Chinese academic: How the West's perception of China plummeted in 2020

Even as 2020 will go down in history as the year of the coronavirus, economics professor Zhu Ying notes that it also marks a shift in how Western countries view China — and not in a good way.
People wearing face masks walk along a street during a rush hour in Bejing on 16 December 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP)
People wearing face masks walk along a street during a rush hour in Bejing on 16 December 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP)

2020 marks a critical point in human history, with the coronavirus ravaging the globe with no end in sight. The approaches taken by major countries in combating the pandemic are changing the world landscape, and China is an important node in this change. The coronavirus has focused global attention on China while the latter’s actions have continued to impact the world. Hence the year 2020 also marks a turning point in the West’s perceptions of China.

Unsatisfactory handling of initial stages of the Covid-19 outbreak

First, the West does not agree with China’s initial handling of the coronavirus. On 21 September, the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs released a report on the origins of the coronavirus, concluding that China “actively engaged in a cover-up designed to obfuscate data, hide relevant public health information, and suppress doctors and journalists who attempted to warn the world.”

The West attributes the Chinese government’s cover-up to its flawed system of governance.

The report further said: “Senior CCP leaders, including CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, knew a pandemic was ongoing weeks before it was announced. By responding in a transparent and responsible manner, the CCP could have supported the global public health response and shared information with the world about how to handle the virus. It is likely the ongoing pandemic could have been prevented had they done so, saving hundreds of thousands of lives and the world from an economic meltdown.”

On 25 November, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the foreign policy consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak. It criticised China’s attempts to “manipulate and withhold information” during the initial global outbreak of the pandemic, and using the crisis to limit human rights, undermining democracy, and weakening the rule of law, then pushing its geopolitical agenda with “virus and wolf-warrior diplomacy”. Also, China is “seeking to fill the political vacuum in the multilateral system left by a more isolationist US and trying to position itself as the dominant global player with an alternative governance model” of authoritarianism.

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European Parliament President David-Maria Sassoli (centre) opens the plenary session of the European Parliament from the headquarters of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on 14 December 2020. (Frederick Florin/AFP)

The West attributes the Chinese government’s cover-up to its flawed system of governance. On 27 January, the New York Times ran a piece titled “Coronavirus Exposes Core Flaws, and Few Strengths, in China’s Governance” — the Chinese version of the title was “Coronavirus Crisis Exposes Deep Flaws in China’s Political System”. The commentary said: “Its rigidly hierarchical bureaucracy discourages local officials from raising bad news with central bosses whose help they might need. And it silos those officials off from one another, making it harder to see, much less manage, the full scope of spiralling crises.”

And in late November, Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, released a new book called The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State. He felt that China has many internal weaknesses, and the coronavirus is a good example of how concentration of power and political suppression paralysed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bureaucracy. Wuhan officials did not dare to report the outbreak, or act without guidance from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Coupled with the CCP’s usual censorship and social control, the truth was covered up and a localised outbreak became a global pandemic.

China publicised the superiority of the socialist system, and even wanted the world to thank it, which led to the general disgust of Western countries.

On 1 December, CNN reported that it had obtained 117 pages of leaked documents from the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention showing that figures released by China were “only part of the picture” of the outbreak. Out of political considerations, the Chinese authorities covered up the situation and mishandled the initial outbreak. The article said: “On February 10, when China reported 2,478 new confirmed cases nationwide, the documents show Hubei actually circulated a different total of 5,918 newly reported cases.”

The article also said: “The documents... reveal what appears to be an inflexible health care system constrained by top-down bureaucracy and rigid procedures that were ill-equipped to deal with the emerging crisis.”

Haughty behaviour after getting domestic situation under control

Second, the West is turned off by China’s propaganda offensive after bringing the pandemic under control. China publicised the superiority of the socialist system, and even wanted the world to thank it, which led to the general disgust of Western countries.

Its [China's] disregard for human rights allowed the authorities to lock 56 million residents in their homes, while AI allowed centralised monitoring of people, and all of this completely contradicts democratic values. - French paper Libération

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French President Emmanuel Macron holds a news conference at the end of a EU leaders summit, in Brussels, Belgium, 11 December 2020. (Olivier Hoslet/Pool via REUTERS)

According to an interview piece in the Financial Times on 16 April, French President Emmanuel Macron “bristled when asked if erratic efforts to curb the Covid-19 pandemic had not exposed the weakness of western democracies” and thought that “abandoning freedoms to tackle the disease would pose a threat to western democracies”.

The same day, French paper Libération ran a lengthy commentary titled “Coronavirus Exposes True Face of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. The piece said China stifled freedom of speech and checks on its power, and stopped information flow. Its disregard for human rights allowed the authorities to lock 56 million residents in their homes, while AI allowed centralised monitoring of people, and all of this completely contradicts democratic values. In a party-state system, from the grassroots-level to the central government, the primary mission of the party is political survival and not the people’s health.

Also on 16 April, Julian Reichelt, editor-in-chief of German newspaper Bild, published an open letter to Xi Jinping, criticising China’s human rights issues and holding China responsible for the pandemic. In the second half of April, the cover of Charlie Hebdo featured a cartoon of Xi Jinping, with the caption: “Has China really told us everything?” (“La Chine… nous a-t-elle vraiment tout dit?”) In a TV interview with Deutsche Welle, Reichelt said, “It’s awfully hard to prove something on China.”

