of the crisis at first. And China’s strategy also seriously damaged its economic growth, which for decades has been the primary pillar of the Communist Party’s legitimacy at home and abroad. Its economy shrank in the first three months of 2020, its first quarterly contraction in 40 years; it could further suffer if companies continue decoupling supply chains from China and moving manufacturing to countries like Vietnam. Xi is marshaling the country’s massive propaganda apparatus to support his rule, especially in advance of the National People’s Congress that opened this past week. Since the party’s authority depends in significant part on delivering strong, sustained growth, any long-term contraction could hurt its domestic power — and its global appeal.
When countries push back against China’s story of its coronavirus success, complain about faulty supplies or simply warn that Beijing appears to be using the crisis to boost its global power, Chinese diplomats, leaders and media lash out — in large part because they are so unused to dealing with dissent and open discussion at home. Angered by French criticism, for instance, the Chinese Embassy in Paris put a note on its website slamming Western leaders. And in recent weeks, Beijing has blasted Australia for seeking an international inquiry into the virus’s origins. China warned that the idea could lead to an economic boycott of Australia. Beijing recently imposed tariffs on Australian barley, although it claims this was not linked to squabbling over the virus. (China has now agreed to a WHO-led investigation into the origins of the pandemic after it is over.)
Instead of gaining global leadership amid the pandemic, China is likely to wind up being blamed by many states. At best, China probably will make no international headway as a result of the crisis — no matter how severe the outbreak becomes in leading democracies.