The ‘Chinese Virus’ Spread Along the New Silk Road

Western democracies may lose the coronavirus propaganda war, but China certainly won’t win it.

A 14th-century painting showing the caravan of Niccolò and Maffeo Polo crossing Asia.
A 14th-century painting showing the caravan of Niccolò and Maffeo Polo crossing Asia. Carta Catalana/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Italy’s ties with China go back to the Silk Road, the overland route used since ancient times by traders exchanging wares. The Venetian traders Niccolò and Maffeo Polo visited Beijing in 1266, becoming one of the first Western Europeans to travel to China. In 1271, they set off for a second time, accompanied by Niccolò’s young son, Marco. Although they arrived on the Silk Road via Central Asia, they eventually returned to Italy by sea, visiting Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and Gujarat along the way. A map of their voyages looks not unlike one of those Belt and Road Initiative maps pumped out by Chinese state media today. This initiative, which is sometimes, appropriately, known as the New Silk Road, consists of a planned network of transportation infrastructure financed by China and linking it to Europe, Africa, and the rest of Asia.

Barely 50 years after the Polos’ return from China, an outbreak of bubonic plague traveled those very same routes to the West, where the disease became known as the Black Death. It is believed to have been spread by both land and sea, originating in China and following the trade routes to Europe and the Middle East. Both routes ultimately converged on Italy, where the plague killed up to 75 percent of the population in some areas. Northern Italy’s thoroughly internationalized merchant traders probably played a key role in transmitting the disease onward to the rest of Europe.

Just like the Black Death, the coronavirus has now killed many more people outside China than inside. European countries such as  Italy, Spain, and France—even wealthy Switzerland—have proven unable to contain the virus. The U.S. response has been disjointed and at times chaotic. It looks like New York City is quickly turning into the next Wuhan.

Yet as the coronavirus ravages the West, China has successfully spun the propaganda narrative to its own advantage. China has sent masks, respirators, and even specialist doctors to the country of Marco Polo—at a time when Italy’s European Union partners were largely ignoring its calls for help. (That has changed since, with Germany sending equipment and airlifting Italian coronavirus patients to German hospitals.) Its efforts have earned China predictable plaudits from the Italian government, which includes populists with a predictably pro-authoritarian streak. Perhaps inevitably, Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested that the aid could lay the basis for a “health silk road” connecting Europe and China. He seemed to have forgotten that China already declared a health silk road three years ago at a Belt and Road Initiative conference in Beijing.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

With so many silk roads to keep track of, who’s counting? When Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte led Italy into China’s Belt and Road Initiative around this time last year, he was probably hoping for a wave of Chinese investment to boost Italy’s moribund economy. In the end, he has had to contend with a different import from China: COVID-19. New Silk Road indeed.

No one knows for certain how COVID-19 originated, but the disease seems to have first spread at a so-called wet market in Wuhan where live animals were kept in unsanitary conditions and sold for human consumption. More than 700 years ago, Marco Polo marveled at these markets with their “ample supply of every kind of meat and game.” These same markets gave rise to SARS in 2002—another respiratory disease, like COVID-19, that has been linked to bats.

The danger posed by live animal markets wasn’t the only lesson that China failed to learn from the SARS epidemic.The danger posed by live animal markets wasn’t the only lesson that China failed to learn from the SARS epidemic. When China first identified SARS in January 2003, it kept the news a state secret for two weeks as people crisscrossed the country for the Lunar New Year celebrations, just as it suppressed information about the novel coronavirus 17 years later. Paralleling the tragic case of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who died of the coronavirus after being reprimanded for raising the alarm, SARS also had its own tragic hero: ambulance driver Fan Xinde, the first medical worker to die from exposure to patients. As far as the Chinese response is concerned, COVID-19 might as well have been named SARS-AGAIN.

