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Argument

China’s Diplomats Are Going on the Offensive in Brazil

In response to the Brazilian government’s anti-China rhetoric, Beijing has decided to take on a more confrontational diplomatic role.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wears a face mask as he attends a flag-raising ceremony before a ministerial meeting at the Alvorada Palace in Brasília on May 12.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wears a face mask as he attends a flag-raising ceremony before a ministerial meeting at the Alvorada Palace in Brasília on May 12. EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images

In April, the major Brazilian newspaper O Globo published an op-ed by Li Yang, China’s consul general in Rio de Janeiro, in response to comments made by Member of Congress Eduardo Bolsonaro, President Jair Bolsonaro’s son, in which he referred to the novel coronavirus as the “China virus.” Readers likely expected a run-of-the-mill article underlining the importance of China-Brazil ties, perhaps with a light slap on the wrist.

But Li had something else in mind entirely. Attacking the Brazilian lawmaker harshly, the Chinese diplomat wondered whether Bolsonaro had been “brainwashed by the United States,” a nation that, Li pointed out, had offered a “horrible performance” in the combat against the pandemic. The author then threatened the member of Congress, writing that “should any country insist on being China’s enemy, we will be its most sophisticated enemy!”

Until very recently, it would have been unthinkable for a Chinese government envoy to publish such a broadside against an elected official in Brazil. Newspaper interviews with Chinese diplomats are traditionally formal and have generated virtually no visibility—the exact opposite of Li’s bombshell, which circulated widely.

China has notably been supportive of Bolsonaro and pursued closer economic ties during his administration. Last year, fearing that an important Brazilian oil auction in November would fail to attract bidders, Bolsonaro personally asked China for help. Two Chinese companies came to the rescue. During the height of the Amazon fires in August 2019, Qu Yuhui, the Chinese Embassy’s second-highest-ranking diplomat in Brasília, raised eyebrows when he was quoted in a newspaper interview lauding Brazil’s environmental record, a stance fiercely criticized by Brazilian environmental nongovernmental organizations.

On Twitter, the Chinese Embassy in Brazil—which during the recent spats with the president’s son briefly overtook its U.S. counterpart in terms of the number of followers—now directly lashes out against anyone who dares to criticize China and, in an unmistakable swipe against President Bolsonaro, publicized a meeting in early April between Ambassador Yang Wanming and Brazil’s then-Minister of Health Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who was at the time one of the president’s most formidable political foes. (Mandetta was sacked 10 days later.) The ambassador’s decision to meet the minister of health to discuss the pandemic at a moment when Mandetta was publicly clashing with Brazil’s president on how to combat the coronavirus was widely interpreted as Beijing taking a clear stance against Bolsonaro’s denialism.

To grasp how dramatic this shift in China’s diplomatic strategy is, it is worth remembering Beijing’s very different response to a previous crisis two years ago. When then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro visited Taiwan and attacked China on the campaign trail in early 2018—promising, via Twitter, to break with, as he described it, previous governments’ habit of being “friendly with communists”—the Chinese Embassy in Brasília opted for a measured response and issued a letter of protest typical for such occasions.

What, then, explains the radical shift toward a more abrasive diplomatic style?

After Bolsonaro won the election runoff later that year and promised to closely align with U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese diplomats privately voiced concern but seemed confident the new government would adopt a more pragmatic posture vis-à-vis China, Brazil’s most important trading partner by far. And indeed, Brazil’s Vice President Hamilton Mourão, the government’s chief pragmatist, assiduously worked behind the scenes—building a powerful coalition including Brazil’s agricultural industry, business elites, and governors whose states depend on Chinese investments—to make up for Bolsonaro’s anti-China rhetoric and publicly underline the importance of strengthening bilateral ties.

When the Brazilian president visited Beijing and hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for the 11th BRICS Summit in Brasília a few months later, the relationship seemed stronger than ever. China’s decision not to make a public fuss about Bolsonaro’s previous attacks seemed to have paid off.

What, then, explains the radical shift toward a more abrasive diplomatic style? Above all, Beijing has realized that keeping China off the public radar in Brazil is no longer an option. China has become a constant and divisive topic in public debate. Today, the number of Brazilians who are aware of their country’s economic dependence on China has grown dramatically—even though many do not yet express strong opinions about the country.

Eduardo Bolsonaro has been attacked from many sides—governors, mayors, business associations, and policy analysts—for endangering the partnership precisely at a moment when Brazil is beginning to rely on Chinese ventilators and masks to address the pandemic. Over the past few weeks alone, several governors ordered ventilators from China, and São Paulo Gov. João Doria placed an order worth almost $100 million. In the same way, Brazil’s economic elites are keenly aware that the country will strongly depend on China for its economic recovery after the pandemic subsides—memories are still fresh of how crucial Chinese investors, lenders, and buyers of commodities were to helping Latin America weather the storm of the 2008 economic crisis.

