China’s Pandemic Power Play

Issue Date July 2020
Volume 31
Issue 3
Page Numbers 25-38
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The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has not recalibrated its strategic goals in light of the covid-19 pandemic. It remains set on seeing China take center stage in world affairs and sees the current global disarray as an opportunity to further advance CCP objectives. To that end, the CCP is using old tricks from its usual playbook. It is attempting to cultivate external perceptions of China as a positive force, centered around themes of responsibility and generosity. At the same time, it continues to promote the “community of shared future” and the Belt and Road Initiative, while maneuvering within international institutions.

On 18 October 2017, long before the covid-19 pandemic, Xi Jinping stood in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and told the Nineteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that China was entering a “new era.” It would be a time, he said, in which all would “see China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.” While it is common for top officials everywhere to proclaim confidence in national prospects, Xi’s aplomb stood in sharp contrast to the more ambivalent and low-profile stance that modern Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping have favored when speaking of their country’s international role.

About the Author

Nadège Rolland is senior fellow in political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research in Washington, D.C. Her books include China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (2017).

View all work by Nadège Rolland

Assertiveness and self-confidence are now the order of the day. Xi has been eager to showcase the economic, military, and technological successes of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and to signify his regional and indeed global ambitions, notably through unveiling the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) not long after coming to power eight years ago.

China’s accomplishments are undeniable, but the leadership is keen on publicizing them for reasons that go beyond natural self-satisfaction. Propaganda and positive publicity are devices that authoritarian regimes, whose legitimacy does not stem from citizens’ votes, tend to use prodigally in order to help bolster their domestic authority. By showcasing its competence and appealing to national pride, the CCP seeks to bolster its legitimacy and perpetuate its rule at home. Creating an impression of forward momentum is also part of a narrative targeting the rest of the world: If China’s ascent is unstoppable, then resistance is futile. Shaping perceptions both at home and abroad is a central feature of the CCP’s strategic [End Page 25] software. During today’s covid-19 crisis, it is yet again Beijing’s tool of choice.

In January 2019, Xi Jinping warned senior officials of the Central Party School to watch out for “black swans” and “gray rhinos,” but he was thinking more of the potential effects of the trade dispute with the United States and various familiar domestic challenges that could threaten the CCP’s survival.1 The coronavirus—a “black swan” because it was unexpected and a “gray rhino” because it was initially ignored—represents a serious challenge for the CCP. Xi publicly acknowledged this when, on 23 February 2020, he called the epidemic the “largest-ever public health emergency” the PRC had faced, and “a crisis and a big test” for the regime and the country alike.

China now faces an economic slowdown that threatens to be severe and protracted, and which may be accompanied by popular anger and social unrest. Domestic critics of the Party’s management of the outbreak found themselves swiftly “harmonized” and “disappeared,”2 but the gathering international backlash will not be so readily stopped. Rather than seeing the situation as a pure setback, the Chinese leadership appears to understand the covid crisis and its attendant global disarray as a chance to seize new ground in the battle for international influence. As Mao Zedong once said, “There is great chaos under heaven; the situation is excellent.”

More often than is generally acknowledged, Beijing’s assertive behavior stems from a deep sense of fear. Ambition and insecurity consistently go hand in hand as drivers of China’s external behavior. The CCP has long navigated between the two and learned to thrive on both, trying to mitigate threats to its survival while strengthening its international stature. The CCP sees itself as locked in a perpetual struggle against hostile foreign forces, and believes that material strength is key but “discourse power” is needed to back it up. The current pandemic, as big a challenge as it poses, is not a sufficient reason for Beijing to defer, abandon, or scale back its longstanding strategic goals. For a regime that has proclaimed the country’s entry into a “new era” of strength and power, there is no turning back to the old posture of low-key patience. The CCP is not changing its tactics, either. If anything, the current crisis has accelerated the use of the “influence operations” that are part of the CCP’s regular playbook.

