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China’s Public Diplomacy During the Covid-19 Pandemic; Sreekuttan K M

Updated: Mar 2, 2023


Image Courtesy: Voannews

Article 73/2021

The world is reeling under the effect of COVID-19 that has claimed millions of lives, badly hit economies, livelihoods, investments, development, healthcare, education and put a number of countries in lockdowns. Very few countries have managed to successfully combat the pandemic and secure their population. While vaccines have been developed and vaccination drives are progressing in various countries, the controversy regarding the origins of the virus are raging as ever and the People’s Republic of China has come under scrutiny from different parts of the world. China has still not revealed much details about the origin of the virus known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, alleged to be leaked from the virology lab in Wuhan. Neither has it agreed to a transparent investigation demanded in the United Nations by states like Australia and United States. Beijing’s growth in terms of the economy, fewer cases and deaths compared to other countries where the virus eventually spread as well as it being able to manufacture and export medical supplies to different countries have raised the suspicion of the global community. However, China has been quick in hitting back at all the allegations (Wong A. , 2020) and has extensively employed its soft power and mass communication platforms including social networking platforms to counter narratives against it, even using trolls, bots and its own netizens to do spread positive news about Beijing, the Communist Party of China as well as to laud the efforts of the state under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Dismissing arguments including the allegations of the Covid-19 pandemic to be a biological war against the world to usurp power and increase its influence and replace the United States to become the global superpower, its diplomats including the hyper-national and super-aggressive ‘wolf-warrior diplomats’, China is trying to project its rise as a peaceful rise and its public diplomacy initiatives and investments across Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America has helped it shield itself from the backlash it could have garnered otherwise.


Beijing’s diplomatic maneuvers also include attempts to highlight the ‘efficiency’ of its political system that proved effective not just in dealing with the pandemic inside the country but also aiding nations worldwide. China exported tonnes of medical equipment including masks, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), ventilators, oxygen concentrators, vaccines etc. These efforts of China have brought in the new term of ‘mask-diplomacy, which is focused on showcasing itself as a benign power, secure goodwill, expand the power of its civil society as well as to build a positive image that was damaged in the initial stages of the pandemic. Notably, China’s efforts have set in a public diplomacy initiative that is unprecedented, rapid and extremely dynamic. It also has varying levels of aggression and defensiveness. This paper aims to understand the role, efficiency and challenges to Beijing’s attempts at being the devil’s advocate for itself in its apparent unstoppable race to global domination, to unseat the United States and establish Chinese hegemony.


Chinese Foreign Policy and Diplomacy

Foreign policy is simply a roadmap for a state’s interaction with other states in the international system. It provides directions for undertakings with other actors and secure its national interests. Diplomacy is the method for executing these policy doctrines that serve as guidelines. They are complementary though good diplomacy can overcome the cons of a bad foreign policy doctrine. However, it is not the other way around. Thus, a state’s foreign policy plays a paramount role in determining its position in the global atmosphere. For China, foreign policy and diplomacy is extremely sacrosanct in a world where major powers like the United States, United Kingdom, France, India, etc. are democracies and hold significant goodwill unlike authoritarian systems that can garner skepticism than a state with a popularly elected government. However, China’s foreign policy and diplomacy are extreme success stories. As a power, seeking greater role for itself, these are important in gaining acceptance and faith.


The Chinese Embassy in the US puts some of the main tenets of Chinese foreign policy as: maintaining independence, world peace, friendly relations and cooperation, good-neighbourly and friendly relations, enhanced unity and cooperation with developing countries as well as opening policy. It goes on to explain that the state maintains a principled position in international affairs and stresses sovereignty in its decisions and disinterest in joining bloc power politics. It also ‘opposes hegemonism, power politics, aggression and expansion’ while standing against arms race and raises the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. It also wishes to pursue good and friendly relations with countries in its neighbourhood and beyond, seeking global peace, stability, solving territorial conflicts and promote regional economic cooperation. It also seeks to promote relations with both developing and developed states in all areas especially in economy, trade, science and technology while working for a free, fair world order (China, n.d.).





