China and the World, Talking Point

Sympathy deficit

Rather than finding common cause in virus crisis, Sino-US relations worsen


No helping hand from Trump: Beijing has been upset by Washington’s attitude during the virus outbreak

Swooping in on a castle’s weak point, robbing the victim of a fire, throwing stones at someone drowning in a well – a range of Chinese proverbs have been coined to make the same point: not to kick a person who is already down.

These sayings have been popping up in recent weeks in the coded phrases used by Chinese diplomats. That’s because – just when the ink was drying on the first phase of a long awaited trade deal between China and the United States – there has been a new souring in relations.

While Beijing focused on fighting the coronavirus outbreak at home, Washington has seemed to be turning up the heat on the Chinese on several fronts this month. With some Chinese believing that their American foes are trying to take advantage of the Covid-19 crisis, the subsequent bad feeling doesn’t bode well for future trade talks.

So the White House has changed its view on how the epidemic has been handled?

Starting in Wuhan in late December, the virus has infected more than 75,000 people in China and claimed more than 2,200 Chinese lives as of Thursday.

During the first few weeks of the outbreak, Donald Trump’s administration was downplaying the crisis, CNN reported, taking a “measured approach” in responding to it. Yet as the number of confirmed cases spiked, the White House changed its “calculus”, modifying its response amid fears of a contagion (there were 29 confirmed infections in the US as of Thursday, including 14 Americans on the Diamond Princess, a quarantined cruise ship stranded in Japan where hundreds are infected).

The US authorities decided to ban the entry of all foreign nationals travelling from China in early February after the World Health Organisation’s declaration of a global health emergency. That came despite WHO advice that a travel ban would “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”.

Trump followed up a few days later with a phone call to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. As so often in Trump’s case, there was a lot of praise for Xi personally. “He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the coronavirus,” he wrote on Twitter after the conversation. “Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation. We are working closely with China to help!”

But the tributes for his counterpart were said to have irked some of his presidential team, the Washington Post reported this week, with a counter view emerging that such compliments were unwarranted. More hawkish advisers have since accused the Chinese of not having been fully transparent about the breadth of the outbreak. They have also critiqued the initial crackdown against the doctors who tried to sound the alarm, saying this flawed approach directly contributed to the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

Trump has stayed restrained in his public comments (a stark contrast to his response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the Washington Post noted, when he called for the US to shut its borders, even to American doctors who had been treating patients in Africa). But his aides have been more pointed in their remarks and in terms of policy response (more of this later). Joseph Grogan, head of the Domestic Policy Council, has said that China cannot be trusted, for instance, while Peter Navarro (never a friend of the Chinese, but also one of Trump’s top trade advisers) has repeatedly pushed for a stronger tone in response.

Another aide – Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council – says the United States has been “disappointed” by China’s response. Calling on Beijing to be more transparent in reporting on the crisis, Kudlow has also expressed concern that China is likely to delay purchases of the American goods promised under the trade agreement signed in January. “The export boom from that trade deal will take longer because of the Chinese virus,” he told Fox Business Network earlier this month.

Economic considerations also weighed heavily when Wilbur Ross showed up on the same channel in a separate interview. “I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America,’’ the commerce secretary said of the contagion, adding that the virus “gives businesses another thing to consider when they go through their review of their supply chain”.

In support of Ross, his department later told CNBC that it was “important to consider the ramifications of doing business with a country that has a long history of covering up real risks to its own people and the rest of the world”.

How has Beijing responded?

The Chinese have embarked on a wider diplomatic offensive to draw in allies during the crisis. Xi Jinping, for one, has been talking with foreign leaders by phone to brief them on the latest situation. Details of these conversations have found their way into Chinese state media. Both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have offered assistance, Xinhua said, with marked appreciation of “China’s efforts to respond in a timely manner” to international requests for cooperation in containing the virus.

Xi also spoke to Britain’s Boris Johnson this week. According to details released to Sky News, the pair agreed to “collaborate to fight shoulder to shoulder against this new virus”. Johnson expressed “a high appreciation of the efforts made by China” and discussed how the two nations would “strengthen this relationship over the next 10 years”.

In contrast, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying openly criticised the US at a press conference earlier this month. “A friend in need is a friend indeed. A lot of countries have in many ways extended their support and help to China’s fight against the plague. In contrast, some US officials’ words and actions are neither factual nor appropriate,” Hua said, claiming that comments from Washington had “unceasingly manufactured and spread panic”.

Another gripe from the foreign ministry is that the US government has offered little in the form of substantial assistance. American apathy has contrasted with offers of support from developing countries, Xinhua notes. Take Pakistan: China’s “iron buddy” sent 300,000 medical masks from its own hospital stock at the start of February, the news agency noted approvingly.

Xinhua also disclosed the details of a phone conversation between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi. “Some people are bent on creating panic. Just hours after the WHO put forward its professional advice, certain countries announced a blanket travel ban against China,” Wang told the Pakistan foreign minister, stopping just short of condemning the US. “Such an act which takes advantage of other people’s difficulties is the last thing we need in state-to-state relations.”

The subtext was similar when Wang spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarid over the phone a few days later. While China’s top diplomat again voiced his opposition to “overreactions” and “fear-mongering”, the Iranian later posted a Chinese proverb on Twitter and condemned the US for taking advantage of China’s more precarious position.

The People’s Daily took a more direct tack, attacking Washington head-on. “Some US politicians and media outlets have been making tart and even vicious remarks on China’s efforts to contain the epidemic,” the Party mouthpiece said. “They have acted as ‘onlookers’ who gloat over China’s misfortune. Some even took the ‘opportunity’ to seek political gain.”