Facing the world, Beijing is advancing a narrative designed to cultivate external perceptions of China as a positive force, centered on [End Page 26] themes of selflessness and generosity. The CCP leadership continues to promote its preferred concepts of a “community of shared future” and a China-centric “Silk Road” that includes cooperation in matters related to global health. At the same time, China maneuvers within international institutions to assert greater influence on the world stage.

Shaping the Narrative

For more than fifteen years, top CCP officials have taken a keen interest in understanding the rise and fall of great powers. They have been especially interested in why and how the Soviet Union collapsed, and—like disciples who dream of surpassing their master—what led to the rise of the United States as a superpower. Among the ingredients they have identified as necessary to become a great power and a world leader, hard power takes a central position, together with “discourse power.” Chinese elites define this latter form of power as the ability to voice ideas, concepts, propositions, and claims that are respected and recognized by others and, in the process, to change, without violence or coercion, how others think and behave. Discourse power is about getting others to do the CCP’s will through the use not of force, but of words. Chinese elites believe that discourse power has been a crucial instrument in the establishment and maintenance of U.S. global dominance. Confident that its time has come, backed by the prospect of soon surpassing all other countries in quantifiable measures of material power, China is now tempted to follow suit and to engage openly and actively in this form of struggle for influence.

Persuasion, the essential goal of what the Party calls “propaganda work,” is at the core of China’s efforts to gain and use “discourse power.” Under Xi Jinping, it has been given an increasing importance. Words are used to create a narrative and to manipulate the perceptions, behavior, and decisions of others. In the hands of the CCP, propaganda work is characterized by an effort to saturate the bandwidth of others with CCP messages: The Party intends to be the voice that speaks louder and more often, until it becomes the only one that tells China’s story. Voices that clash with the preferred official narrative are scorned, slandered, or silenced.

The CCP’s narrative contains some enduring themes. Domestically, the CCP presents itself as the only viable option for the country, the best fit for China’s specific socioeconomic and cultural conditions, the embodiment of the Chinese people’s past and future, and the creator of all things “right” and admirable, whereas other political and social options (especially liberal democracy) can only bring failure, inefficiency, and chaos. The objective is to convince domestic audiences that the CCP’s claim to rule is legitimate, and to prevent any alternative from taking shape.

To the world outside China, the CCP strives to present an image of peacefulness, benevolence, harmony, cooperation, and amity. China is [End Page 27] depicted as offering opportunities, economic benefits, and a better future. In recent years, Chinese propagandists have also insisted on China’s generosity and selflessness as a provider of global public goods to a world in need. Xi Jinping’s 17 January 2017 speech at Davos presented China as an emerging leader of worldwide efforts to address wealth gaps, rising protectionism, and environmental sustainability.

Implicit in the outward-facing narrative is the notion that all prior methods for solving the world’s problems have failed while China offers a better path, paved with solutions that the country has applied successfully within its own borders. As Xi told the Nineteenth Party Congress in his Great Hall of the People speech, China holds out a “Chinese approach to solving problems facing mankind,” which offers a “new option” for countries that want to speed their development and preserve their independence.

Propaganda presenting China as successful, peaceful, and willing to offer contributions to a world in need aims at fostering external perceptions that favor the PRC, while softening or even deterring resistance to its assertiveness whenever necessary. The goal is to steer international focus away from the CCP’s real strategic purposes toward opportunities and positive outcomes that China is supposed to deliver. The positive narrative is also accompanied by repeated rebuttals of criticism, denials of wrongdoing or malign intent, and deflections of blame onto others.

By and large, the narrative and tactics that Beijing has been using amid the covid pandemic follow the same patterns. The CCP wants to be seen as a responsible actor standing on the moral high ground; the Party therefore amplifies voices and content that reflect well on its deeds while seeking to silence criticism. In keeping with this, Beijing’s propaganda organs are vigorously projecting three main positive tropes: “China sacrificed,” “China is helping,” and “China is the best.” In parallel, the regime is trying to fend off outside criticisms of how Beijing handled the crisis, especially when it was in its first stages. These positive and defensive themes are often interwoven and reinforce each other.