Yet predictably, China’s global rise has also turned it into a convenient scapegoat for populist politicians seeking to place the blame for all sorts of problems—including the pandemic, unemployment, or a supposed moral decay—on foreign enemies. While Bolsonaro embraced a more prudent stance toward Beijing in public, his supporters have never stopped stoking Sinophobia on social media since he became president. That is beginning to have an impact: pro-Bolsonaro groups on WhatsApp are now teeming with xenophobic, anti-China, and anti-communist rhetoric, and the most fervent Bolsonaro supporters commonly describe the coronavirus as a Chinese plot against Bolsonaro, capitalism, and the West. The president is likely to increasingly depend on this radical base in light of recent corruption allegations against him.

Brazil’s government is deeply divided between nationalist pro-Trump ideologues who despise China and military officials and free-market advocates who are aware of its importance for Brazil’s economy. Both Vice President Mourão and Minister of Agriculture Tereza Cristina, seen as a guarantor of solid Brazil-China ties, are regularly vilified by Bolsonaro supporters as closet communists. Despite their best efforts, both have failed to control anti-China rhetoric by high-level officials close to Brazil’s president.

It seems that anti-China sentiment in Bolsonaro’s inner circle has reached a point of no return.

As a result, it seems that anti-China sentiment in Bolsonaro’s inner circle has reached a point of no return. As a consequence, Beijing decided it was time to go on the offensive—and that it may actually extract some concessions by doing so. By taking a more aggressive approach, Beijing has been able to play these factions within the Bolsonaro administration against each other.

After Eduardo Bolsonaro’s decision to blame China for the pandemic, numerous Brazilian authorities—governors, mayors, and business leaders—contacted the Chinese ambassador to apologize. While the Brazilian government’s factions are battling about how to deal with China, Beijing has now successfully quashed any U.S. attempts to convince Brazil to exclude Huawei from the bidding process to build its 5G telecommunication network.

China’s more active approach may generate other short-term gains for Beijing, and the Chinese government’s capacity to readily provide medical equipment in the midst of the crisis is likely to improve its image in a country where the president so far refuses to recognize the threat the coronavirus poses to public health.

Even so, its newly combative approach may already be backfiring. Merely a day after the publication of the consul general’s controversial op-ed, Brazil’s Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub taunted Beijing by imitating a Chinese accent on Twitter, accusing China of unduly profiting from the pandemic. It revealed a dynamic that should worry China: By attacking Beijing, Weintraub—whose position had seemed at risk due to his poor job performance—consolidated his position in the Bolsonaro government.

After all, the president’s radical base now regards attacking China as proof of loyalty to Bolsonaro and often celebrates how traditional media and business elites worry over whether each attack may affect bilateral ties. The Supreme Court’s decision to initiate an investigation about whether Weintraub’s tweet constitutes racism only consolidates their support—pro-regime protests routinely call on the president to shut down both the Supreme Court and Congress.

Even in the case of Bolsonaro’s premature political demise—he is facing unprecedented criticism over his coronavirus denialism, talk of impeachment is growing, and Brazil’s Supreme Court has authorized an investigation into allegations of interference with the country’s federal police force—Sinophobia as a political strategy in Brazil is unlikely to go away. If the president is impeached, other right-wing leaders will eagerly embrace Sinophobia to attract Bolsonaro’s base. If anything, growing pressure on Bolsonaro could cause a rise in scapegoating. It seems likely that Trump will only ramp up anti-China rhetoric ahead of the November U.S. election—possibly even asking China for reparations for economic damage caused by the virus. Brazil’s government may feel tempted to employ similar strategies to divert public attention from the looming economic crisis.

This leaves Beijing with few good options. It is reluctant to leave accusations by Brazilian government officials unanswered, to ensure that policymakers know that attacking China risks straining the bilateral relationship. Yet by reacting to every single provocation, it risks falling into a trap, as any populist politician in Brazil in need of gaining visibility—and unconcerned about the negative consequences—will consider badmouthing China. At the same time, policymakers and analysts calling for greater cooperation with China may increasingly worry about inciting hatred from far-right nationalists and being labeled “communists” acting on Beijing’s behalf.

Sinophobic rhetoric is unlikely to change the overall trend of China’s ever-growing economic and political influence in Brazil, however. Even Bolsonaro, the most pro-U.S. president in Brazil’s modern history, has been unable to reduce the country’s remarkable dependence on China—quite to the contrary. Over the past two years, Latin America’s largest country has become more dependent on China than ever. China is the destination for nearly 30 percent of Brazil’s exports, while less than 15 percent of Brazilian exports go to the United States.

Going forward, the nature of the Brazil-China relationship will be far more volatile and vulnerable to internal political dynamics in Brazil, which may come to pose risks for large-scale projects that would have previously caused little public attention. For example, after the recent acrimonious collapse of the Boeing-Embraer tie-up—which involved accusations from the Brazilian jetmaker that Boeing had been looking for excuses to back out given the macroeconomic impact of the pandemic—Embraer is now likely to consider alternatives in China, which may cause resistance among Bolsonaro’s radical supporters.

China will likely also be at the center of a growing number of conspiracy theories, fueled by the opacity of Chinese politics, a profound lack of knowledge in Brazilian society about China, and the very limited number of China specialists able to provide a more nuanced picture of Asia’s largest economy to the public or the government. What was once a tranquil and easy-to-manage bilateral relationship has now become the biggest test for Chinese diplomacy in Latin America.

Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Twitter: @OliverStuenkel

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