February 20, 2020
IntelBrief: Coronavirus Continues to Spread Amid Growing Criticism of China
Facing growing criticism for its handling of the coronavirus, now called COVID-19, China is now working to engineer perhaps the largest quarantine in history. Nearly half of China’s 1.3 billion citizens—an astonishing 650 million people—have recently been placed under some form or level of medical quarantine as the government scrambles to prevent further spread of the disease. The Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to contain the coronavirus, which emerged from Wuhan Province in China last December, have not been successful. There were recent reports of a cruise ship docked in Yokohama Bay in Japan whose passengers were quarantined before leaving for their respective countries. On February 18, the death toll for the disease reached 1,873; among the victims is the director of a hospital in Wuhan Province who was one of the most high-ranking and experienced medical officials fighting to combat the disease.
The medical challenges of trying to devise a treatment and effective vaccine for the newly discovered disease is by itself an immense task, one that is now the focus of teams from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other agencies. The disease, however, is leading to issues beyond health. China’s response to the outbreak has exacerbated existing geopolitical tensions, particularly between China and the United States. The ongoing trade war could be significantly impacted by a lagging global economy resulting directly from the economic slowdown associated with the coronavirus. Chinese President Xi Jinping, one of China’s most powerful leaders in recent history, is experiencing limited but notable criticism from China’s domestic population for how his government has handled the response. Even with the strict censorship over public comments and social media, there is a simmering disapproval of Xi as an out of touch leader who reacted too slowly in the earliest days of the outbreak in an attempt to downplay the severity. With China’s continued repression of its Uighur population and its handling of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Beijing is facing greater criticism, both internally and externally, than it is used to dealing with.
Beijing has always been sensitive to criticism, using repression and censorship to quell domestic dissent while relying on trade and economic incentives to mute international opprobrium. The COVID-19 outbreak is proving to be a major irritant and challenge for China in terms of international relations, attenuating the soft power and image Beijing has worked so assiduously to cultivate. Many countries have imposed travel bans on Chinese citizens or travel to and from China. Beijing has labeled these actions unnecessary and even discriminatory. There are reported incidents of over-the-top fear mongering against Chinese in many countries, as locals react fearfully to news reports that often inflate or distort the threat, which is real but manageable. Reactions to the spread of the virus are made worse by conspiracy theories and disinformation—some perpetuated by U.S. senators—that the disease is a manmade biological weapon and not, as public health officials have described, a zoonotic contagion that has spread from animals to humans. Making matters worse is deliberate obfuscation of the issue by the Chinese government. The numbers of infected, as reported by China, have been wildly inconsistent and subject to scrutiny. Even considering the difficulties of an accurate accounting of those infected and killed by the disease, Beijing has stumbled in presenting credible numbers. On February 12, the government released a number of infected that was an increase of nearly 15,000 more than what was reported the day prior. The rising death toll among China’s medical personnel and first responders has also made treatment of the disease more challenging while further angering Chinese citizens critical of the government response.
The Trump administration has been hesitant to criticize Beijing too loudly over its handling of the outbreak, though senators and other figures have done so. Washington has expressed concern over China’s slow response to requests to share data, but President Trump, never shy about criticizing global leaders, has largely remained silent, although he recently suggested that Xi was doing a ‘very good job’ dealing with the situation. Both Xi and Trump, especially in an election year for the latter, are worried about the economic fallout of the virus. The concern is that the disease could make already tenuous relations between Beijing and Washington even worse. China will remain on guard for what it perceives as anti-Chinese bias in reporting and policies by the United States. Several reporters from the Wall Street Journal recently had their credentials revoked after the Chinese government objected to a recent opinion piece critical of the CCP. Meanwhile, the acute threat of the disease, and the likelihood of future outbreaks, continues to grow in an interconnected world, where global health is inextricably linked to all facets of statecraft, from trade and economics to geopolitics and national security.
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