So in more than one sense, COVID-19 really is the “Chinese virus,” even if U.S. President Donald Trump has lately promised to stop using the term. It’s not just that it happened to strike there first. Arguably, it only struck at all because the Chinese government refused to learn the public-health lessons of SARS—lessons taught by its own government scientists. Then China repeated the misbehaviors that let SARS spread out of control and jump the border to infect people in more than 30 other countries and territories. Viruses may be forces of nature, but the coronavirus epidemic clearly seems to have been China-made.

In part to deflect from these facts, the Chinese Communist Party has been busy trying to turn the coronavirus pandemic to its propaganda advantage. Not only is China offering aid to virus-hit countries, but it is also touting its success in bringing its own epidemic under control. It has, in effect, rolled extreme public health crackdowns into the broader “Beijing Consensus” or  “China Model” of totalitarian state capitalism that it has been promoting since the advent of the 2007-2009 global financial crisis.

China’s foreign ministry has also countered Trump’s “Chinese virus” rhetoric by suggesting that the virus actually originated in the United States and was brought to China by U.S. Army athletes participating in the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October 2019. Few people outside China take that seriously, but this and similar rumors are reported to be widely circulating within China itself.

COVID-19 really is the . “Chinese virus,” even if Donald Trump has lately promised to stop using the term.

It is too early to tell whether or not China’s coronavirus propaganda offensive will bear fruit. China may be having some success in anti-Western countries such as Serbia and Iran, but even many Italians have their doubts about the sincerity of China’s newfound compassion for their plight, with one top Italian medical researcher even suggesting that China had allowed the virus to spread to Europe as early as November. The coronavirus pandemic seems to have turned public opinion decisively against China in many poor countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Much like China’s model of economic development, China’s model of public health—locking people into their homes and arresting people for complaining—isn’t very appealing to anyone but party-state apparatchiks. Countries hit by the coronavirus pandemic will certainly continue to accept Chinese offers of face masks and respirators, and no doubt their people will be grateful for the help. Nonetheless, once the crisis has passed, China’s broader social and political model will still be unattractive to all but a few morally corrupt elites. China’s heavy-handed police state may have conquered the coronavirus, but few people will embrace one-party rule just to ensure their safety in future pandemics.

The world’s commentariat may be disposed to view the pandemic propaganda war as just another phase of the ongoing geopolitical competition that gave rise to the United States-China trade war, sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, and the battle over Huawei’s access to Western fifth-generation communications networks. But there is one key difference between the White House’s anti-China coronavirus rhetoric and Beijing’s anti-U.S. rumormongering: The pandemic really did originate in Wuhan.

Similarly, the use of Huawei equipment really does pose a security risk for 5G networks, and China really has ignored its international treaty obligations in the South China Sea. Though it may sound biased to say it, reality really is on the U.S. side in these debates. The five Chinese state media organizations designated as government entities by the U.S. State Department in February really are government entities. The U.S. journalists expelled by China in retaliation, on the other hand, work for media that are just as likely to criticize the U.S. government as the Chinese one, and everybody knows that.

China’s model of public health—locking people into their homes and arresting people for complaining—isn’t very appealing.

The coronavirus pandemic will be over eventually. It has already killed more people in the United States than in China, at least according to the official numbers. It’s also killed more people in Europe. The Chinese government will almost certainly try to use these facts to persuade people of its superior model of government. And some people will swallow that propaganda—though probably not as many as the pundits would have us believe.

Others will look to countries like Japan and Taiwan for evidence that democracies can effectively manage public health through proactive monitoring and preemptive measures. If the United States and European Union are now in crisis, it is because they failed to act decisively to break the wave when they first knew it knew was coming. But these were failures of policy, not failures of democracy.

When it comes time to learn the lessons of COVID-19, the world will understand that the pandemic was enabled by bad policies and worse implementation, not by personal freedoms and respect for human rights. Trade on modern silk roads will continue, as it always has, but China’s “health silk road” is going nowhere. The concerned citizens of the world are much more likely to turn to East Asia’s prosperous democracies for public health advice than to China. Western democracies may ultimately lose the coronavirus propaganda war, but China certainly won’t win it.

Salvatore Babones is a Foreign Policy columnist and an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones

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