Argument

Beijing’s Propaganda Is Finding Few Takers

As the Chinese Communist Party embarks on a presumptive goodwill campaign, few in the developing world are falling for it.

A man wearing a face mask holds a welcome sign at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, on April 8, as a team of Chinese medics sponsored by China Railway Construction Corp. arrived in Nigeria to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
A man wearing a face mask holds a welcome sign at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, on April 8, as a team of Chinese medics sponsored by China Railway Construction Corp. arrived in Nigeria to help fight the coronavirus pandemic. KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty Images

Humanitarian disasters offer an illusion of global cooperation. On the surface, alleviating human suffering becomes the world’s focus, while competition and rivalries take a back seat. But in reality, a crisis never goes unused.

The coronavirus pandemic is no exception. As the virus rages, Taiwan—a democracy long relegated to diplomatic backrooms under Chinese pressure—is shrewdly boosting its global clout by donating medical supplies worldwide. Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and, of course, the United States are all making similar efforts.

But few have made as hard a diplomatic play as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The regime whose incompetence allowed the virus to spread from Wuhan to the world is now cynically making its own case for global leadership. Chinese propaganda contrasts the West’s struggles with the CCP’s apparent strength, emphasizing China’s highly publicized donations of medical materials worldwide.

It’s unclear whether such efforts are having their intended effect. Many of the so-called donations have been proven to actually be sales. Many of the materials, meanwhile, have major defects. And a number of leaders, particularly those in the developing world, have seen through the CCP’s veneer of humanitarianism—and are seeking to hold the regime accountable. If the CCP’s public relations campaign continues to miss the mark, it could spoil China’s big shot at global leadership.

Over the past seven years, China has drawn developing countries closer by offering rhetorical South-South partnerships and investing in them through the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s Marshall Plan-like economic and marketing campaign. In return, China secures influence in these countries, many of which are vital to the transport of energy, and seeks the establishment of military facilities. Such influence also allows for the continued creation of a Beijing-aligned international order to challenge American hegemony.

In contrast to the Washington Consensus, China also offers a more appealing model of governance of authoritarian capitalism, noninterference, and self-determination—the so-called Beijing Consensus—to the global south. It’s not hard to see why China’s offers of economic investment with no human rights or democratic strings attached are attractive to authoritarians like Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Thailand’s Prayut Chan-o-cha, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.

But China’s investments often take the form of loans that leave recipients trapped. After Sri Lanka could not pay its debts, it coughed up a port to China for 99 years. Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Tajikistan each owe more than 45 percent of their GDPs to China over Belt and Road projects and are at risk of similarly ceding control of areas of interest to Beijing. For these countries, along with the other two dozen that owe at least 20 percent of their GDPs to China, the economic calamity caused by the coronavirus poses a tangible threat to their sovereignty.

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And while U.S. intellectuals debate the merits of blaming the CCP for the outbreak or using terms like the “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese virus,” some political and civil leaders in developing countries––those most in Beijing’s clutches and with the most to lose—are no longer shying away from using such rhetoric nor from pointing out both the virus’s origins and the CCP’s culpability.

The president of South Africa’s Mining Forum recently declared on Twitter: “The South African economy has already lost billions of rands due to [the] Wuhan Virus. The Chinese [government] must cancel the debt owed by South Africa as a sign of remorse.” A prominent Nigerian televangelist called on China to “cancel all debts owed [to] them” as recompense for causing the outbreak; a popular Nigerian media personality echoed him, as did the country’s former finance minister. A member of Kenya’s Parliament and the country’s former vice president both said China should write off all of Kenya’s debts.

Opposition figures in China-friendly countries have long been comfortable using anti-Chinese language to bolster public support. But what should alarm Beijing is that those in office are now joining this chorus of criticism, if on more diplomatic terms.

Ghana’s finance minister declared that China must “come on stronger” on debt relief. Nigeria is seeking a similar respite from China. The leaders of Ethiopia, Senegal, and South Africa have called on the international community, including China, to enact immediate debt relief for the continent.

African countries, which account for half of the top 50 nations most indebted to China, have been hit particularly hard by coronavirus-caused economic distress. Yet China made no promises in response to Ghana’s request for relief—probably because offering a debt jubilee would seriously threaten both China’s financial sustainability and the operations of Chinese companies overseas at a time when the Chinese economy is already staggering.

Rather than offer tangible financial help, China has pushed claims of benevolence and falsehoods about the virus’s purported Italian or U.S. origins, as well as created an official (and likely fictitious) timeline of the CCP’s response to the outbreak.

Anti-Chinese sentiment was already rampant in the developing world before the coronavirus, thanks to issues as varied as rising debt, aggressively hostile media and online fights, and China’s mass imprisonment of Muslim Uighurs. The CCP’s demonstrably poor initial response to the pandemic’s outbreak has added fuel to the fire.

In India, many are furious with China for its mishandling of the virus. Indian television news anchors, political cartoonists, and policymakers have all focused intently on the CCP’s role in enabling the pandemic. A cartoon depicting World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as beholden to China was widely shared on Indian social media—the actor Amitabh Bachchan tweeted the image to his 41 million Twitter followers.

The coronavirus “has dispelled the myths around the Beijing consensus,” wrote Vijay Gokhale, who this year retired as India’s foreign secretary. “Try as the Chinese authorities might to showcase their system as having efficiently tackled a national emergency, even the remotest nation on earth has learned about their failure.”

Amid such failings, New Delhi is now looking to deepen ties with Taipei.

China’s actions are missing the mark elsewhere. As part of a wider crackdown on foreigners, now blamed for bringing the virus back to China, police have targeted Africans in particular. The images of Chinese officials pushing around African students and expatriates, evicting them from hotels, and forcing them to sleep on the street have reverberated across the continent—igniting a firestorm of criticism.

The backlash to this incident has already begun, deeply undermining China’s attempted “mask diplomacy.” A Kenyan member of parliament demanded that Chinese nationals leave Kenya. “It is only fair that all Chinese nationals leave the country with immediate effect,” he said. “How do you blame Africans for a virus you manufactured in a Wuhan laboratory? Go back home.”

Ghana’s minister of foreign affairs and regional integration summoned the Chinese ambassador to discuss the maltreatment of Africans in China. Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister summoned Beijing’s representative in his country to express his “extreme concern at allegations of maltreatment of Nigerians in Guangzhou.” The speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives then read the Chinese ambassador the riot act, telling him: “It is almost undiplomatic the way I’m talking, but it’s because I am actually upset about what you’re doing.”

The governments of Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda, as well as the African Union, have each pressed China on the issue. In response, Chinese officials have made visits to quarantined Africans, offering flowers and food—with television cameras in tow, of course. Chinese diplomats have assured their African counterparts that they will address “misunderstandings” and establish “an effective communication mechanism with African Consulates-General in Guangzhou.” Even as they flounder with their first propaganda campaign, Beijing’s latest missteps are informing a second propaganda push.

China’s current PR campaigns might quell the chorus of criticism for a bit, but it is unlikely to last long. Anti-Chinese sentiment has long been bubbling in many of these countries. As the coronavirus continues to spread, China will have to offer more than pretty words.

Charles Dunst is a journalist and an associate at LSE IDEAS, a foreign-policy think tank at the London School of Economics. Twitter: @charlesdunst

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