Global Affairs

How not to win friends and influence people in Europe

Beijing's handling of diplomacy in the Covid-19 pandemic is pushing Europe away, when the continent has long held a benign view of its ties with China

LONDON • "There is no doubt we can't have business as usual after this crisis", is how British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the prospects for his country's relations with China when the current coronavirus pandemic is over.

Foreign ministers do not engage in such undiplomatic language lightly, for there is little to be gained in making unspecified threats. Yet in many respects, Mr Raab was merely articulating a view now shared in most European capitals.

For there is a profound and genuine anger in Europe at China's current policies towards the continent, coupled with widespread acknowledgement that Europe urgently needs a radical rethink of its relations with China.

The real question is whether Beijing understands just how deep the gap between itself and Europe really is.

No European government and no respectable European politician had fallen for conspiracy theories blaming China for unleashing the coronavirus pandemic; the idea that a country could be made "responsible" for a viral infection is dismissed as nonsense.

Still, European states have serious complaints about China on three fundamental counts.

First, they hold China responsible for allegedly wasting precious time in trying to hide the onset of the pandemic; the intelligence services of key European countries share the assessment of the American spying community that Covid-19 infections were first observable in Wuhan from early December last year, a full month before the central Chinese government issued a public admission to this effect.

A dossier compiled by the so-called Five Eyes network of intelligence agencies belonging to Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, details of which were leaked over the weekend to an Australian newspaper, appears to corroborate this assessment.

But even European governments who have no access to such classified information or who are otherwise prepared to accept Chinese reassurances that no cover-up was intended still wonder why, as late as mid-January, the Chinese government continued to claim that there was no evidence of coronavirus transmissions to humans, and why China continued to put pressure on European governments not to introduce travel restrictions.

There is also considerable doubt about China's declared number of casualties. As European officials point out, the population of Hubei province, the epicentre of the pandemic in China, is of a size not dissimilar to that of Spain, France or Italy. But are we to believe that China, the country where the pandemic started, suffered only a quarter of the mortality rates of the key European nations, despite the fact that the Chinese medical services were coping with a virus which was initially unknown?

True, Germany did very well in Europe in keeping death figures down. But the official Chinese mortality rate - even after its latest "revision" - is still just a mere fraction of even Germany's. So, either China has the best health service in the world, or it has the worst statistical agency.


For European leaders, such matters are not just academic exercises, for they claim that the low mortality rate initially reported by China lulled everyone - including European health specialists - into a false sense of security about the disaster which was approaching them.


And then, there are European politicians who accuse China of contributing to the critical shortage of face masks and other protective medical equipment - by either restricting the free flow of such equipment produced on behalf of Western customers in factories based in China or by scooping up equipment available on the open markets in Europe in the early stages of the pandemic - at the expense of European customers.

To be sure, there is an element of special pleading in all these accusations.

Pilloried by electorates in their own countries for the way they handled the health emergency, European leaders will not be true politicians if they did not try to pin the blame on others, and China makes for a convenient scapegoat.

Still, the complaints against China are deeply and sincerely held. Just notice how French President Emmanuel Macron reacted when he was asked in a recent media interview to explain why China's mortality figures are better than France's: "Let's not be so naive as to say China has been much better at handling this," Mr Macron snapped back at the journalists.

Be that as it may, all European leaders were determined not to allow their private misgivings to come into the open. The foreign ministers of Britain, Germany, France and Italy opposed point-blank an American attempt to insert a reference to the so-called "Wuhan virus" in a joint statement after a meeting of the G-7 group of the most industrialised states; they preferred not to have any statement, rather than produce a document which would have pointed an accusing finger at China.

More significantly, European governments have refrained from demanding an international inquiry into the start of the pandemic as the US and Australia, among others, have called for, not because they believe that such an inquiry won't be useful, but because they assume - correctly - that the project has no chance of being approved by Beijing, and therefore unnecessarily antagonises the Chinese.


