Then another team of experts arrived in Italy on Thursday on a flight also carrying 31 tons of medical supplies, including protective suits, masks and 1,000 ventilators.
The Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, almost ran out of superlatives when describing international tributes — from Russia and Egypt to Laos and Brazil — to the Communist Party’s response and its loving care for all people.
“China’s contribution wins world respect,” the paper quoted Kim Jin-ho, a professor of political science at Dankook University in South Korea, as saying. South Korea also has been severely hit by the novel coronavirus that causes the disease covid-19.
Just as Chinese leader Xi Jinping took to the stage at Davos in 2017 to espouse free markets and globalization — portraying himself as a direct counterpoint to the protectionist new U.S. president — now Beijing is seeking to portray the Party under his direction as the magnanimous global leader in fighting the coronavirus.
“In the face of the pandemic, international cooperation and solidarity matters,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said this week. “To quote the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, ‘We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.’ ”
What China’s propaganda organs have not said: Those shipments of goods are, in at least some cases, not donations but rather exports of goods for purchase. And 1,000 ventilators is a decent deal for a country trying to get its business sector restarted.
“The Chinese embassy in Rome has been making very vague statements and has been pushing the narrative of China coming to the rescue,” said Lucrezia Poggetti, an expert on China and the European Union at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “They’re saying that China and Italy are ‘traditional friends’ and this is their way of their showing gratitude.”
Il Foglio newspaper reported that “purchase agreements” between the two countries’ foreign ministers were under discussion, while another top Italian Foreign Ministry official was also talking about “purchases.” Italian media speculated that the ventilators could be worth about $17,000 each.
The deal also has a political element to it, because the Italian foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, is the euroskeptic leader of the populist Five Star Movement and led the effort to make Italy the first Group of Seven country to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Di Maio “could be pushing the message that China is coming to the rescue when the E.U. is not helping us,” Poggetti said. “And China could be signaling that this is what you get when you get close to China politically.”
Regardless, the timing could hardly be better for Xi, contrasting China’s response with President Trump’s sudden decision to ban arrivals from Europe, which was expanded Saturday to include Britain and Ireland. And the Party, which does not usually let political commentary last long on the heavily censored Chinese Internet, has been happy to let these anti-U.S. reactions stand.
“What the heck? How come the president of a country talks like a three-year-old toddler?!” Zhang Jun, a travel agent in Chengdu, wrote on the Weibo microblogging site after Trump delivered unscripted comments to the media this week.
Another online commentator, marketing manager Robinson Liu, picked up on the vice president contradicting his boss about who would be banned from entering the United States from Europe. “Trump and Pence should at least try to align their talking points before meeting the media,” he wrote.
This is all part of a strategy to show the Chinese system as superior while painting the United States as chaotic and bumbling in its response to the outbreak, analysts say. To show Xi as a benevolent leader not just of China, but of the world.
“This is an attempt to deflect attention away from the very well-documented fact that the Chinese government deliberately delayed ringing the alarm bell on the coronavirus,” said Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of California at San Diego.
“And it dovetails very nicely with the persistent message from the Chinese government over the past few years that all of humanity is a ‘community of common destiny’ in which China is a leading power,” he said.
China’s response to the global dimensions of the coronavirus epidemic has much to do with more existential questions of legitimacy at home, said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project.
“Despite its best attempts to wrestle back control of the narrative since January, the coronavirus epidemic has been disastrous for the credibility of China’s leadership,” he said. The Communist Party came in for levels of criticism unseen in recent years after the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn his colleagues about the mysterious new virus.
For this reason, it’s in Xi’s interests to play up Trump’s missteps.
“The failures, both real and imagined, of the United States and others are really just a backdrop against which the Chinese Communist Party can paint a picture of its own competence, resolve and superiority,” Bandurski said.
To add grist to this effort, the Party has been allowing U.S.-blaming conspiracy theories to circulate — and has increasingly been propagating them.
Another Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, a bureaucrat who developed a level of fame — or infamy — for his aggressive behavior on Twitter, has been claiming that the United States is behind the outbreak. Nevermind that it broke out in a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan and that scientists believe it jumped from animals, probably bats, to humans there.
“It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” Zhao tweeted Thursday. “Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
Zhao appeared to be linking the outbreak to the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October, attended by 172 Americans — along with more than 9,200 athletes from 109 other countries.
The Global Times, a nationalist newspaper that often expresses the foreign policy views of the Party, said “the Chinese public shares the suspicion” raised by Zhao and the U.S. “is obliged to explain the world.”
Lyric Li contributed to this report.