Turning the tables: how did the US fare in fighting the H1N1 outbreak in 2009?

In a counteroffensive the Chinese media has been questioning the American government’s handling of one of its own public health crises: the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. More commonly known as swine flu, H1N1 is thought to have originated in Mexico. But the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) later estimated that 60.8 million Americans contracted H1N1 influenza in the 12 months to April 2010, resulting in more than 12,000 deaths.

In the view of China’s media Washington’s approach to containing H1N1 proved to be substandard, so it has less right to be so critical today. Besides there seems to be a double standard: nobody was advised not to travel to the US because of H1N1 and there was no suggestion that people from other countries should be evacuated.

The People’s Daily led much of the attack, claiming that the US government had said there was no need for alarm when the influenza began to spread, only to declare a national emergency six months later. By then H1N1 had spread to 214 countries and regions. The newspaper also quoted estimates from medical journal The Lancet that there were between 151,700 and 575,400 deaths worldwide as a result of the virus. “Some people in the US can always wax lyrical when they point fingers at other countries but they turn their backs on the vulnerability of their own country’s system in coping with epidemics,” it thundered.

Is the criticism valid?

American officials have rebutted the allegations about failing to show more support this year, briefing that the Chinese actually rejected offers for help earlier this year.

The commentary in the American media on the response to the Covid-19 crisis also takes a different stance to their Chinese counterparts, seeing the criticism as an attempt to deflect attention from the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis.

And there have been other challengers to the claims about how the H1N1 outbreak was handled as well, including comments from Jorge Guajardo, Mexican ambassador to China in 2009, who pointed out the Chinese suspended flights to Mexico when the virus was first reported in his country.

“China never admitted that was wrong, or apologised,” he recalled on Twitter this week, albeit adding that Washington’s actions have not helped to contain the latest outbreak either.

Of course, the Chinese are probably going to be disappointed if they are hoping for an easier ride from the Americans, especially in a presidential election year in Washington. And more immediately, the US has taken a number of steps that are unlikely to find favour with the Chinese – especially given the timing. For example, on February 9, the US Justice Department announced it had charged four members of the People’s Liberation Army with a cyber attack on credit reporting agency Equifax. The agents are alleged to have stolen the personal data of nearly 150 million people in a hack in 2017, William Barr, the attorney general said.

In a separate move this week, the US government designated five of China’s top media outlets – including the People’s Daily, Xinhua and CCTV – as foreign diplomatic missions because their journalists are deemed to be acting as propaganda agents. The change in status requires the media firms to register the names of their employees in the same way as staff at foreign embassies.

Adding to tensions: Chinese tech firms could soon feel more of the wrath of American regulators as well. According to a Wall Street Journal report last week, restrictions are now more likely to be imposed on purchases of American chips and tech components by Chinese buyers after the Pentagon dropped its earlier opposition to such sanctions.

That new came just a few days after a federal indictment was issued against Chinese tech behemoth Huawei and its two US units for racketeering and conspiracy to steal trade secrets.

Huawei says the charges are unfounded. Yet American politicians – Republicans and Democrats – are stepping up their campaign to persuade allies to shun use of its 5G gear in their telecoms networks.

“China is seeking to export its digital autocracy through its telecommunication giant Huawei,” US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Munich Security Conference last week. “Don’t go near Huawei and instead, let’s internationalise and build something together that will be about freedom of information,” added the Democrat’s most senior figure in Congress.

Will Washington apply more pressure on Beijing?

A key theme at the same Munich conference was a debate about what has been termed as “Westlessness” – or the loss of a common understanding of what it means to be part of “the West”. The West is struggling to find a common stance in dealing with Huawei’s 5G ambitions (see WiC481), for instance.

But even the White House seems fragmented on tackling the rise of China’s biggest companies. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Trump administration was considering a proposal to halt deliveries of jet engines co-produced by General Electric to Chinese customers (fearing reverse engineering of the technology) and that it has been mulling restrictions too on other components crucial for commercial aircraft manufacturing, such as flight control systems. A ban here would obstruct China’s ambitions to launch the C919, its long-delayed commercial jet plane.

However, in a series of tweets sent out on Tuesday, Trump seemed to blast the plan by insisting that his administration should avoid new barriers that hurt American exports. “We don’t want to make it impossible to do business with us. That will only mean that orders will go to someplace else,” he wrote. “As an example, I want China to buy our jet engines, the best in the World.”

In the meantime, there are signs that tit-for-tat responses are emerging from Beijing. On Wednesday the Chinese foreign ministry ordered three Wall Street Journal reporters to leave the country within five days after the newspaper declined to apologise for an op-ed this month that used a headline describing China as the “real sick man of Asia”. Beijing says this was racist. This justification aside, the timing of the move could equally be a response to the action taken against the five Chinese media outlets in the US.

Sentiment worsened (yet) again when the Office of the US Trade Representative announced on Wednesday that it had removed China from its list of developing nations, stripping Beijing of certain advantages that the status incurred. The change, Xinhua predicted, will make it easier for the US to launch investigations into whether China is subsidising its exports.

But while relations are still frosty, there was a slight modification in tone mid-week when Beijing acknowledged that it had received 16 tonnes of face masks and other protective gear from the US. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang qualified his gratitude by adding that the Chinese now hoped the Americans would deliver on a promise of financial support made almost a fortnight earlier. “In the fight against the epidemic, all countries need to pitch in,” he said. “We hope that the $100 million donation the US State Department announced it would make to China and other countries will come to fruition soon.” 

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