Public Diplomacy is the set of diplomatic practices and exercises aimed at the foreign public, that is, the citizens of other countries rather than the government, its institutions and representatives. Early Chinese diplomatic practices were aimed at improving the acceptance of China, a communist, one-party state as the real Chinese nation rather than the Republic of China or Taiwan, that held the UNSC permanent seat for decades. China has focused on spreading its soft power through spreading the Chinese culture, its symbols, animals like Panda (also known as Panda Diplomacy), Chinese food and cinema among others. The opening up of the system and the ‘go-out’ policy provided it with significant overseas investments thus effectively providing leverage. It also focused on developing institutions like the Confucius centres that taught Mandarin Chinese language and culture. It also established international news media that act as government mouthpieces such as Global Times, CGTN, etc. that effectively spreads Beijing’s narratives. Chinese diplomacy has come a long way from inviting foreign journalists to cover the state’s views to sending their journalists to other states and rival with major news agencies such as Reuters. Of late, Chinese diplomats have also spread their presence in social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc. that is ironically banned in their own state, restricted by the ‘Great Firewall’ (Palmer, 2020). While diplomacy in the 1990s and 2000s were focused in spreading the ‘peaceful rise’ rhetoric, it has undergone a major change under Xi Jinping, opines Yan Wu and Richard Thomas who point out that Xi Jinping’s statements from 2018 that talks of China’s role in securing global peace and UN objectives while stressing on the sovereignty and rights of China, are being aimed not only at the domestic population, but a signaling for the world leaders and advocacy to the global audience (Thomas, 2021). Advocates of aggressive diplomacy are seemingly promoted, as is visible with the promotion of Zhao Lijian (Griffin, 2020) as a spokesperson for the government and the deputy director of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department. This form of wolf-warrior diplomacy, inspired by a movie, is ‘construed to be at once defiant and resolute’, while sticking to ‘values and principles.’ (Wong B. , 2020). This was brought in mainly to appeal to the domestic audiences in order to showcase China’s power in the global sphere and whap nationalism and is reportedly telecasted regularly. China also aims to showcase this as a challenge and defiance against the existing global order mooted by the influential western nations and in turn raise anti-colonial sentiments, eventually challenging the western supremacy. There are speculations as to whether the wolf-warrior diplomacy will indeed pay dividends or instead upset relations with important partners in regions like Europe that also have economic ramifications for Beijing (Yeo, 2020). Nevertheless, this has been the case largely during the course of the pandemic.


Chinese Diplomatic Practices during Covid-19 Pandemic

The early part of the Covid-19 pandemic presented a number of challenges for China. With the first cases being reported in late 2019, Chinese government stifled voices, arrested whistleblowers and allowed the travel of people from Wuhan and other Chinese into various parts of the world. This received massive criticism as China had announced lockdown in its own territories, restricted information and warnings of a pandemic outbreak to the global community and this led to the spread of the virus that killed several million people worldwide (Gauttam, Singh, & Kaur, 2020). The pandemic greatly hit states like the US, UK, Italy, Iran, India, etc. and ravaged economies and destroyed livelihoods. The then US President Donald Trump lashed out with his ‘Wuhan Virus’ remark that upset China. Canada also saw strained relations with Beijing during the course of the pandemic. The crisis was greatly downplayed in several countries including the US, Brazil and India as a result of which subsequent waves took a heavy toll. However, China was quick to bounce into action and consolidate the narrative.


Perilous Waters- Maneuvers with the West

Chinese diplomacy during the pandemic can be categorized into having primarily two objectives- first, to rebuild Chinese image dented by the pandemic and second, to discredit western forms of governments. The approach varied widely according to different regions. Chinese action primarily saw its action in Europe. The strategy of Beijing in Europe has come under great scrutiny. The European Union and member states are of great importance to China in terms of trade and economics (Miao & Wang, 2020) (Chapuis, 2020). Brian Wong categorized Chinese actions in EU primarily for three objectives. The first was to clarify the conditionality of trade and economics whereby states with favourable opinions and actions towards China ‘are rewarded with greater access to recovering economy and are offered closer integration within China’s international alliances’ while the hostile and provocative states were threatened with economic retaliation and severing of technological cooperation. (Wong B. , 2020) The activities in the latter included support for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, pro-democratic movements in Hong Kong, etc. The second objective was to clear the air over the Chinese technological companies like Huawei’s 5G trials which is mired in opaqueness resulting from Chinese cybersecurity laws. The influence of NATO and the unpopularity of Huawei has led it to being rejected by France, Germany and Netherlands. It remains to be seen as to how will other countries respond and eventually act- whether toe in line with Chinese stubbornness. The third objective was to Project China as a worthy economic and political partner. This is a challenge to the influence commanded by the United States in the region. Beijing also aimed to revive the tainted Chinese image in the region for which Beijing contributed several thousand tonnes of relief material to European states (Wong B. , 2020). However, all of these has come under fire.


