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In an era of globalization and ever-increasing connectivity, COVID-19 has ravaged nearly every nook and cranny of the world, and China is no exception. The world’s second-largest economy was arguably the first country to suffer large-scale from the discovery and subsequent spread of the Coronavirus. Coverage from PwC cited that China suffered a 6.8percent year-on-year (YoY) contraction in the economy for Q1 2020, and a 19 percent YoY fall in retail sales, the first negative growth the country has faced in over 28 years. However, what was surprising to observers was not the expected decline in the health of the country’s economy, given the necessary shutdown by most non-essential services, but the swift and decisive nature of the rebound that followed. For Q2 2020, China witnessed a positive 3.2 percent GDP YoY growth, surpassing most economists’ projections. According to state-media reported statistics, China has had less than 100 cases daily since 4 April, an astoundingly low number for a country of 1.4 billion people.
There are some important things to note regarding China’s rebound (or rebounding). Firstly, it is misleading to think that China’s recovery is complete. China, like all other nations, is still reeling from the effects of the virus. Until a suitable vaccine is developed and made publicly available and affordable for all, it will be medically, economically, socially and politically impossible to be immune to the ramifications caused by Covid-19. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s speech to the National People’s Congress in May 2020, which touched largely on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strategy to combat the virus, showed no signs of blind optimism in the virus situation solving itself. Instead, his speech carried only solemnity and matter-of-fact realism. The context and premise of this article are that China has been widely seen to be at the forefront on the road to recovery compared to most of its peers. Secondly, while the first known case of the virus was likely detected in China, this article in no way claims China is “responsible” for the virus. Thirdly, this article seeks to highlight the various postures that regions around the world have adopted towards China, and the development to these postures as the pandemic has trudged on.
China’s Weapons of “Recovery”
It is impossible to analyze China’s recovery without looking in-depth at its astute use of technology. Based on information from Geospatial World, BeiDou, the country’s own Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) constellation, has helped track patients and affected places. Using precise mapping ability, China could build thousands of new makeshift hospitals across the country, while also keeping tabs on the progress of the development without requiring physical manpower to be present on-site and risking exponential outbreaks.
Usage of robotics was another distinctly Chinese method to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. In many hospitals, robots were actively performing diagnosis and conducting thermal imaging. A hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, was being staffed entirely by robots to protect frontline workers.
Whereas many other countries may rely on standard infrared thermometers and a human tracker to monitor a person’s temperature, Baidu led the pack in developing an AI-powered infrared system that could detect instantaneous changes in a person’s body temperature, and examine up to 200 people in one minute without disrupting passenger flow. Not to lose out, Alibaba has developed a Cloud-based Coronavirus diagnosis tool that the company claims is more than 96 percent accurate and takes under 20 seconds to function. The tool uses AI to detect traces of the virus, and as of May 2020 had been successful in testing over 5000 people. In addition, drones were transporting both medical equipment and patient samples, saving time and enhancing the speed of deliveries, while preventing contamination of medical samples. Agricultural drones were spraying disinfectants in the countryside. Drones powered with facial recognition were also being used to broadcast warnings to the citizens to not step out of their homes and maintain social distancing.
Furthermore, China is one of a small handful of countries boasting the scientific expertise and know-how to develop a successful vaccine. As of September 2020, Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech has claimed it is ready to start a clinical trial of its experimental coronavirus vaccine with children and adolescents later this month, widening its test on a shot that is already in the final stage of study with adults. In totality, all of these point to China as resilient, strong and powerful in the face of a pandemic that many others are still fighting hard against.
In contrast to China, while the United States faced minimal Covid-19 cases in the first quarter of 2020, repeated denial and playing down of the pandemic’s severity by the Trump Administration saw cases spike to highs throughout the second quarter. Eventually, daily new cases peaked at over 75,000 on 17 July. Despite the fact that the rate of new cases has decreased significantly since then, and the Fed providing an astounding US$2 trillion stimulus package to reboot the economy, blatant “reopening” amongst both local and federal governments has not only led to re-lockdowns in states like Arizona and California, but also failed to effectively stem community transmission in particularly crowded areas like gyms, bars and clubs.
According to data from the Pew Research Center, general public negative sentiment towards China within the United States has deteriorated amidst the global spread of Covid-19 and even hit historic highs. As of July 2020, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) say China has fared badly in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. Slightly over three-quarters (78 percent) attribute a substantial or fair amount of the blame for the global spread of Covid-19 on the Chinese government’s initial handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. While it may seem strange that China’s quick recovery would compel negative rather than positive sentiment within the US, the US has often struggled to manage its love-hate relationship with China as both an important world ally and competitor. It might therefore be of little surprise that the US’ ailing management of the pandemic could engender feelings of inferiority or even jealousy among its citizenry when viewed in comparison with the progress already made by its largest trading partner and geopolitical rival.
To make matters worse, ongoing trade tensions between the US and China, as well as the Trump Administration’s plans to ban Tik Tok and Huawei over reasons of national security, have created a dense cloud of suspicion regarding the CCP’s true intentions. These proceedings do little to heal the already fractured relationship between the two superpowers. On one hand, the United States has often prided itself as the champion for the “free world”, whereas China’s Model of governance is stereotypically affiliated with suppression of human freedoms, authoritarianism and a general lack of transparency. Speculation that China has faked its case numbers are rife, given the sheer size of its population and total land area. Observers note that any perceived acts of goodwill by the CCP towards other countries would be seen as an attempt to wrestle geopolitical control away from the US, demonstrate that its ability to stem the spread is real and at the same time play down China’s role as the origin of the virus.
In general, responses to China’s recovery throughout Southeast Asia have been relatively positive. In Southeast Asia, Beijing has seemingly focused on creating a stance of ready cooperation and showing China’s benevolent side. Chinese state media coverage has repeatedly trumpeted ASEAN solidarity and cooperation with Beijing in fighting the virus, as well as ASEAN leaders’ expressions of confidence in the Chinese government’s competence. The general approach of the Chinese government has been to showcase its efficiency and control over the pandemic, and also to provide a stark contrast to a divided and disarrayed United States, so much so that it is able to assist other countries above and beyond its duty. This is done by engaging in “mask diplomacy”, by assisting other countries that struggle with a lack of essential medical supplies. In April 2020, Asia Times reported that China had donated 100,000 testing kits, 10,000 personal protective equipment suits (PPEs), 10,000 N95 grade masks, 100,000 surgical masks and deployed a team of 12 Chinese medical experts to assist the Philippines, which at the time was struggling with one of the region’s worst outbreaks.
China has not only been able to engage in “mask diplomacy”, but also market its efforts in ways that serve its interest. Social media platforms have become an important part of the information campaign. In addition to rebutting U.S. policies toward China. They have given special attention to Beijing’s continued medical assistance to the Philippines and trumpeted President Rodrigo Duterte’s plea to Xi Jinping for the Philippines to gain priority access to a COVID-19 vaccine, not forgetting Manila’s subsequent gratitude. Similarly, the Chinese embassy in Bangkok publicized on its Facebook page additional deliveries of medical supplies and personal protective equipment to Thailand in May and June 2020. In return, the governments of Southeast Asian Countries that have benefitted from direct Chinese assistance have also taken to publicly expressing gratitude. The Philippines has applauded China’s provision of medical aid, with President Rodrigo Duterte twice thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping personally.
Granted, there are some reservations regarding China’s recovery, and amidst harsh pandemic conditions, racism and violence towards ethnic Chinese populations have become more commonplace. For instance, recent xenophobic sentiment in Indonesia has strengthened as China’s economic activities in the country have grown. There have been widespread accusations that imported Chinese products have been deliberately infected with bacteria; fears that mainland Chinese workers are stealing local jobs; and anxieties that Chinese police were playing a role in manipulating domestic politics for Chinese gain. Nevertheless, the promise from China of fast-tracked vaccine development and the inextricable economic ties that many Southeast Asia nations have with it necessarily affect the manner in which they (might still) pander to China’s interests at the end of the day.