The selfless hero.” The official narrative indiscriminately amalgamates the CCP with China as a country and the Chinese people. Thanks to this rhetorical device, the Party’s actions become those of China or the Chinese people, and vice-versa, creating an artificial impression of cohesion between the regime and Chinese society at large. In the case of the pandemic, the official narrative praises the “heroic sacrifice” made by the Chinese people and by China as a nation, with which the political leadership associates itself. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has claimed, for example, that in the face of the crisis,

The Chinese people of all ethnic groups have united as one under the [End Page 28] strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core. Together, we have launched a massive, nation-wide response. The heroic acts of the Chinese people in fighting the epidemic have won admiration and support from the international community.3

The central government’s lockdown of Wuhan as well as subsequent travel restrictions are presented as mature and costly decisions that were made by the political leadership for the greater good.

Included in the nation’s sacrifice are fourteen individuals who lost their lives fighting covid in Wuhan, and whom the Hubei provincial government (Wuhan is Hubei’s capital) decided to honor as “martyrs” in early April. Among them is Dr. Li Wenliang, whom the Public Security Bureau investigated for “spreading rumors” and “disturbing the social order” after he sent text messages to fellow physicians about a novel virus that he thought was as deadly as SARS. His death from covid-19 triggered a deluge of online grief as well as anger aimed at the PRC government. The outpouring was quickly censored.4 In the space of a single month, the regime managed to execute a masterful turnaround, deflecting popular anger aimed mostly at the CCP by turning a person whom the authorities had treated as a criminal into a symbol of the whole nation’s heroic sacrifice, and then positioning itself to bask in this martyr’s glory.

Helping a world in need.” In addition to highlighting China’s heroic sacrifice, the official narrative also emphasizes China’s altruism and readiness to help a world in disarray. In typical fashion, China’s good deeds are presented as a reflection of the CCP regime’s superior moral standing. The narrative never fails to underline how such generosity shows what a responsible power China is, attempting in this way to legitimize China’s great-power status by simply asserting it. On 30 March 2020, for example, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told the press:

Although the situation in China is getting better and more stable, [Chinese enterprises] are still working overtime day and night to help other countries in urgent need of them to fight the pandemic. This is China fulfilling its role as a responsible major country and the Chinese people making kind and selfless contribution to the global response. I believe that such efforts are worthy of respect, not disparagement.

Six days previously, the PRC’s official news agency had painted in like colors the Chinese offer to assist other countries:

The country has provided assistance to over 80 countries as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the African Union, shared its experience combatting the virus with the global community, and sent medical teams to countries in need. These concrete moves have won international [End Page 29] praise, including from the WHO and UN chiefs, and demonstrated that China shoulders the responsibility of a major country.5

The CCP cites international praise and gratitude to enhance its stature at home and abroad, with the rest of the world presented as cheering in admiration. As the Foreign Ministry’s Geng Shuang told the press on 20 April 2020: “China has made tremendous sacrifices, accumulated valuable experience, and made significant contributions to the global response. The international community bears witness to and applauds China’s efforts and progress.”

A guiding light.” The third narrative from the CCP’s persuasion playbook projects the image of China as a superior model. It casts the PRC’s response to the pandemic as a successful example for others to follow, contrasting China’s performance favorably with those of Western democracies. For example, the CCP-run Global Times newspaper published an op-ed denouncing Sweden’s “extremely irresponsible” disease-control measures (which involved social distancing and certain closures but stopped short of a mass lockdown) as a “serious violation of humanitarian principles.”6 In the Hong Kong–based South China Morning Post (owned by Jack Ma’s PRC-based multinational Alibaba), an “honorary fellow” from China’s Academy of Military Science went even further, claiming that the coronavirus had struck a decisive blow to the entire Western world, which was “falling apart.”7

Such blunt denigrations of the West are usually not relayed by official Chinese figures, but left to social-media and state-owned outlets, in posts and articles that quote foreigners who praise China while discussing their own countries in grim terms. The intention is not to convince other countries that they must replicate China’s system, but to buttress the CCP at home. A more subtle aim of this kind of material is to create rifts throughout the West—both between Western countries and within their respective societies—by sowing doubts about Western governments’ capacity to tackle the crisis.

