China Goes on Diplomatic Offensive Over Coronavirus Response

Beijing seeks to deflect criticism that its carelessness caused a global crisis.


In the weeks following the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, Beijing’s international reputation took a severe blow as it faced international condemnation for mounting a slow and secretive response that helped enable the virus to spread to scores of countries.

But with the virus’ spread slowing in China—while it picks up steam throughout much of the rest of the world—Beijing is trying to rebrand itself as part of the solution, not the problem. In a March 3 letter to senior diplomats at the United Nations, China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun sought to portray China—and its president, Xi Jinping—as a critical leader in the international effort to halt the spread of the virus. In doing so, he appeared to be taking a jab at other countries, including the United States, for placing restrictions, including on trade and travel, on certain countries.

“China is fighting not just for itself, but also for the world,” Zhang wrote in the letter, which a U.N.-based diplomat shared with Foreign Policy. It is being highlighted as Foreign Policy’s Document of the Week. “China treats its own people and people of other countries in the same way and applies prevention and control measures in a non-discriminatory manner.”

It was the second letter Zhang wrote to U.N. member states since the crisis began, part of an effort to encourage governments to maintain international trade and travel links with China, and to assure them Beijing was doing everything to steady a rocky international economy.  “As the world’s second largest economy, China is keenly aware of its responsibility,” the letter reads. “China is taking a series of strong measures, including policy support in fiscal, taxation and industrial fields, to facilitate the restoration of work and production and to boost the economy.”

Zhang, who is serving this month as the president of the U.N. Security Council, has also sought to project confidence in the future of China’s economy in the face of a sharp downturn in global stock markets. “Definitely the epidemic, the coronavirus, has caused a negative impact on the Chinese economy,” Zhang said on Monday. “But meanwhile because of the strong resilience, because of the enormous domestic consumption and the domestic market and because of the solid foundation of the Chinese economy, we are very much confident that we are able to realize the goals we have set for this year, the economic goals, the social goals.”

The Chinese outreach comes at a time when anxiety over the course of the virus has forced the United Nations to rein in its activities. Last week, the U.N. urged government ministers and thousands of women from around the world to postpone their plans to attend the 25th anniversary of the Beijing women’s conference at U.N. headquarters in New York, which was scheduled to run from March 9 to March 20. Instead, U.S.-based diplomats will participate in a one-day meeting on Monday to adopt a declaration underscoring the importance of promoting women’s issues. A full-blown session could be rescheduled later. It remains unclear whether the U.N. will  postpone other large meetings, including a major conference from April 27 to May 22 to review progress on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which entered into force with the goal of stemming the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately leading to nuclear disarmament of the key powers.

The U.N., meanwhile, circulated a brochure for conference etiquette in the age of coronavirus. Before U.N. meetings,  participants should “ensure you have health insurance for the United States (and preferably, have the influenza vaccine) and bring additional routine medications, spare contact lenses or spectacles, etc.”

“Participants should … Strictly not attend the meeting [if] you are unwell, have a fever, cough or respiratory symptoms. Undertake regular preventive measures such as cough etiquette and regular handwashing as described in the brochures provided. Contact the medical service here in the Headquarters by telephone if you are unwell AND have also been to an ‘at risk’ location for coronavirus in the last 14 days,” the brochure added.

The Chinese ambassador’s letter appears to be part of a broader effort by China to deflect criticism of  Xi’s handling of the crisis in its earliest days, and to portray him as the leader of global campaign to fight the virus, which has spread to more than 80 countries and infected more than 100,000 people.

Early this week, the news outlet Axios reported that a Chinese state-owned think tank floated the idea of creating “a Beijing-led global health organization that would rival the WHO [World Health Organization].

“Beijing is seeking to turn the coronavirus, initially a disaster for China’s public image, into an opportunity to advance its global leadership and bolster its soft power abroad,” reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian wrote in Axios.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch