Covid-19: China's missing narrative in the global battle of narratives

While it appears that China is going all out to shape the global narrative in a vacuum left by the West, Zheng Yongnian says this is a non-starter as China is often reactive to Western narratives, resorting to tit-for-tat tactics, rather than projecting its own clear narratives. The arduous task of establishing a voice and a narrative remains the biggest international challenge that confronts China.
A man in front of a screen displaying a propaganda image (top), on a street in Beijing, April 20, 2020. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)
A man in front of a screen displaying a propaganda image (top), on a street in Beijing, April 20, 2020. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

Amid a global pandemic, governments around the world require huge amounts of medical supplies. As many Western countries have transferred their production chains overseas, they no longer produce basic medical supplies or possess sufficient production capacity. They can only purchase from other countries because it is impossible to immediately move the production lines back to their own to resume production. 

China, as “the world’s factory” with an enormous production capacity, is ready to step in. Having brought the epidemic under control domestically, the Chinese government has announced that it will provide assistance to the World Health Organisation, the African Union and other countries that are in need of China's help and medical supplies, such as testing reagents, surgical masks, protective gowns and ventilators.

As politics is commonplace on the international stage, it is not difficult to understand that dealing with Covid-19 has evolved into a power struggle among countries.

The West is highly critical of China's aid and has adopted an accusatory stance, even though the large amounts of medical supplies exported by China are urgently needed. Some Western media have nitpicked over China’s medical supplies, deeming them to be of inferior quality. The healthcare agencies of some countries have also not approved the use of Chinese medical products. Overall, instead of recognising China’s assistance, the Western elites have intensified their divisive rhetoric. In their eyes, China’s aid is “mask diplomacy” aimed at seeking greater influence and gaining the upper hand in geopolitics.

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Medical supplies from China are unloaded at the Geneva Airport, Geneva, Switzerland, April 6, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Pool via REUTERS)

Humanity facing a global crisis

The relentless spread of Covid-19 has seen large numbers of people infected or dying every day. Admittedly, humanity is facing a global crisis. The epicentre of the epidemic has moved from China to the US and Europe, and is rapidly shifting southwards. Despite the US and Europe, the most developed economies in the world, having advanced medical and public health systems, the epidemic has caused a huge humanitarian crisis. It will be calamitous when the epidemic spreads to poor countries with inadequate public health capabilities.

Viruses respect no borders, and no individual, society or country can go it alone in handling the situation and remain unconcerned about others. Cooperation among countries is the only solution. As it stands, it is more important to identify which country is losing control of the epidemic than knowing which has handled it well. Global spread will continue as long as there is one such country. It is a matter of time, rather than a mere possibility.

When someone needy is willing to accept help from others, and there are others who have the ability and willingness to help, it is a clear win-win situation. Why, then, are we faced with this conundrum today?

As politics is commonplace on the international stage, it is not difficult to understand that dealing with Covid-19 has evolved into a power struggle among countries. This is precisely seen in the relations between China and the West. The structure of today’s global system is established by the West, with Western countries calling the shots. The current preoccupation by Western countries in fighting the epidemic in their own countries means China is about the only active participant left on the world stage. This situation leaves the West feeling destabilised and perhaps a little lost.

National interests above all else

As Harold Lasswell, regarded as the Darwin of behavioural sciences, put it, politics is about “who gets what, when and how”. Western politicians’ primary concern is who will gain the most in the epidemic, and not effectively combating the epidemic through international cooperation. They are concerned with who the winners and the losers are.

A crisis of the magnitude of the Covid-19 epidemic has not in the slightest altered political attitudes. To these politicians, national interests reign above all else. Not only does this attitude target China, it also expresses itself in the way in which some Western countries deal with domestic issues. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had initially implemented less stringent measures in a strategy that aimed to achieve herd immunity, a concept that suggests that if many in the population get the disease, recover and become immune to it, the country will have less risk of suffering from future outbreaks of the disease thereafter. 

In the US, the debate between political parties is about the relative importance between fighting the epidemic and sustaining the economy and livelihoods, with the conservatives advocating sacrificing lives to protect the economy. 

