China Brief

Why Chinese Embassies Have Embraced Aggressive Diplomacy

Beijing is trying to maintain its narrative as diplomats spread misinformation about the rest of the world’s coronavirus response.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian speaks at the daily media briefing in Beijing on April 8.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian speaks at the daily media briefing in Beijing on April 8. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: China tries to put out diplomatic fires as its embassies adopt an aggressive tone, new documents reveal Beijing’s critical delay in announcing its coronavirus outbreak, and China looks to gain more influence at the World Health Organization after a U.S. announcement. 

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China Grapples With Diplomatic Disasters

Beijing is trying to put out multiple diplomatic fires this week, as China discriminates against foreign residents amid the coronavirus pandemic and its embassies spread misinformation online. It faces the biggest crisis across Africa, after hundreds of African nationals, mainly from Nigeria, were expelled from their homes in Guangdong and banned from restaurants or shops. The discrimination has caused widespread outrage, including a rare joint complaint by around a dozen African countries. Anti-black racism in China is common, and it has grown more intense in recent years. China’s initial response to the protest was to deny the discrimination, though there have now been some attempts at conciliation.

Elsewhere, France summoned the Chinese ambassador in Paris on Tuesday after his embassy made false claims online that French nursing home workers were abandoning their charges. The comments follow a pattern of aggressive efforts by Chinese diplomats to depict the rest of the world as slipping into chaos and even to blame other countries for the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, much of the Chinese medical equipment delivered to Europe during the pandemic has been found to be defective or counterfeited.

The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka was temporarily suspended from Twitter this week after a post directed at a Sri Lankan critic using undiplomatic language. And Kazakhstan, usually eager to curry favor with China, summoned the Chinese ambassador to Nur-Sultan after the Chinese online platform Sohu published a piece making revanchist claims to Kazakh territory.

Playing to the boss. The aggressive tone of China’s embassies could be the result of a direct order, but it’s more likely that individual staffers are adopting methods that they’ve seen lead to career boosts for other diplomats—such as the Twitter troll Zhao Lijian, who was appointed foreign ministry spokesperson in January, and the former Ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian, who was just appointed the head of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. The aggressive style ultimately appears to please President Xi Jinping.

Online abuse. China’s diplomatic problems have been worsened by online nationalists launching themselves over the Great Firewall to attack others. The latest example: An online spat over a Thai actor who is popular in China liking a controversial tweet escalated between Chinese trolls and Thai Twitter. (On the Chinese side, Weibo had to close 180 accounts to attempt to stop the fight.) The rest of the world tends to view Chinese nationalists as paid trolls. But with many Chinese unemployed, angry, or still stuck at home, the increase in online aggression is likely spontaneous nationalism.

What We’re Following

Critical delay revealed. Official documents recently obtained by the Associated Press show that Beijing delayed informing the Chinese public about its own knowledge of the coronavirus outbreak by six crucial days in January—the period in which the coronavirus raged out of control. The demand for “social stability” before holding an important set of political meetings seemed to influence the delay. While it wasn’t China’s only error, the report is another blow to Beijing’s attempts to dodge responsibility for the pandemic.

An interesting question is just who leaked the Chinese documents to the AP. U.S. officials have been sharing their own documents with journalists—often from long-term hard-line China hawks within the intelligence or diplomatic communities. But this leak seems to have come from the Chinese side, indicating some unhappiness from within the party with Xi’s handling of the crisis.

China’s influence over WHO. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to end U.S. funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) is likely to increase Chinese influence at the organization and within the United Nations as a whole, despite successful U.S. pushback on other issues. To be sure, WHO mishandled dealing with China from the beginning. But the United States has announced no alternative to supporting WHO, while China is seizing the opportunity to present the United States as failing to do its part. China already has its own global health initiative, which has been endorsed by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Taiwan’s coronavirus success. A detailed report (link in Chinese) shows how Taiwan detected the threat of the coronavirus as early as Dec. 31, 2019, by watching China closely—followed by prompt action by Taiwanese health officials and immediate checks on travelers from Wuhan, where the virus originated. Taiwan remains one of the pandemic’s outstanding success stories, especially given its high degree of travel from China. On Tuesday, Taiwan reported zero new cases of the coronavirus.

Tech and Business

Office dividers. Although Chinese businesses are back online, working from home remains the practice for the offices that can manage it. That is a striking change from China’s normal work culture, which emphasizes staff monitoring and rarely allows remote work except for those at the top of the hierarchy. Instead, managers now insist on 24/7 access to staff through WeChat and other platforms. In workplaces that have returned to the office, staff are often reduced or rotated, and physical dividers have been put in place to maintain some social distancing.

Growing debt crisis. Before the pandemic, the chief threat to the Chinese economy seemed to be the buildup of local debt. The central government has alleviated immediate risks by increasing transfers to local governments by 25 percent to compensate for revenue losses. But financial distress is likely to cause some unexpected crises across the country, even as the authorities attempt to keep credit flowing—including possible collapses of so-called shadow banks that acted as lenders of last resort.

Pork prices start to drop. The price of pork in China has more than doubled over the last year after the African swine fever devastated pig herds, hitting families hard and worrying a government that uses pork prices as a critical measure of inflation. But in recent weeks there has been a slight drop in prices as companies rushed to buy pork from abroad and the government released part of its pork reserves. Whether restaurants will open to serve it is another question: Despite some customers returning, restaurants are still imposing sweeping layoffs and wage cuts.

What We’re Reading

Is America’s Antibiotic Supply at Risk?” by Gardiner Harris and Alex Palmer, the Wire China

This is a strong piece from a new China-focused publication, the Wire China, on the dangers posed to the global pharmaceutical supply chain by the coronavirus. Pharmaceutical firms warned of the danger of U.S. reliance on Chinese factories since early in the crisis. Like much else, there may be a critical gap between when the supply from China diminishes and when production can be shifted elsewhere. China has threatened a possible embargo to the United States before, which could produce thousands of deaths.

That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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