Similar to what it did for Southeast Asia, China airlifted medical supplies including protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators to the worst-hit countries in Europe and elsewhere, in a display of aid-giving that contrasted with America’s international absence. China even emerged from the worst of its own outbreak back in February to offer web seminars on best practice gained from tackling the virus where it first emerged.
European countries have not received China’s goodwill well. Claims of price gouging by Chinese suppliers of medical equipment and deliberate blindness to how its actions are perceived appear to parallel its own callous behaviour in the South China Sea, that of a desire to do whatever it deems best for itself without care for its neighbours. The unfortunate consequence is that Beijing’s handling of the crisis beyond its shores has eroded trust among the international community just when it had a chance to demonstrate global leadership. European governments have also become more wary of China in past years on the basis that CCP leader Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative on trade and infrastructure has expanded rapidly across the continent, snapping up strategic assets along the way. They have often cited the need to diversify supply chains away from dependence on “individual countries”, and how they need to avoid China’s desire to export a pseudo-authoritarian type of regime that is supposed to be efficient and productive, vis-a-vis the democratic systems that Western countries are familiar with.
However, the EU’s reservations appear to be much more cautiously deliberated than the United States, perhaps because China-EU trade was worth almost US$750 billion (S$1.07 trillion) last year. While some European Union members are pursuing policies to reduce their dependence on China and keep potential predatory investments in check, many leaders are aware that such defensive measures risk hurting the strong macroeconomic EU-China relationship.
China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the sceptical perception of the country that prevails in many quarters among its neighbours, most notably in India. In India, news outlets detail China’s responsibility as the origin of the virus, and criticize its lack of disclosure, its influence on the WHO, its sidelining of Taiwan, the quality of its medical supplies, and what are seen as its efforts to take diplomatic or commercial advantage of the crisis. Frequent skirmishes since June along the India-China Line of Actual Control have naturally worsened relations between the two nuclear powers, hence the issue of Covid-19 comes across as being just another aggravating factor.
The situation with Pakistan, on the other hand, appears to be a different story. As reported by China File, for decades, China and Pakistan have described each other as “all-weather allies,” but the relationship had actually been a relatively narrow partnership amongst key military and intelligence leaders. Over the past five years, however, ties grew to encompass a range of political and economic initiatives under the progress of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, a flagship project under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. In Pakistan’s increasingly state-influenced media, there has been a clear push to deflect blame for the pandemic away from China’s doing. For example, infections are caused by Pakistani pilgrims from Iran or Pakistani students returning home from China rather than from Chinese workers and goods. Pakistan’s news outlets have also consistently emphasized the generosity of Chinese aid, including medical supplies, technical experts, and cash, perhaps as a sycophantic gesture to yield greater financial aid as it fights increasing debt.
Given the current state of events, the balance of geopolitical power has appeared to be less and less of an open playing field, tilting towards China. While Trump has emphasized looking inward with his “America First” policy in his presidential term, Xi’s China has looked increasingly outward in recent years. The CCP has indomitably strengthened relationships with various countries, not exclusively through the BRI and mask diplomacy, as it seeks to adjust to what some see as its “rightful place” at the top of the geopolitical totem pole. However, due to the pushback China has faced from several other countries, as well as the current economic downturn ravaging the global economy, the Chinese government has recently announced a new economic strategy of “internal circulation”. Given China’s strong domestic prospects characterized by a rapid growth in purchasing power, an increase in investments and a thriving technology sector, an inward shift has been identified by the government as a strategic move towards sustained economic growth in the following years.
That said, China cannot fully insulate itself from global forces. With the US Presidential Elections imminent, it remains to be seen if a leadership renewal would spell the dawn of an improved relationship between the two great superpowers. Despite reservations from the EU and China’s neighbours, one thing is for certain – China’s recovery from COVID-19 is merely the start in its conquest for global supremacy.