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The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be an unprecedented global challenge, as countries struggle to protect the lives of their citizens and keep their economies afloat. For the past one decade, the global economy has seen a gradual recovery from the disastrous impact of the global financial crisis (2007-08). The current pandemic has undermined this trend, pushing the world into yet another recession. The fact that the disease was first identified in China’s Wuhan city, from where it crossed borders and transformed into a pandemic as a result of China’s flawed approach, has put the country in a negative spotlight. In addition to this, countries with which China has cultivated deep economic ties have strengthened their convictions to diversify their supply chains. This has led China to push a narrative to contain the damage being done to its global image at a time when it is heavily invested in projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to realize its global ambitions.
With regard to the origin of the virus, it is widely believed that the nucleus of COVID-19 outbreak was the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, though there is considerable uncertainty regarding the same. There are certain suspicions that the virus was accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Biosafety Level-4 lab. However, some scientific studies have contested this possibility, suggesting that the virus is natural in origin. Nevertheless, the Trump administration called it the “Wuhan virus” and the “Chinese virus”, pointing to China’s role in starting the pandemic. China took offense to this labelling, emphasising that “the virus knows no borders or ethnicity.” China had previously gone on the offensive in the wake of the blame affixed on the country and floated the allegation that the virus must have been actually introduced to China by American soldiers when they participated in the World Military Games held in October 2019 at Wuhan. China’s new-generation twitter-savvy diplomats like Lijian Zhao led the attack, albeit without much substantiation. China’s narrative in this aspect can be seen as reactionary and aimed at saving its face at the international stage.
The way China has dealt with COVID-19 is yet another area where a battle of narratives is ongoing.  Here, China is under pressure to defend the legitimacy of its political system. Under Xi Jinping, there is a heightened centralization of power and extensive control over the media in China. The resultant systematic aversion to “bad news” and the complexities of information flow between national, regional and local authorities seems to have led to administrative inaction in the crucial weeks of January 2020, which was essential for containing the outbreak. However, towards the end of the month, the central authorities started acting on a war footing when it became impossible to keep the outbreak under wraps. This led to the shutdown of Wuhan city and the isolation of Hubei province. Such a quick implementation of countermeasures on a war footing showcases not just the tendency of China’s political system to wish away the epidemic, but also its capability to fight it effectively once the decision is made. The former aspect is the subject of criticism by a large section of the international community with regard to China, against which the country has been unable to deliver a credible defence. Whereas, the latter aspect is used by China to not just internationally publicise its efforts to fight the COVID-19, but also highlight the merits of its political system.
The cover-up of the existence of human-to-human transmission, including the silencing of whistle-blowers like Li Wenliang has hurt China’s image in the world, and has laid bare the negative aspects of China’s model of governance. China seems to have been forced to admit that it did commit some errors in its COVID-19 response, in order to lend more credibility to its narrative. Meanwhile, China’s excessively optimistic projection on the course of COVID-19 and its sanguine assessment of the economy’s potential to rebound quickly are being seen by some as an exercise in propaganda targeting both domestic and foreign audiences. Thus, the lack of transparency is perhaps one of the biggest criticisms against the manner in which China is dealing with the pandemic. Meanwhile, China’s effective methods to control the trajectory of COVID-19 as well as its aid diplomacy has also received some accolades, not just in the developing world, but also in parts of the developed world such as Europe. Nevertheless, there is a growing indication that China is trying to promote and export its model of political system and governance by proactively advertising its success in controlling COVID-19 as well as its largesse. There are fears among liberal democracies that China might exploit the opportunity created by the pandemic to undermine these political regimes across the world through its diplomatic offensive.
The war of words is not just restricted between governments and officials, as media and academia from either sides have also joined in reinforcing and challenging narratives. In one instance, the Wall Street Journal carried an article by Walter Russel Mead, titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia”, critiquing the health of its financial markets. China responded with allegations of racist stereotyping by the West, and also expelled journalists working for prominent American newspapers, citing restrictions placed by the US government on China’s state media outlets. China has also been criticised as utilizing certain countries and organizations as mouthpieces for advancing its narrative. Countries like Pakistan, Cambodia and Serbia have been notable in going out of their way to support China’s pandemic narrative, both in words and in deeds. China is even accused of utilizing multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) to further its interests. The organization’s Ethiopian-origin Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has a history of ties with China, has consistently been supportive of the country by lauding and endorsing its efforts in containing COVID-19. Moreover, the WHO has not only strictly observed the “One China Policy” by ruling out any type of assistance to Taiwan during the crisis, but has also attacked the country for peddling misinformation about China and the organization.
Countries affected heavily by the pandemic like the US seems to be having an agenda in terms of imposing the responsibility for the origin and spread of the pandemic on China, and use it as a leverage in the trade war once the global war on the pandemic nears its end. The threat of reparations will certainly cast a mortal shadow over China’s economy, which it would like to avoid by rewriting the pandemic history and remaking its image as a pandemic saviour. China has already published an official timeline for COVID-19, which has been criticized as a sanitized version. China has portrayed its fight against COVID-19 as an effort to buy time for the rest of the world to prepare for the pandemic, whereas its narrative has been punctured by criticisms of an unforgivable delay in containing the crisis. Nevertheless, with the US becoming the new epicentre of the pandemic and China coming out of the crisis and seemingly restarting its economy, China seems to be regaining control over the war of narratives in the geopolitics of the pandemic.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.