A March 17 Global Times article, for instance, urged the United States to “learn from China,” quoting several experts including a U.S. population-health scientist who said she felt “afraid” that the United States would be unlikely to control the virus as well as Wuhan had.8 In late April, China Global Television Network host Robert Lawrence Kuhn—who has received an award for his support of China from Xi Jinping himself—asserted that “China’s system of party-led, strong government” would ensure the country’s superiority in fighting the pandemic.9 Even Harvard professor Joseph Nye, speaking to the Global Times, found that China seemed to have “recovered its endurance” whereas the U.S. administration was “still faltering” because of President Donald Trump’s “vacillating leadership.” Nye’s interview perfectly illustrates [End Page 30] the lesson he offered that day to his interviewer: “The best propaganda is not propaganda.”10

An Offensive Turn

In addition to portraying China in a flattering light, Beijing’s propaganda campaign has also taken a more offensive (in both senses of the word) turn as it tries to derail growing international criticism of how Chinese authorities handled the early part of the crisis.11 This attempt to deflect blame and scrutiny has been accompanied by distortions of fact, statements made in bad faith, accusations of inappropriate behavior and racism, ad hominem attacks, economic retaliation, and even outright disinformation relaying wild conspiracy theories.

Officials reject external criticism and urge the countries from which it comes to stick instead to fighting the disease at home. Mentioning the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is dismissed as an “improper and immoral” stigmatization, and the result of “ugly political calculations” by countries eager to make China a “scapegoat” to cover their own inability to tackle the problem.12 Responding to the Australian government’s calls for an independent investigation of how Chinese authorities had handled the early stages of the outbreak, the PRC suspended beef imports from four of Australia’s largest meat processors and proposed introducing an 80 percent tariff on Australian barley shipments (China buys a quarter of everything Australia exports). Using a style of rhetoric that Pyongyang would envy, Chinese official media lambasted U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo—who insists on using the term “Wuhan virus”—as an “enemy of humankind,” a “liar,” and a “rumor monger” with a “most twisted and ferocious face” whose rhetoric reveals the United States to have a “colossal moral deficit.”13 Even more objectionable, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian used his Twitter account to disseminate conspiracy theories about U.S. soldiers planting the virus in Wuhan.14

Such tactics are not new. Beijing has already deployed disinformation and active-interference campaigns in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which the CCP considers core interests. The mounting international criticism of the CCP’s early covid mismanagement is now also considered a paramount issue because it strikes at the heart of a key myth the Party uses to bolster its legitimacy at home: that the CCP is efficient, competent, and therefore uniquely capable of leading the nation. The increasing pressure from outside makes the CCP feel threatened at its core, and partly explains why the persuasion campaign has taken such an offensive turn. The perceived need to defend the Party against what seem to be direct attacks on its legitimacy outweighs any concern that an aggressive response will rouse a foreign backlash.

Successful persuasion campaigns rely not only on the message but on the messengers. They give weight and credibility to the narrative. [End Page 31] The current campaign uses every available messenger, from Xi Jinping himself to “China-friendly” foreign voices.

