East Asia Watch

China's coronavirus mission - helping others and healing its own image

While aid to stricken countries is positive, blowing its own trumpet and engaging in conspiracy theories are not

Among the Italian opera arias, folk songs and modern tunes that rang out from balconies and windows of Italy's cities earlier this month - as its people sought to lift their spirits through music amid the coronavirus lockdown - was the Chinese national anthem.

A recording of the anthem was heard in a Rome residential district, at the end of which the grateful Italian who played it said: "I am not sure if there is a Chinese neighbour here, but I would like to sincerely thank China and the people there."

A day before, a team of experts, along with 31 tonnes of much-needed medical equipment including ventilators and masks, arrived from China, at a time when Italy was struggling with a massive and rising wave of Covid-19 cases. More help has since arrived from Beijing in the form of medical staff and gear.

As China has passed the peak in its coronavirus outbreak, it has begun sending aid and experts overseas to help tame the virus that has now spread to more than 150 countries worldwide.

Apart from Italy, Chinese experts have also gone to Iran - one of the countries outside of China hardest hit by the virus - and Iraq. They have held online conferences with experts from other countries to share their knowledge and experience.

China, which had ramped up production of masks, respirators, ventilators and protective suits to meet the needs of its healthcare workers and patients, has begun sending such supplies to other countries where the need is greatest, as its own demand has dropped.

These have included countries in the West as well as Malaysia and the Philippines. Some of these shipped supplies are donations and some are sold.

Earlier last month, China's Foreign Minister held a meeting with his Asean counterparts to discuss cooperation on containing the virus.


China's official media and diplomats have not been shy about publicising these actions.

On March 11, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying wrote on Twitter - a social media platform banned in China - that a batch of medical supplies had arrived in Belgium and that these would be delivered to Italy and Spain. Four days later, she tweeted that Foreign Minister Wang Yi had spoken on the phone with his Philippine counterpart Teodoro Locsin and that China would be sending experts and medical supplies to the Philippines soon.


In a display of global statesmanship, Chinese President Xi Jinping called the leaders of France, Spain, Germany and Serbia with offers of help.

This contrasts with reports that United States President Donald Trump had tried to acquire a German company that is working on a vaccine for Covid-19, with a view to keeping its product for the exclusive use of Americans.

As much as China's actions show a desire of the Chinese to help, having gone through a devastating few months battling the virus, they also reveal an eagerness to repair China's image, which has been battered by its initial missteps in dealing with the virus that began to show up in the central city of Wuhan last November, leading to its spread throughout China and to other countries.

And these actions have had an effect, as evidenced in the playing of China's national anthem in Rome and the effusive thanks from Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to President Xi and China's people for the medical aid that arrived last Saturday.


What has been disconcerting, however, is the quickness of China's experts and diplomats alike to question the origin of the virus before evidence has emerged to show it had surfaced elsewhere before China.

Famed pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan, who discovered the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus in 2003, said at a press conference last month that while the coronavirus first appeared in China, it may not have originated in the country.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian went further earlier this month, promoting a conspiracy theory. He tweeted that it "might be the US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan" and republished a video clip of Dr Robert Redfield, director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, telling a US congressional committee on March 11 that some influenza deaths in the US were later identified as cases of Covid-19. Dr Redfield did not say when those people had died or over what time period, but Mr Zhao used the remarks to back his claim.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman's comments allude to a conspiracy theory that US military athletes participating in the Military World Games in Wuhan last October may have brought the virus into China. The US had sent nearly 300 athletes and officials to take part in the games. While the Pentagon has confirmed cases of Covid-19 in South Korea and Italy among its servicemen, no American soldier has been linked to the illness from last October, The New York Times reported.

Mr Zhao, said Professor Steve Tsang from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, was shifting focus to an ungrounded claim from the fact that China's government had acted irresponsibly in the way it dealt with the first reported cases of human-to-human transmission that led to a global pandemic. The Chinese diplomat's comments had come days after US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said China's slow response had cost the world two months in which it could have geared up for the outbreak. China's Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai has since distanced himself from Mr Zhao's comments, saying such speculation will help nobody and is very harmful.