It was reported that Chinese diplomats and lobbies approached German government officials to speak in favour of Chinese handling of the pandemic, according to German intelligence (Conversation, 2020). China was also criticized by France for spreading false narratives, by Netherlands and Spain over the quality of donated medical equipment- half of the masks received by the former did not meet safety standards while 50,000 quick testing kits received by the latter failed to work correctly. Notably, some of the donations were made by companies like Huawei, which can be assumed as attempts to create a favourable view towards it from the states. However, this has been turned down, according to official statements from the countries. Similar has been the case with Poland that was mired in controversy when a Huawei official was found spying for the CPC. The Balkan states have also benefited from the Chinese generosity, all of which were heavily publicized by Chinese state media, but several experts have flagged misinformation being spread by such campaigns. China has received the most favourable view from Italy which commended the role played by China whereby it was the first to respond to Rome’s crisis, wherein even the United States failed to act. Thus, there are mixed opinions within the European community regarding the role of China and this corroborates the allegations that Beijing is trying to cause disunity and waver the unity within the EU, eventually which may lead to instability.


The First Responder- Impressing the Third World

China’s response in Latin America has been described as timely, strategic and significant by Cynthia Sanborn who explains that China has provided significant investments and aids in these states also for research and vaccine production. Beijing took up the role expected of United States which rather acted isolationist, and contributed massively to the region-Venezuela, Brazil, Chile and Peru being the largest recipients of aid. A study from the Catholic University of Chile tracked 530 medical-related donations from Beijing in 2020 for four months beginning mid-February into 33 countries which was estimated to be valued over US$128 million (Sanborn, 2020). China also sold medical goods to various countries including Argentina and Peru. In the case of the latter, Sinopharm tablets were imported in large numbers which however proved ineffective. China also had announced any vaccine produced in their labs would be available as ‘global public good’ and promised credit for purchases which was appreciated by states. China already has massive investments in infrastructure, transport and communication among others and has offered extensive scholarships for students from South America, especially in S&T. Though some of the states of Latin America are wary of the increasing Chinese influence in the region and observers say that the states are looking up to the US to take a balancing role (Sanborn, 2020).


In Asia and Africa too, China took major roles in supplying medical aid wherein its Sinopharm vaccines were provided in countries like the UAE after these countries came to Beijing’s aid during the pandemic in Wuhan and elsewhere. A major highlight in West Asia was the consolidation of relations between China and Tehran where the Chinese Foreign Minister visited Tehran and signed the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ challenging the US further. Iran notably was one of the worst hit states in the first wave of the pandemic and the deal signed between the countries has concerned India. However, in Central Asia, Russia managed to be the first responder, setting an interesting turn of events since the region is a slowly brimming with an unspoken Sino-Russian rivalry. China also played role in reaching aid to several of the South Asian countries, especially Sri Lanka, whose Colombo Port City bill with China is causing a diplomatic concern as well as a strategic downplay for India. With New Delhi notably, the relations took a further hit whereby Chinese rhetoric blamed India for the coronavirus while the People’s Liberation Army forces clashed with India in Ladakh causing further deterioration of the already strained relations. While New Delhi had declared support for China during the beginning of the pandemic and sent supplies, the reciprocity was questionable. India was severely affected during the second wave of the pandemic and while China promised all help and cooperation, Chinese campaign was directed in ridiculing Indian governance, blocking state-run Sichuan Airlines flights carrying essential supplies, etc. that has not gone down well with Indian citizens. Nevertheless, India is looking to import Sinopharm vaccines while talks on disengagement are progressing.