Xi Jinping has held telephone calls with foreign heads of state to pledge solidarity with and support for friendly countries. At the G20 summit that was held by videoconference in late March, he suggested confidence-building measures for the world economy and vowed to put more Chinese supplies, including medicine, on the global market. With most of the borders closed due to the pandemic, China’s public diplomacy has taken a local turn. Absent the possibility of diplomatic and paradiplomatic engagements by representatives traveling from Beijing, Chinese ambassadors have played a growing role in disseminating the official narrative. They have published op-eds in the Gambia, Nigeria, South Sudan, and the United States; engaged think tanks in London; and even created new Twitter accounts (trackable through the German Marshall Fund’s Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard) to relay key CCP themes online using several languages.

In addition, “China-friendly” foreign voices have fulfilled their unspoken purpose of carrying the Party’s narrative without revealing any connection to Beijing. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, has featured “overseas experts” praising the Chinese leadership for its “very impressive” antivirus measures.15 The WHO representative to China praised China’s quick response to the epidemic outbreak, and underlined its self-sacrifice “in order to win time for the rest of the world to be able to respond.”16

Inward- and outward-facing propaganda aims to gain respect and admiration for the CCP and China more generally. The recent combative turn is a puzzle, for it seems to run counter to this key objective. Do not offensive tactics backfire and hurt rather than help China’s image? A large part of this effort is taking place on social-media platforms that are banned in China, so who is the intended audience? Maybe the idea is that respect can be earned by acting strong. After all, this is consistent with Xi’s vision of a China that stands tall and with his call for Party cadres to show more “fighting spirit.” Liberal democracies in North America, Europe, and Oceania have reacted negatively to such aggressive behavior. But other parts of the world may be receptive to a China that acts willing and able to stand up to U.S. and Western power and arrogance. Thus far, the bulk of Beijing’s effort has been in the area of “discourse struggle.” But the leadership is also trying to use the pandemic crisis to pursue more concrete objectives.

Shaping the World

While projecting an image of China as selfless, competent, and responsible, Beijing continues to work toward its main goal: building a new order in which other states are drawn into its orbit. This vision has [End Page 32] been encapsulated since 2013 in the vaporous concept of a “community of shared future for mankind,” which was written into the PRC constitution in March 2018. Throughout the pandemic, Beijing has called for the creation of this “community” as essential for meeting a crisis that affects everyone. It has also continued to promote Xi’s Belt and Road grand plan, in particular through its “Health Silk Road” component.

The Health Silk Road is China’s blueprint for a new form of global health governance with Chinese characteristics. It is still in the early years of its development but, if fully achieved, could become a prominent example of Beijing-led arrangements meant to act as alternatives to existing international arrangements. In the meantime, China’s efforts are focused on manipulating existing international organizations to serve CCP interests, as demonstrated by recent controversies surrounding the WHO. This case vividly illustrates the value of Beijing’s quest for “institutional power.”

Xi’s “community of shared future” concept sounds like a call for planetary harmony. The PRC’s state media repeat the idea in unison, but always leave out the proviso that Beijing sees itself as sitting at the center of that community, using the reality of growing interdependence to reward or punish as its interests dictate.

Pulling countries more fully into China’s orbit may be achieved through demonstrations of good will. On March 20, the PRC announced that it would send more than eighty countries help in the form of surgical masks, testing kits, protective suits, and medical teams. Beijing created an online “covid-19 knowledge center” while Chinese officials videoconferenced with counterparts around the world to share best practices and information about the virus.

Chinese official media trumpet these efforts, but aid from China does not necessarily come for free. In return for medical supplies, Chinese officials have demanded public statements praising China’s coronavirus response, or even expressions of gratitude to Xi Jinping.17 Supplies have sometimes come from Jack Ma’s Alibaba Foundation and from telecom giants Tencent and Huawei, prompting questions about their underlying motives.18 Huawei’s offer to let Italian scientists use its WeLink cloud-based platform caused European Parliament member Anna Bonfrisco to officially ask about the implications for data privacy and the protection of critical infrastructure.19

The list of countries to which China has dispatched medical teams—Burma, Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Kazakhstan, Laos, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Serbia, and Venezuela—suggests that considerations other than pure humanitarianism may have shaped the selections. The wording of some media reports reinforces the impression that only those who have proven to be worthy “comprehensive strategic partners” (such as Iran) can be graced with rewards in return for their unswerving friendship.20 [End Page 33]

To tighten the ties that bind, Beijing highlights the need for international cooperation around China. Xi has said that the epidemic is temporary, but cooperation (including the bilateral kind) is everlasting. In a display of its willingness to lead in the setting of regional agendas, Beijing has convened various regional groupings to discuss and establish joint-response mechanisms.