“As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by US mistakes..." Kurt M Campbell and Rush Doshi

The US politicians are worried that the epidemic will cause the ultimate decline of the US. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Kurt M Campbell, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama Administration, and Rush Doshi, an academic, made this abundantly clear.

“The status of the United States as a global leader over the past seven decades has been built not just on wealth and power but also, and just as important, on the legitimacy that flows from the United States’ domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises. The coronavirus pandemic is testing all three elements of U.S. leadership. So far, Washington is failing the test,” they wrote. “As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by US mistakes, filling the vacuum to position itself as the global leader in pandemic response.”

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US President Donald Trump speaks during a Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, April 19, 2020. (Jim Watson/AFP)

The article notes that if Britain's attempt to seize the Suez Canal in 1956 marked the decline of the British Empire, the Covid-19 pandemic could mark the “Suez moment” for the US if the US does not rise to meet the moment. The writers go on to point out that China is establishing itself as an essential power and building relations with other countries by providing assistance during the pandemic.

This is already evident in the joint efforts of China, Japan and South Korea to combat the epidemic as well as in China’s provision of critical medical equipment to the EU. The US should be more concerned that although its European allies have not publicly criticised the Trump administration, they are no longer with the US on key issues, such as Iran and the use of Huawei technology.

A changing world order? 

Concerns about a changing world order have spread to the West at large. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, published an article entitled “The Coronavirus Pandemic and the New World it is Creating” on the EU External Action website on 23 March 2020. It examines China’s diplomacy from a geopolitical perspective, warns of China’s “politics of generosity” in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, and urges the EU to prepare for “a struggle for influence” in “the global battle of narratives”. Borrell believes that China has targeted certain European countries for assistance and provided them with medical supplies to fight the epidemic in a show of solidarity and friendship.

Borrell said that “there is a global battle of narratives going on …” and that through its massive assistance to Europe, “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner”. He warned that the point for Europe is that “perceptions will change again as the outbreak and our response to it evolves”. He added, “But we must be aware there is a geo-political component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity’. Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors.”

A country's external influence or decline is an indication of its domestic emergence or decay. Simply put, Britain’s decline is not due to the rise of the US.

When Italy and Serbia appealed to the EU for assistance, the larger EU member countries like Germany and France were indifferent and helpless. Consequently, Italy and Serbia turned to China, which promptly provided assistance. However, as the discussion on geopolitics proliferated, the leaders of Germany and France have expressed their concern and said they would offer their assistance to maintain European solidarity.

The US and the West obviously lack the ability for self-reflection. A country's external influence or decline is an indication of its domestic emergence or decay. Simply put, Britain’s decline is not due to the rise of the US. Likewise, the decline of the US is not a result of China’s emergence.

The decline of US leadership on the international stage is due not only to its domestic problems but also its unilateralism since it became the sole hegemony. After 9/11 and the counter-terrorism efforts, unilateralism has progressively distanced the US from its European allies. For many years after that, the US has excessively extended its global influence and, as a result, has had to adjust and pull back its battle lines. Since President Trump took office, the US has hastily withdrawn from various international agreements, and the US can no longer play the leadership role on the international stage with its “America First” policy.

In truth, there are only trade considerations and no geopolitical reasons in China's cooperation with Italy and other European countries. China’s geopolitical focus will always be in Asia.

The same goes for the EU. For a long time, the EU has been regarded not only as the future of Europe, but also a model of regional cooperation. However, its decline is faster than expected. Over the years, its weaknesses have been exposed by Brexit, the numerous complaints by EU member countries and the Covid-19 epidemic. Instead of being a united European community, it appears that Europe has reverted to the era of absolute sovereignty, with the emergence of extreme selfishness among its members. The spirit of cooperation among the EU member countries has disappeared, with the rise of right-wing populism rendering cooperation increasingly difficult. Unable to provide assistance to Italy, Germany even banned export of medical supplies that were meant for other European countries.

Not intending to oppose the EU, Italy and the other European countries turned to China for assistance because their seeking help from the EU was in vain. In truth, there are only trade considerations and no geopolitical reasons in China's cooperation with Italy and other European countries. China’s geopolitical focus will always be in Asia. The dispute over geopolitics is but a figment of Western imagination.