On 28 April, the editorial in France’s Le Point noted that in a post-Orwellian era, one party controls everything in China, and the pandemic proves what disasters an authoritarian model can bring on the world. In late April, a long piece in Radio Television Suisse (RTS) said the coronavirus may be a catalyst for a shakeup of global geopolitics. And French economist Jacques Attali said to RTS that the future does not belong to autocracy — some autocracies surfaced following the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 to 1920, such as Italy, Spain, Germany, and Russia, but all these autocracies crumbled.

The pandemic, China’s propaganda offensive, and the image of its diplomats all add to China’s increasingly negative impression among people in the West, as reflected in many surveys in the West.

China’s coronavirus control measures included a strict lockdown and restriction of movement, strict border controls and mandatory quarantine for people entering China, ramping up testing capabilities, and testing all locals when cases were found. In July, Foreign Affairs magazine ran a piece saying that the world will not accept Beijing’s approach to controlling the pandemic, because the price is government surveillance, tracking, and control of people. It said: “Few countries have the capacity to replicate China’s extensive system of surveillance wholesale.”

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A man wearing a face mask looks over a barricade set up to keep people out of a residential compound in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 14, 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP)

China’s international image tarnished

Third, the West has negative views of China’s international image. This year, the West has described China’s diplomacy as “wolf-warrior diplomacy”, “coercive diplomacy”, and “hostage diplomacy”. The combative language used by Chinese foreign ministry spokespersons such as Zhao Lijian is called wolf-warrior diplomacy; China’s harsh import restrictions on Australian products are dubbed coercive diplomacy; China’s arrests of Canadian citizens in response to Canada’s detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou is described as hostage diplomacy.

The pandemic, China’s propaganda offensive, and the image of its diplomats all add to China’s increasingly negative impression among people in the West, as reflected in many surveys in the West.

A survey released on 6 October by Pew Research Center showed that the coronavirus added to negative views of China among 14 advanced nations, with a median 61% of respondents from all countries of the view that China did not handle the outbreak well.

In the second half of November, Palacký University Olomouc in the Czech Republic released a survey report stretching over two months. The report said the survey of 13 European countries showed that respondents had mostly unfavourable views of China, with Sweden showing the highest negative ratings — 60% of Swedish respondents had unfavourable or very unfavourable views of China. Germany, France, the UK, and the Czech Republic were also generally unfavourable in their views. The only EU country with a favourable view of China was Latvia, with 43% of respondents having a positive view.

In the second half of November, a report by the French Institute of International Relations (Institut français des relations internationales, IFRI) pointed out that French sentiments towards China are the most negative in three years, and this is a cross-party consensus. The pandemic is likely the main reason, while wolf-warrior diplomacy, the Xinjiang issue, and the implementation of the Hong Kong security law have all damaged China’s image and made it one of the least trusted political systems among the French. 62% of French respondents expressed “negative” or “very negative” views of China, and only 16% had positive sentiments. The words that respondents associated with China — apart from the coronavirus — were “dictatorship” and “authoritarian”.

Reevaluating the CCP

Fourth, the West is reevaluating and repositioning the Chinese government. In the second half of November, the Halifax International Security Forum released a handbook titled China vs. Democracy: The Greatest Game. The foreword reads: “The 2020 paradigm shift in people’s attitudes toward China was a concrete change from the old conventional wisdom that an economically vibrant China would progress toward more freedom for its people, to the new conventional wisdom that the Chinese Communist Party is, in fact, the virus that endangers the world.”

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In this file photo taken on 23 October 2017, delegates attend a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

The handbook collects the views of 250 experts from around the world. The report presents detailed evidence in the areas of the CCP’s domestic governance, offensive against democratic countries, China’s technological authoritarianism, and its strategic calculations to highlight China’s threat to democracies. These include threats to supply chains, international organisations, the open exchange of information, the protection of confidential information, and to freedom of the seas and skies.

China flying the Marxist flag and firmly treading the path of socialism predetermines the fact that the competition between China and the West will be a long-term process.

The report said the nature of the CCP is authoritarianism, and its authoritarian ambitions are not limited domestically or to the Asia-Pacific, but democracies all over the world including the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Japan, India, and Australia have long become targets of the CCP, with Hong Kong and Taiwan the first to feel the effects. The report issued a call: “Democracies must pursue a carefully considered yet robust push back… The CCP must recalibrate its global ambitions and back off from the ongoing assault on the world’s democracies.” The tussle between China and the West describes the change in the global situation. China is waving the flag of Marxism and is firmly treading the path of socialism, which says that this tussle is a long-term one.

From the four points above, this year has seen a fundamental shift in how the West perceives and understands China. This new perception and understanding will form a new basis for interactions between China and the West in 2021 — future tussles will depend on how transatlantic nations engage China and China’s actions and reactions to these countries, while the global state of play will continue to evolve amid these tussles. China flying the Marxist flag and firmly treading the path of socialism predetermines the fact that the competition between China and the West will be a long-term process.

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