However, European governments were unpleasantly surprised to discover that their efforts to avoid a public spat with China were not reciprocated by the Chinese.

First came a wave of Chinese "face mask diplomacy", a torrent of offers by the Chinese government to airlift face masks and other medical equipment to European countries. On the face of it, it was a great humanitarian gesture at a time when the Europeans were in their greatest hour of need. The snag was that much of this material was not fit for purpose and had to be returned or discarded, and at least half of it was not donated, but sold.

More gallingly still, the Chinese insisted on politicising every humanitarian airlift.

As if by magic, people holding "Thank you China" messages in both Chinese and local languages appeared at European airports to welcome such shipments.

And both the official Chinese media and Chinese diplomats based in Europe explicitly contrasted their country's help with the supposedly weak level of European solidarity. That was not only factually wrong - European states contributed far more to one another than China ever did, viral images of Chinese sending supplies and personnel to help in Italy notwithstanding, with the European Union for example putting forward a package of €540 billion (S$839 billion) to support member states - but sometimes downright comical.

China's Xinhua news agency, for instance, circulated a video of ordinary Italians who supposedly sang the Chinese national anthem from the balconies of their homes in gratitude for China's help; needless to say, the Italians may be good with music, but they may be less familiar with the March of the Volunteers. Italian online platform Open later studied the video and found that some of the footage was of Italians applauding in solidarity with healthcare workers, without sound. The Chinese anthem was added to a later version that was circulated.


Yet what infuriated European politicians most is the fact that China started challenging Europe's political model by openly putting forward the argument that the Chinese political system with its strong central control proved superior in handling the coronavirus challenge.

The speedy way by which China apparently succeeded in constructing a new hospital in Wuhan at the height of the pandemic was held as an example of how things should be done; the fact that a country like Britain succeeded in erecting a hospital of exactly the same size and in more or less the same time frame outside London without requiring a communist system of government is a detail which escaped the attention of Chinese officials.

The West is "falling apart", and in a "nadir of its self-confidence"; China's successfully implemented emergency counter-measures are now "being emulated around the world", intoned Mr Zhou Bo of the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People's Liberation Army in a newspaper article.

And there was worse. Chinese diplomats in Germany engaged in a public spat with the editor of Bild, the country's top daily and Europe's highest-circulation newspaper, over the paper's coverage. They did not come out of this well, for Bild's editor retaliated by uploading a video in which he tore into the Chinese government.

Meanwhile in France, the Chinese embassy in Paris went further by claiming that Europe's "poor" performance in handling the health crisis has led people "to distrust liberal democracy".

"Socialism with Chinese characteristics" - continued the embassy's Web posting - "has demonstrated its ability to concentrate resources in the service of great achievements".

Even more astonishingly, the Chinese embassy in Paris also claimed that French parliamentarians were guilty of a racial slur against Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organisation, by allegedly using the word 'negro'.

No such thing took place.

Other countries were not spared either. The Dutch, for instance, were warned that they may lose the ability to import medicines from China because they changed the name of their representative office in Taiwan. And in Sweden, where China's ambassador Gui Congyou warned last year that the Chinese "treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns", journalists were reminded that they must stop criticising China.

The question is whether Beijing understands how deeply damaging its behaviour is. For if it continues, it has the potential to change irrevocably the country's entire relationship with Europe. Throughout the decades of China's rise to great power status and despite their distaste of what the Chinese were sometimes doing, the view of all European governments was that China presented more an opportunity than a threat and that, unlike the Soviet Union or Russia, China never sought to challenge Europe's political arrangements, or establish spheres of influence.

Now, however, the Europeans are not so sure. For China's behaviour over the past few months directly challenged the values and political arrangements of the continent.

And if that happens, Chinese officials should not be surprised if Europe draws closer to the US' position on China, particularly if Mr Joe Biden were to win the presidency. In short, Beijing's current European attitude may well go down as one of the most counter-productive measures ever undertaken.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2020, with the headline How not to win friends and influence people in Europe. Subscribe