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The President of European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the President of the European Council Charles Michel hold a news conference on the European Union response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis at the EU headquarters in Brussels, April 15, 2020. (John Thys/Pool via REUTERS)

The more important reason for the domestic decline of the US and the West is alienation brought about by the capitalist and neoliberal economic policies since the 1980s.

Capitalism and globalisation, intended to facilitate the global division of labour, have resulted in the transfer of most of the industries of Western world to other countries. While this has helped to increase productivity, it has also led to a separation between domestic economies and societies in the West. Instead of being part of a society, highly-globalised economic activities have gone beyond society’s control. The inept handling of the epidemic by the US and the West is due not merely to their governance, but also because these countries no longer produce simple medical supplies.

In fact, the battle of narratives between China and the West is non-existent because China has never established its narrative and has only responded to Western narratives.

The US, Europe and other capitalist countries are highly dependent on China for medical supplies, with the US importing 80% of medical supplies and 97% of antibiotics from China. While it is normal for China, a manufacturing giant with the desire, ability and moral obligation to help others, Western countries are worried that accepting China’s medical supplies will change their society's views of China. Indeed, Western politicians’ fascination with ideology has made them lose confidence in their own people.

China's missing narrative

If the US and the West have misunderstood China because of their ideological prejudices and concerns of geopolitical influence, are there areas which China can review and improve upon?

In fact, the battle of narratives between China and the West is non-existent because China has never established its narrative and has only responded to Western narratives. For a civilisation state — that is, one that regards itself to represent a civilisation, not just a country — to join the global arena without establishing its international narrative, China can only be reactive, resulting in its words and actions being misunderstood by the West and others.

The Covid-19 epidemic has not caused this problem, but has exposed it once again. For example, China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the 17+1 initiative with Central and Eastern European countries are trade projects without geopolitical objectives. However, influenced by Western narratives, Chinese scholars have also regarded these as conduits for Chinese global leadership and advocated the transformation of the concept of “initiative” to “strategy”. Likewise, the indiscriminate use of the multilateral approach regardless of context has caused China to emulate the West in forming alliances for self-interests.

The Chinese bureaucracy, media, and society has resorted to nationalism and populism, reacted with tit-for-tat retaliation against the West, and become entangled in peripheral issues.

China’s actions in the Covid-19 pandemic has been no different. What should the essence of China’s diplomacy be? Undoubtedly, the pandemic is a global humanitarian crisis which worsens with the spread of the virus. The understanding of the nature of the crisis will be instructive for the objective of such diplomacy, which is humanitarian crisis mitigation.

China was able to gain control of the epidemic domestically in a very short time because its leadership has given top priority to the lives of ordinary people. The Chinese leadership has acted decisively even though the lockdowns of provinces and cities and the large-scale suspension of transport will adversely affect the livelihoods of the people and result in huge economic losses. There is no question of the priority of fighting the epidemic or protecting the economy. Concepts such as a “zen approach” (that is adopting a casualness or calmness in epidemic control efforts) and “herd immunity” will not appear in China's political narrative.

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Lines of laundry are seen hanging between apartments behind barricades, which have been built to block buildings from a street, after the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan, April 14, 2020. (Aly Song/REUTERS)

Many feel that China has gained an advantage in having a voice. However, unlike a narrative, a voice may be loud but communicates little.

Unfortunately, China has not taken advantage of this great opportunity to establish its narrative. The Chinese bureaucracy, media, and society has resorted to nationalism and populism, reacted with tit-for-tat retaliation against the West, and become entangled in peripheral issues. Many feel that China has gained an advantage in having a voice. However, unlike a narrative, a voice may be loud but communicates little. More importantly, the war of words has effectively undermined China’s international reputation and credibility gained through its actions.

The Covid-19 epidemic is undoubtedly writing the course of world history. China’s positioning in this process is dependent upon shaping its narrative. Therefore, the arduous task of establishing a voice and a narrative remains the biggest international challenge that confronts China.

Related: Escaping the new Cold War: Fostering understanding between China and the West | China and the US battle for influence at the UN | The China-US trust war