Silk Road, Silken Bonds

The “community of shared future” is intimately associated with the Belt and Road Initiative. The “community” is the envisioned goal; the BRI is the way to knit the community together.21 This is not to say, however, that the BRI is primarily a physical-infrastructure project. Rather, it is a multidimensional strategy that advances China’s notion of itself as an uncontested leading power. Since Xi Jinping launched the BRI in 2013, questions have abounded regarding its economic and financial sustainability. In the wake of the pandemic, will Beijing be able to afford the vast loans and investments in infrastructure projects in developing countries? For the last three years, Beijing has already started to shift the BRI’s emphasis toward its “softer” and less costly components. During the current crisis, the focus naturally switched to the Health Silk Road.

In October 2015, the PRC health ministry introduced a plan for “Belt and Road health cooperation” whose professed goals included boosting China’s influence in global health matters. Since then, China has carried out a multipronged effort to draw foreign parties into cooperating more closely in areas as diverse as health security, medical research, and the promotion of traditional Chinese medicine. Written understandings now exist between Beijing and such prominent multilateral health organizations as the WHO, UNAIDS, the Global Fund, and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. In parallel with declarations of intent, Beijing has been acquiring pharmaceutical companies and starting projects with foreign health centers and businesses. Universities outside China have committed themselves to sharing health-related research and data with Chinese counterparts. This activity under the Belt and Road rubric has given Beijing a flexible network that it can use to promote its interests and spread its views, and all without having to commit enormous sums of money.

Even if the objectives of the Health Silk Road are well defined on paper, the plan is still at an early stage. The covid pandemic has given it an occasion for expansion, both in the developing world and in Western countries where Chinese officials urge cooperation on vaccines and antiviral medications.

As the Beijing-led alternative global-health platform slowly emerges, China is reaping the benefits of its rising influence within existing international [End Page 34] institutions, specifically the WHO. The Chinese leadership sought to improve its standing within the WHO in reaction to the organization’s harsh criticism of Beijing’s handling of the 2003 SARS crisis. Staffers from the PRC are not present in large numbers within the WHO’s workforce, however, and the PRC government’s financial contributions are low compared to those of other countries.22 According to French Sinologist Valérie Niquet, Beijing’s outsized influence should be understood against the backdrop of China’s increased political weight in African countries, especially Ethiopia.23

In May 2017, former Ethiopian government official Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was elected to a five-year term as the WHO’s director-general, thanks to the support of the PRC and all 55 of the African Union member states. Born in what is now Eritrea, Tedros is a former cadre of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which in the 1970s and 1980s was a self-described Marxist-Leninist movement that engaged in a struggle for control of the Ethiopian government. The TPLF drew support during those decades from the PRC (as well as the PRC’s small ally at the time, Albania). In 1991, the civil war ended with the TPLF and its allies victorious, and Tedros later became Ethiopia’s health minister (2005–12) and foreign minister (2013–17). Tedros’s cabinet posts brought him repeatedly into close engagements with Beijing. While foreign minister, he spoke highly of Ethiopia’s relationship with the PRC. As head of the WHO, he has led the way to “stronger and more strategic WHO-China collaborations.” In 2017, he praised China’s health reforms as “a model for other countries in how to make our world fairer, healthier and safer. We can all learn something from China.”24

