Did China win the fight against the virus but lose the world?

With the US state of Missouri suing China over the coronavirus, and Western leaders coming together to demand greater transparency and accountability from China, Zaobao associate editor Han Yong Hong examines what went wrong with China's communications with the West during the pandemic. Is there anything China can do to improve its international image and diplomatic position?
Staff members keeping watch at a checkpoint in the border city of Suifenhe, in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province, April 21, 2020. (STR/AFP)
Staff members keeping watch at a checkpoint in the border city of Suifenhe, in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province, April 21, 2020. (STR/AFP)

There is a powerful Mandopop song called If I Won the World but Lost You (《输了你赢了世界又如何》). China was where the outbreak first began, and where it was brought under control. Now, with the coronavirus a global pandemic, China is facing growing pressure of accountability. Two days ago, Hong Kong media caught attention by questioning if China had “won against the virus but lost the world”.

What is the situation now? On 21 April, the US state of Missouri became the first overseas local government to sue China for the coronavirus. The defendants include the Chinese government, Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s National Health Commission, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), on claims of not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus and deceiving the world, and being liable to pay compensation for economic losses.

This impending international wave of seeking accountability is bringing back incidents from a century ago, such as the siege of the Eight-Nation Alliance and the reparation agreements that followed in the form of the Boxer Protocol and Boxer Indemnity.

This is just the first official action in recent US efforts to seek accountability from China. The following day, to a question at a press briefing, US President Donald Trump responded: “I’m sure that won’t be the last one.”

Previously, some US companies and individuals had filed class-action lawsuits against China in district courts in Florida, Nevada, and California, for trillions of US dollars in compensation. And in the Southern Hemisphere, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison phoned the leaders of the US, Germany, and France on Wednesday, to discuss opening an international investigation into the pandemic, and calling for greater transparency.

protest
Protesters hold signs encouraging people to demand that businesses be allowed to open up, and people allowed to go back to work, at the Country Club Plaza on April 20, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Jamie Squire/AFP)

This impending international wave of seeking accountability is bringing back incidents from a century ago, such as the siege of the Eight-Nation Alliance and the reparation agreements that followed in the form of the Boxer Protocol and Boxer Indemnity. It is a hot topic among China’s online community, and is adding to anxiety and anger against the US.

China today will not be forced to sign humiliating treaties and cede land or pay compensation, as happened in the late Qing dynasty.

In fact, early this month, when Bloomberg reported that US intelligence agencies had submitted secret documents to the White House that China had intentionally covered up coronavirus cases and deaths, quite a few people already saw signs of the US gathering evidence to seek accountability.

When the virus began spreading in the West, some academics warned that China cannot slacken, because after this wave passes in the West, there may be a fresh explosion of anti-China sentiments around the globe. Now, those prescient people are seeing clearly — or painfully — that their warnings were not taken seriously and China’s relationship with the West is moving towards what they predicted.

Does it make sense for other countries to seek compensation from China for the coronavirus? Will it have any real impact? In a legal sense, the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) of 1976 gives foreign governments wide legal immunity in the US, and so it will be difficult for the lawsuit against the Chinese government to work. This is also why Missouri’s action has been criticised as a “political show”, to gain attention and shift blame. Some US senators are even considering amending the FSIA to allow Americans to seek compensation from China for the outbreak. But no matter how these lawsuits turn out, and no matter how loud the international calls for compensation, China today will not be forced to sign humiliating treaties and cede land or pay compensation, as happened in the late Qing dynasty.

... to some people, China is actively milking the pandemic for economic and political gain...

But it cannot be ignored that such discussions are ongoing, and will have a damaging impact on China’s diplomacy and international image. This is like the South China Sea arbitration case in 2016, where China described the arbitration court as “amateurs”. The outcome did not change the status of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but China was made to pay an unnecessary diplomatic price. At that time, whether China was a power that abided by international law and regulations became a hot topic.

Now, China needs to be conscious of something that will not help its cause: to some people, China is actively milking the pandemic for economic and political gain, which is making the elites and ordinary people in the West even more unhappy.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said this week that mainland China was exploiting the world’s focus on the pandemic to erode autonomy in Hong Kong, exert military pressure on Taiwan, and coerce neighbours in the South China Sea.

navarro
White House trade advisor Peter Navarro went on Fox News, charging China with "four kills". (Leah Millis/REUTERS)

Such criticisms against China from the US are becoming more pointed. For example, speaking to Fox News on Wednesday, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro charged China with “four kills”: spawning the virus, vacuuming up all of the world's masks and personal protective equipment, profiteering from the crisis, and sending the US counterfeit tests. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said this week that mainland China was exploiting the world’s focus on the pandemic to erode autonomy in Hong Kong, exert military pressure on Taiwan, and coerce neighbours in the South China Sea.

Navarro’s conspiracy narrative is not worth responding to. As for mainland China’s actions towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, it may not be linked to the pandemic. But these repeated criticisms will exert real damage on China-US relations.

... although China has been expanding its hard power in recent years, its soft power does not match up at all...

Strategically, China needs to time its actions carefully. These incidents clearly expose China’s weaknesses — first, that the West does not agree with China’s culture and system, and second, although China has been expanding its hard power in recent years, its soft power does not match up at all (some people even say that China is building sharp power instead). As the place where the virus broke out, China paid a heavy price before bringing it under control. It wants to prove something by taking the initiative in international relations, but some of what it does touches a nerve with other countries and adds to their unhappiness, so that it cannot explain itself no matter what it says.

After this pandemic, perhaps China can reflect on its foreign policy, and focus on building its soft power. It has to let go of the “hard” and really go “soft”, and the quicker the better. If it can do that, it will have won against the virus and won over the world, without just dreaming about it.

Related: Missouri sues, but should China be held accountable for the global spread of Covid-19? | Does China owe the world an apology?