Southeast Asia is another major zone which provides some great insights into the functioning of Chinese diplomacy during the pandemic. Beijing focused on creating a benign power image in the region while quickly retaliating against any unfavourable comments. CPC mouthpieces were vocal in highlighting Beijing’s declaration of ‘solidarity and cooperation’ with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to counter the virus as well as the positive comments from the leaders of these states in China’s capability in the related efforts while depicting the Southeast Asian states as examples of China’s generosity. Social Media platforms have been extensively employed to do this, examples include the Embassy of China in Manila and Bangkok, which are active on Twitter and Facebook respectively. Chinese diaspora strength has been taken advantage by Beijing and the representatives of the Chinese government focused on interacting with these populations in different universities, schools and small-scale businesses, etc. and supplied medical assistance through such methods (Wong A. , 2020). It is to be noted that many of these campaigns were tainted with misinformation and China’s attempts in pushing its own narratives received major backlash. For example, the Chinese netizens were in some hot water with Thai celebrities and eventually Thai citizens after the celebrities shared stories on the Wuhan lab leak theory and on the Uyghur issues along with the suppression of democratic dissent in Hong Kong and Republic of China’s sovereignty. Beijing also was rebuked for videos suggesting its sovereignty over Philippine territories in the contested waters while Bangkok saw the netizens attacking China over the ‘bioweapon theory’ regarding the origin of Covid while it was also termed as ‘god’s warning’ against the CPC’s alleged torture and detention of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Autonomous region, quite predictable with a country with strong anti-Sino sentiments and having the largest Muslim population. Nevertheless, most of the Southeast Asian countries have preferred to not provoke Beijing, but instead be on the receiving end of the Chinese ‘largesse’.


In the case of Africa, the early stages of the pandemic hit Beijing when the news of racial discrimination rose when hundreds of Africans were expelled from their homes in Guangdong. Primarily consisting of Nigerian nationals, it was reported that discrimination was shown to them whereby their entry to places like restaurants were curtailed, causing a huge backlash from the continent including social media hashtags such as #DeportRacistChinese There was even a joint complaint from the heads of several African states and China’s reactions were initially to deny any such happening while it had to eventually respond to the protests later. China, being Africa’s largest trading partner and establishing leadership via several UN agencies as well as with development projects including state-backed corporations already wields significant soft power in the continent. Along with its mask diplomacy (Verma, 2020), Beijing was able to eventually tone down the protests and ant-China narratives, even earning praise from the Nigerian President who expressed that he was happy with China’s actions during the pandemic. This is also proving a significant challenge for other major players in the region such as the EU, US and India.


Challenging Australia- Unexpected Challenges

Finally, the states of the Australian continent and the Pacific islands also haven’t been strange to Chinese diplomatic maneuvers. Denghua Zhang categorizes Chinese diplomacy during the pandemic primarily into four activities- foreign aid, information sharing, publicizing its activities with the local media and to promote Chinese communities, medical teams and philanthropic organizations in China. China has provided more than a million dollars as well as medical supplies including masks, PPE kits, etc. with various countries in the world. Beijing has also engaged in spreading awareness among the citizens in these states via video conferences and social media. They began accounts on social media to publicize these works and also involved its own local organizations, trusts and medical personnel to aid efforts in countering COVID in the region. Here too, there have been some controversies such as the students from these countries requesting to return to their countries citing safety concerns (Zhang, 2020), travel restrictions to the islands affecting their economies and such. However, the situation with the most important country in the region- Australia deteriorated with Beijing threatening and eventually imposing tariffs and restrictions on Australian goods due to Canberra raising the issue of origin of the virus and demanding an independent investigation in Wuhan, only to be turned down by China. Notably. New Zealand hasn’t been involved in these actions. Thus, Chinese diplomacy has seen considerable success in this part of the world as well but with serious allegations being levelled against it. However, this is not to say that there are no challenges to Beijing. It has some serious issues to face.