China has also taken umbrage at US leaders' insistence on calling the coronavirus a "Chinese virus" or "Wuhan virus", even after it was given a non-geographic name - Sars-CoV-2 - by the World Health Organisation. What has ensued is a war of words and a blame game between the world's two most powerful nations, which should really be cooperating to lead the world out of this crisis.

Now, Chinese and Hong Kong media, including CGTN and the South China Morning Post, are floating the idea that the coronavirus could have originated in Italy because an expert there recently told the US' National Public Radio that a "strange pneumonia" was circulating there as early as last November.

When and where the virus could have started, time and science will tell. In the meantime, it is unhelpful if government officials and diplomats were to latch on to these reports and draw as yet unfounded conclusions.


Meanwhile, many countries that are facing spikes in Covid-19 cases and deaths are taking a page from China's playbook - the lockdown, albeit to varying degrees of severity.


The lockdown of Wuhan and several cities around it in January had been vilified by some in the West as too draconian and an infringement on individual rights. But these measures, as well as restricted movement in other parts of the country affecting about 500 million people in all, proved to have worked in slowing the spread of the virus and buying the world time to gear up for the outbreak.

Some of these measures included shutting schools, offices and factories and requiring everyone to stay home unless they needed to seek medical care. Public transport was also halted and private vehicles banned from the roads.

Italy was the first Western nation to emulate China in imposing a lockdown on the worst-hit areas of the country last month. This has since been expanded to the whole country as the epidemic has worsened. Italy has the highest number of infections in Europe and it now has more deaths than China.

In what is effectively a national quarantine, Italy has shut down all but the most essential businesses, closed schools and universities, prohibited public gatherings and suspended sporting events. The army has been enlisted to help enforce the lockdown.

In France, from March 17, people can leave home only on essential business, such as shopping for food or basic necessities, going to the doctor or going to work. Restaurants, nightclubs, cinemas, museums and sports centres were closed and only food shops, pharmacies, banks, news agents and petrol stations were kept open.

In the US, four states including New York and California have instituted statewide lockdowns affecting 80 million people.

Closer to home, Malaysia last week imposed a partial lockdown, or movement control order, as cases began to spike, with nobody allowed to leave or enter the country from March 18 to 31, schools and non-essential businesses closed and public gatherings disallowed.


While some of China's draconian measures are being emulated around the world, it does not mean that these countries are looking to the Chinese authoritarian ways as a model for governance.

People are willing to accept draconian and intrusive measures that they normally would not have because of the pandemic, said Professor Zheng Yongnian from the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

However, it is Chinese authoritarian rule that had led to the initial delay in the country's response, and this has caused more people to doubt the Chinese model, he added.

Even the Chinese themselves were questioning the initial delay and whether the situation would have been different if the government had not been so tardy, he said.

While the draconian measures had been necessary to bring the virus under control, it came at a huge social and economic cost as the whole country came to a standstill for two months, said Prof Zheng. People are reflecting on whether China could have instead adopted the less paralysing measures taken by South Korea, Singapore or Japan, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan, he added.

"They don't have the draconian measures of China but still those societies are quite effective in controlling the disease," he said.

What China can do, through its actions now - sending needed medical equipment overseas and sharing its experience and scientific knowledge to help the world combat the coronavirus - is to salvage some of the credibility that it had before the outbreak.

The last thing it should do, said Prof Zheng, is to trumpet such actions, as it could lead to a backlash because people usually don't like such behaviour.

Indeed, that pushback has begun with commentators in the US and Europe questioning Chinese motives in sending medical supplies and healthcare personnel to coronavirus-hit countries.

Former diplomat Kurt Campbell and researcher Rush Doshi, in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, wrote that China is positioning itself as the global leader in pandemic response - while the US falters - by working to "tout its own system, provide material assistance to other countries, and even organise other governments". Others have said China is trying to deflect blame through its propaganda.

If China wants to repair its image and build goodwill, it has to move hearts through its acts of kindness and generosity on the ground, rather than blow its horn. It has to let its actions do the talking.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2020, with the headline 'China's coronavirus mission - helping others and healing its own image'. Subscribe