As Outbreak has transitioned into a global problem, Beijing has sought to repair the damage to its reputation caused by its early missteps, observers say. It has also offered to share its knowledge with supporters of its Belt & Road Initiative, like Chile, Italy and Iran.
Beijing has stepped up its efforts to shift the international narrative on its role in the coronavirus outbreak to promote the success of its measures to control the epidemic as an example for other countries.
The virus, which causes the pneumonia-like disease known as Covid-19, was first identified in the central China city of Wuhan in December and has since spread worldwide. The epidemic has forced Beijing into the international spotlight as it deals with one of its biggest health crises in decades, which has triggered resentment both at home and abroad.
Analysts said the Chinese Communist Party struggled in the initial stages to defend its missteps as it sought to contain the virus, so Beijing’s messaging focused on the international support it received including from the World Health Organisation (WHO) while criticising actions such as the United States’ ban on Chinese travellers in a bid to bolster its image and highlight the discrimination against its citizens.
But as the number of new daily cases in China has slowed, Beijing has focused on its public health diplomacy, offering medical aid and support to countries such as Iran, Italy & Chile all of which are also partners in its ambitious infrastructure development plan known as the Belt & Road Initiative.
Iran and Italy have become major centres of infection in the past week, while China has seen something of a plateau, though it still accounts for about 85 per cent of the 95,000 cases reported around the world.
Rachel Vandenbrink, Programme Officer for China at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, said the outbreak had dealt a blow to China’s economy, the image of its leadership, and its international reputation and standing.
“In the earlier stages of the outbreak, Beijing’s focus in terms of diplomatic messaging was to mitigate the blow to its international reputation,” she said. “Chinese foreign ministry officials criticised some governments for evacuating their citizens, imposing travel bans, and praised some who didn’t.”
As the epidemic transitioned into a global problem, China was presented with an opportunity to repair the damage to its reputation by stressing international medical cooperation efforts, Vandenbrink said.
“But even more important than improving its reputation in the eyes of other countries is the domestic narrative being able to show to its own people that the leadership in Beijing can defend the country’s international standing and image,” she said.
Ma Zhaoxu, China’s Vice Foreign Minister was keen to make that point on Thursday.
“China’s vigorous efforts in virus containment and contribution to global public health has won worldwide recognition,” he said at a press conference in Beijing on China’s international cooperation in managing the coronavirus outbreak.
Beijing earlier cited WHO guidelines to criticise the US for imposing travel restrictions on its citizens and saying the coronavirus originated from China. The global health organisation said nations should avoid stigmatising other countries.
On Tuesday, Xinhua published a commentary demanding an apology from Washington for its earlier criticism of Beijing’s handling of the outbreak, pointing to the difficulties the US was now facing in trying to combat the spread of the virus.
“The US owes China an apology and the world owes China a ‘thank you’ because without China’s great sacrifice and contributions, we could not have won valuable time for the world to fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic,” it said.
After experts from China and the WHO met to examine the containment measures and impact of the coronavirus on the ground, the WHO described Beijing’s response efforts in a report as “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history”.
It also lauded the “deep commitment” in China to collective action against the virus and the “bold approach” that had led to a decrease in new daily confirmed cases. It concluded that the rest of the world “urgently needs access to China’s experience in responding to Covid-19, as well as the material goods it brings to the global response”.
Beijing recently agreed to allow a team of health experts from Chile to visit to learn about its control measures. As of Thursday morning, the South American country had just one confirmed coronavirus case.
Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich told reporters on Monday that the delegation would go to “this great country that is China” to learn about its efforts, Xinhua reported.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also offered to provide medical support to Italy, which was the first Western nation to sign up to the belt and road plan, as well as information about its experiences in epidemic prevention and control.
Marina Rudyak, an expert on Chinese Foreign aid at the University of Heidelberg, said Beijing had offered support to the countries most affected outside China and that had backed Beijing since the outbreak began.
“As for strategic motives, here, in essence the behavioural pattern is similar to the past ones: the provision of support has always served as a way to project the image of a ‘responsible actor’,” she said.
“Highlighting China’s aid to other countries, on the other hand, should strengthen the legitimacy of the Communist Party by implying that China’s chosen path is supported by other countries.”
The emphasis on the belt and road was in line with Beijing’s intentions to frame its foreign policy in terms of their key initiative, she said.
Vin Gupta, an affiliate assistant professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington, said that while China made the “right moves” to contain the outbreak after the leadership learned the scope of the problem, actions such as locking down Wuhan were not replicable in other countries and damaged people’s civil liberties and rights.
“Multiple examples elsewhere of locking down places adds hysteria, creates chaos and loss of trust in governments, and does not solve the problem,” he said. “But Building a hospital in 10 days is pretty impressive, not many countries can build new hospitals in 10 days.”