On 14 January 2020, the WHO put out a tweet relaying the official Chinese position that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China.”25 Visiting Beijing at the end of that month, Tedros declared his admiration for the Chinese government, which he praised for having “shown its solid political resolve and taken timely and effective measures in dealing with the epidemic.” He added that “President Xi’s personal guidance and deployment show his great leadership capability.”26

Through its director and several of its representatives, the WHO has proven a mouthpiece for Beijing, echoing Chinese propaganda by lavishly praising the CCP’s efficiency and the advantages supposedly conferred by its system.27 The WHO has also been a useful pawn supporting Beijing’s efforts to exclude Taiwan from international institutions. When asked in a 28 March 2020 remote video interview with Radio Television Hong Kong if the WHO should reconsider Taiwan’s exclusion from membership, WHO assistant director-general Bruce Aylward dodged the question, then dismissed another question about Taiwan’s coronavirus response, on the ground that he had “already talked about China.”28 A few days later, Tedros refused to answer a Japanese reporter’s question about Taiwan, [End Page 35] leaving the response to Michael Ryan, the head of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, who praised the PRC authorities for their early disclosure of information regarding the epidemic.29

The WHO ought to be the logical mechanism to turn to for an international investigation into the origins of the pandemic, but its apparent increased politicization at the hands of Beijing does not bode well for a future impartial survey. Yet it remains Xi Jinping’s preferred supervisory body for a “comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 after it is brought under control,” as he declared in a May 18 speech to the World Health Assembly (WHA).

More broadly, the content of Xi’s WHA speech is emblematic of China’s continual efforts to cast itself as a great, altruistic, responsible power and the leader in particular of the Global South. It repositions China as the leader of global efforts to address the covid crisis, interweaving the familiar discursive themes listed earlier with concrete measures that are meant mainly to woo the developing world. Xi announced the spending of US$2 billion over two years to help with coronavirus response as well as “economic and social development in affected countries, especially developing countries.” He vowed that the PRC would build and host a “global humanitarian response depot and hub” to ensure the smooth flow of vital disease-fighting supplies, and promised to found a medical-cooperation mechanism specifically for Africa. To cap his pledges, he said that the PRC would look into solutions for debtor countries and treat any PRC-developed covid-19 vaccine as a “global public good.”30

In sum, far from recalibrating its strategic goals in light of the pandemic, the CCP leadership remains set on seeing China take center stage in world affairs. Beijing is hoping that over the long run it can use the crisis to more deeply engrain its influence abroad. Yet the regime remains gravely worried about the pandemic’s aftermath, not because of the harm that the disease has done to the Chinese people and the world—the regime denies any responsibility for that—but because the damage that the crisis has wrought may threaten to put cracks in the armor of infallibility that the CCP has so tenaciously fabricated. Despite its fears of a postpandemic backlash, therefore, the CCP has chosen not to recognize its errors or make amends. Instead, it prefers to carry on its efforts to manipulate outside perceptions.

The way Beijing is waging this campaign says some things about the nature of its power: Even though the CCP regime tries to persuade others of its peaceful benevolence, it can quickly revert to coercion and intimidation when its core interests—to say nothing of its survival in power—are at stake. Beijing’s race for pole position is not just happening in the ethereal realm of discourse, however. The current crisis has helped to lay bare the consequences of China’s stealthy efforts to increase its influence within international institutions. Unfolding before [End Page 36] our very eyes is not merely a battle of narratives but a demonstration of Realpolitik by a regime that is a master of it, in which every possible domain, including global health, has become a front along which Beijing seeks to advance its place in the world. [End Page 37]



1. Willy Wo-Lap Lam, “Xi Jinping Warns Against the ‘Black Swans’ and ‘Gray Rhinos’ of a Possible Color Revolution,” Jamestown Foundation, 20 February 2019,

2. Vijay Gokhale, “#COVID19: Reading the Tea Leaves in China,” Observer Research Foundation, 19 April 2020,

3. “Resolutely Defeating the COVID-19 Outbreak and Promoting the Building of a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind—Wang Yi,” PRC Foreign Ministry, 2 March 2020,

4. “Mourning for a Medic: Li Wenliang’s Death Is a New Crisis for China’s Rulers,” Economist, 7 February 2020.

