Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2020-03-26 10:44:34 Published on Mar 26, 2020
The Chinese government and its private sector, both have reached out to nations as diverse as France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Iran, Iraq, the Philippines, and even the US
Changing the script

What a difference a few weeks make? It was just yesterday that the world was fuming at China for its irresponsible behaviour in tackling COVID-19 viral contagion. There was widespread anger at the manner in which Beijing had manipulated information to suit the needs of the Communist Party and allowed coronavirus to fester almost till the time when it became impossible to conceal. And now as China has seemingly managed to get its act together by controlling the epidemic within its boundaries with no new infections being reported since the start of the crisis and the epicentre of the crisis moving to Europe, a new narrative is being pushed aggressively by China and being consumed by an equally enthusiastic section of the world.

This narrative is about China’s leadership in first effectively managing the crisis at home and then emerging as a critical provider of medical support to many countries worldwide. Earlier this month, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio publicly praised China when a plane load of medical equipment and doctors arrived in Italy to help the country fight the coronavirus. Making his displeasure for the attitude of European nations, who only offered words, clear, Di Maio underlined that “many foreign ministers offered their solidarity and want to give us a hand ... and this evening I wanted to show you the first aid arrived from China." Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was also unabashed when he suggested that “European solidarity does not was a fairy tale on paper," and announced that he had sent a letter to his “brother and friend" Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, asking for medical aid, as “the only country that can help us is China."

China’s ability to be a quick and effective responder in providing much-needed medical aid is being compared to the complete disarray in the western world where the European Union has proven its critics right by emerging as an ineffective institution in a time of grave crisis and the US remains internally consumed. The Chinese government and its private sector, both have reached out to nations as diverse as France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Iran, Iraq, the Philippines, and even the US.

And this is the reality the global order faces today when the source of one of the most serious epidemics in recent times is being seen by a large part of the world not only as a saviour but also in some cases as a victim. This attempt to construct an alternative reality is being led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, recently endorsed the conspiracy theory floating around in Chinese social media by tweeting that “it might be the US army" that brought the coronavirus to China.

The CCP used its absolute control over information flow in China in the early weeks of the viral epidemic not only put the lives of Chinese citizens in danger but allowed the contagion to become the pandemic it is today, speared all over the globe and with multitudes of lives lost. It brutally repressed any dissenters who challenged the authority of the Party and its leadership by providing correct information to the people. Now the same leadership is trying to put a responsible mask on by providing medical aid in order to shift the focus from its own mismanagement to the superiority of the so called Chinese model of governance. The fact that the US President Donald Trump has drawn strong criticism for blaming China and calling coronavirus the “Chinese virus" both within the US and abroad shows the growing Chinese prowess in shaping global discourse.

The fact remains that it is always so easy to fall into the Chinese trap should wake us to the new reality that is now shaping global politics. That China’s rise is having a real time effect on global governance. The CCP has elevated disinformation campaign into a veritable art form. It continued to delude the world for decades that if only it is integrated into the global order, fully and finally, it will result in a more liberal party. Then it managed to convince the global powers that all China needs is a little bit more space in the global order and it will emerge as a responsible stakeholder. Nothing of that sort has come to materialise. But still the international community expected China to be transparent in its dealings with the world. If the whole raison d’être of CCP’s existence is information asymmetry vis-a-vis its own people and the world outside, then how can it be expected to give it up? It will tighten control over it ever more strongly. And that’s what is happening in China today. For Xi Jinping and the CCP it is imperative that they come out unscathed for their very survival depends on making sure that ordinary Chinese buy into their perception management that rather than being complicit in making coronavrius the pandemic that it is today, it is the effective Chinese leadership that has not only brought the situation under control at home but is also emerging as a global leader by helping other nations.

So for all those who are lauding Chinese actions today, they should also ponder upon the costs that the ordinary Chinese and the world has borne to keep the CCP in power all these years. They need to disabuse themselves of the hope that the CCP will change and that it will allow China to emerge as a responsible power, ready to deal with its own people and the world outside on terms that are transparent and reciprocal. That’s a chimera the world has chased for far too long. It’s much better to adapt to a new reality of the ever more powerful CCP being with us for a very long time with all the attendant consequences.

This commentary originally appeared in Live Mint.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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