Challenges to Chinese Public Diplomacy

The diplomatic endeavors of Beijing have been largely successful in multiple parts of the world. While it was primarily focused on creating a better image for itself, it also directed its energy at challenging the West, its democratic and liberal values, questioning their response and most importantly, replacing the image of the US as a global, responsible power (Akon, 2020). Challenges primarily stem from the kind of diplomacy practiced by the so called ‘wolf-warriors’, the allegations and increasing calls for investigations into the origin of the virus as well as the counter-propaganda and retaliations from the West.


The increasing aggressiveness is not endorsed by all the members of the Chinese foreign ministry. Voices of dissent are not being provided sufficient attention. These groups cite that the goodwill gained from many countries over the years is seriously threatened by Chinese tone of aggressiveness. Additionally, it will also threaten smaller countries who would be intimidated by the Chinese behaviour and be war of the arguments put forward by Chinese rivals such as the narratives on debt-traps. This can also hamper the Chinese claims of ‘peaceful rise’ and be in opposition to Chinese strategy of maintaining a low profile, hiding capabilities and intentions before gaining adequate power (Akon, 2020).


Another challenge is the regular questions regarding the origins of the Coronavirus raised by various countries. China has always maintained that the outbreak happened in a ‘wet-market’ in Wuhan while contesting claims have alleged that the pandemic is a Chinese creation in order to usurp power. The allegations of bioweapon have been corroborated by leaked Chinese military documents from 2015 that allegedly contains contents about a biological war. Chinese claims are being hurt by such revelations though China is extensively employing diplomats, its netizens, hackers, paid trolls and bots to control the narrative, rebuke criticism and spread misinformation.


Another challenge is regarding the complaints against the quality of Chinese goods being inferior in quality. China’s donations to different parts of the world have raised eyebrows, the efficacy of its Sinopharm vaccine questioned and harsh criticism raised. All these could add up to the existing widespread stigma against ‘Made in China’ products in some parts of the world at the least.


Questions have also been raised as to whether the pandemic, being created by China, was to displace the western powers, spread confusion and narrow narratives as well as to project itself as a saviour after having destroyed global economies while saving its own. Contributions made by controversial corporations such as Huawei have been treated with suspicion as to whether these are publicity stunts in order to win the favour of countries, especially in Europe, where it is not very popular. This is in light of Chinese propaganda aimed at discrediting the West. The latter has been responding with allegations against Beijing, the organizations which it wields significant power such as the WHO, raising human rights violations issues in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hon Kong as well as supporting Taiwan’s independence. Thus, as Prof. Madhav Nalapat calls it, the world may be witnessing the setting for a Cold War 2.0.


Conclusion

The Chinese diplomacy initiatives thus have some key take-aways to offer. A keen observation can show that the public diplomacy ‘information-warfare’ has been with the prime objectives of self-promotion and discrediting democracy as discussed earlier. Some other observations that can be made include how the line between traditional diplomacy and public diplomacy of China is currently on a thin line. The borders are getting increasingly blurred under the leadership of Xi Jinping. It has also been altering the aggressiveness and softness of its rhetoric as required. China has also been aided by the complacent nature of the West and democratic countries elsewhere whose responses with responding to the pandemic exposed themselves. Notably, China has also benefited from having an edge in responding early in several parts of the world as well as the confusion caused by the fine-line or misconceptions between aid and purchase. A Pew report slammed approval ratings of China but notably only included countries of the West and as evident from the research, elsewhere the dividends of Beijing’s diplomacy has paid off well seemingly. However, it can be safely concurred that China has indeed been laying low according to the famous dictum from Chinese past of ‘laying low’ until having the necessary capabilities to taken on opponents directly. In other words, China has been deceptive of its intentions. This can be corroborated by the example of how China offers no transparency into the origins of COVID. It is true that the Chinese public diplomacy has evolved and transformed. However, Chinese aggressiveness on becoming aggressive on accumulating power belies its claims of being a benevolent, peaceful power as professed by its diplomatic rhetoric. Thus, to sum up, China’s rise has been extensively aided by the pandemic while the threat of the virus’s origin looms large over Beijing. It remains to be seen as to whether the war of narratives will be won by democracy or authoritarianism.


(Sreekuttan Kolathur Madathil is a second-year Master’s student at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Graduated in B A International Relations, from Central University of Kerala. Areas of interest include China, Terrorism, India’s National Security and Indian Foreign Policy. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S.)


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