5. “Commentary: Let the Community with Shared Future Vision Shine Brighter,” Xinhua News Agency, 24 March 2020,

6. Kayla Wong, “Chinese State Media Slams Sweden as ‘First Country to Harm the World’ with ‘Irresponsible’ Covid-19 Response,” Mothership, 15 March 2020,

7. Zhou Bo, “Why the US and Europe Need to Draw Closer to China and Drop the Hubris,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), 24 April 2020,

8. Chen Qingqing and Liu Caiyu, “Time for US to Learn from China to Deal with the Covid-19 Outbreak,” Global Times, 17 March 2020,

9. “Key Advantages of the Chinese System Overcoming COVID-19,” CGTN, 27 April 2020,

10. “Respect for Science Will Win COVID-19 Fight,” Global Times, 29 April 2020,

11. Laura Rosenberger, “China’s Coronavirus Information Offensive,” Foreign Affairs, 22 April 2020,

12. Hua Ning, “Fighting COVID-19 Requires Solidarity Rather than Slanders,” Juba Monitor (South Sudan), 9 April 2020.

13. Anna Fifield, “China Wasn’t Wild About Mike Pompeo Before the Virus. It’s Really Gunning for Him Now,” Washington Post, 30 April 2020.

14. “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” he wrote on 12 March 2020. See

15. “China Acted Responsibly in Global Fight Against Coronavirus: Greek Expert,” Xinhua News Agency, 14 March 2020,

16. Wang Bozun, “China Sacrificed Itself to Win Time for the World to Respond to COVID19: WHO,” Global Times, 2 April 2020,

17. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “Beijing Demanded Praise in Exchange for Medical Supplies,” Axios, 6 May 2020,

18. Arjun Kharpal, “Canada and France Say Donations of Coronavirus Masks Won’t Influence Decisions on Huawei and 5G,” CNBC, 10 April 2020,

19. Anna Bonfrisco, “Parliamentary Questions: Security Threatened by the ‘Health Silk Road’ Project,” European Parliament, 23 March 2020,

20. “Xi Says China Ready to Provide Further Assistance for Iran Against COVID-19 Epidemic,” Xinhua News Agency, 14 March 2020,

21. Nadège Rolland, “Beijing’s Vision for a Reshaped International Oder, “China Brief, 26 February 2018,

22. The PRC’s contribution to the WHO was US$86 million in 2019. That is less than a tenth of the total U.S. contribution for the same year. The $10.4 million voluntary contribution that China made in 2017 (the WHO receives both member-state dues and freewill offerings from states as well as nonstate actors such as the Gates Foundation) equaled just 2.5 percent of the U.S. voluntary contribution. François Godement, “L’OMS, la pandémie et l’influence chinoise: un premier bilan,” Institut Montaigne, 24 March 2020,

23. Valérie Niquet, “Un défi pour le multilatéralisme: l’instrumentalisation de l’Afrique par la Chine et ses conséquences sur les décisions de l’OMS,” Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, 14 April 2020,

24. “New Vision and Strengthened Partnership for WHO and China,” World Health Organization, 21 August 2017,

26. “Xi Jinping Meets with Visiting World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus,” PRC Foreign Ministry, 29 January 2020,

27. Stuart Lau, “WHO Head Stands by His Praise for China and Xi Jinping on Response to Outbreak,” South China Morning Post, 13 February 2020,

28. Aylward’s RTHK interview can be seen at

29. A report with footage of the WHO press conference can be seen at

30. “Speech by President Xi Jinping at Opening of 73 World Health Assembly,” Xinhua News Agency, 18 May 2020,


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