Weeks after Beijing was criticized by people inside China and around the world for a sluggish response to the outbreak of a new coronavirus, China’s government is trying to recast itself as a global health leader.
China’s early response to the outbreak remains shrouded in mystery, with an unclear timetable about what officials knew and when they knew it.
At the beginning of the year, as the coronavirus spread in the city of Wuhan, authorities downplayed the risk and provided little information. Lunar New Year festivities initially went forward, before Beijing dramatically reversed course as the outbreak grew. Now, Beijing is accusing others of the same thing.
The state-run news media has resumed its cheery coverage of China’s response, hailing it as a model for the world, suggesting that countries like the United States and others are acting sluggishly to contain the spread.
"Righteous, the world should thank China!" read a recent headline from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.
The opinion piece by Xinhua said the West, in particular the United States, “owes China a coronavirus apology” because it argued that the rest of world would have been embroiled in a far worse contagion had it not been for China’s response. That response included proactive prevention and control measures that have begun to slow the spread of the coronavirus that has sickened 80,565 people and killed 3,015 in China alone.
As part of its messaging effort, Beijing’s foreign ministry says it has tapped its diplomats around the world to tout China’s accomplishments through more than 400 media interviews and 300 articles.
China's global image
For more than 20 years China has tried to project itself as a responsible global power, an effort threatened by the initial coronavirus response.
“China lost stature internationally as a result of its initial downplaying of the coronavirus in the first weeks of the year," said Steve Young, the former Director of the American Institute in Taiwan and Consul General in Hong Kong.
Young said China was widely criticized in particular for how it punished one of the first doctors to raise alarms over the outbreak, Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan physician who later died from the coronavirus.
Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing and a critic of the government, said the authorities initial subdued response left a lasting impression as the outbreak raced beyond Wuhan.
“It is hard for anyone to believe that China has played the role of a leader in the so-called coronavirus prevention in the world,” he said.
Beijing’s reputational damage in the United States is obvious, where the outbreak has pushed opinions of China to record lows. The latest Gallup poll, conducted Feb. 3-16, found Americans' favorable rating of China at the same level as those recorded after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, when just 34% of Americans held a favorable view of the country.
Joseph Cheng, a retired political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong, said the Chinese leadership is very concerned with its image because it appreciates the significance of soft power. One measure of that sensitivity was China's recent action in ordering three Wall Street Journal reporters to leave China after the newspaper published an opinion piece describing China as the "sick man of Asia."
"The leadership now wants to influence international public opinion," he said, referring to China's recent efforts to burnish its credentials as a responsible power by sharing expertise and equipment with countries seeing a surge in cases.
China now emphasizes it has shared its treatment plan with many countries.
“Specifically, we have established close technical-level communication mechanisms with organizations such as the World Health Organization, the European Union, the AU, the CARICOM, and ASEAN, and countries with high outbreaks or fragile health systems such as Korea and Iran,” Zhao Lijiang, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, told a press briefing Friday.
Where did the outbreak begin?
More than two months after Chinese health authorities first reported people becoming sick with a new pathogen, Beijing is now challenging the assumption that the virus originated in Wuhan, where it was traced to a market that was illegally selling wildlife.
“Confirmed cases of #COVID19 were first found in China, but its origin is not necessarily in China,” Zhao said this week. “Where the virus originates is inconclusive.”
Zhao referred to a statement by Dr. Zhong Nanshan, the most prominent epidemiologist handling this outbreak and the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, who claimed last month that "though the virus was first discovered in China, it may not have originated" there.
Zhong did not offer any alternative suggestions as to where it was originated, but his words have fueled a raft of conspiracy theories online, including that the contagion might have come from the U.S.
The exact origin of the virus has not been confirmed. But it is believed to have jumped from animals to humans at a market in Wuhan.
David Ho, a prominent Columbia University AIDS researcher, said the coronavirus almost certainly started in China.“
Given what we know of SARS, and this one, and what we know of all the coronaviruses that are found in other animal species, I have very little doubt that the origin is China,” he said in an interview with the Mandarin Service of Voice of America this week.
Political system superiority
In addition to the effort to spin the crisis as a testament to the strength of China’s political system, Beijing is pushing a powerful counter narrative: the idea that the Chinese governing system allowed for a rapid and effective response to the crisis that other countries can learn from.
Official news outlets have been flooded with stories about how the government is being praised by foreign governments and health officials.
The state broadcaster CCTV reported this week that Dr. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian and assistant director-general of WHO, led the foreign experts' visit to China. Aylward said China’s counterattack of the outbreak can be replicated, "but it will require speed, money, imagination and political courage," the broadcaster reported.
Ding Xiangyang, a central government official who is part of the team overseeing coronavirus containment in Hubei province, the epicenter of the epidemic, said the WHO believes China's decline in cases has made the world safer.
"The WHO believes that China has adopted the bravest, most flexible and most proactive prevention and control measures in history, changed the rapid spread of the epidemic, and reduced the incidence of hundreds of thousands of cases nationwide. ” Ding, the vice secretary general at the State Council, told a news briefing Friday.
But as many epidemiologists consider a nascent pandemic, people doubt the drastic containment measures, including the virtual lockdown of Hubei province, home to 60 million people, could ever be repeated elsewhere.
China has a " big advantage" over the control of epidemics, said Dorothy Solinger, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of California at Irvine.
"What other nation, large or small, could this pull off? Only China, with its old command apparatus plus its newer surveillance one could have done what it did," she said. "Like it or not, China is really good at both of these.”
Critics say the sad part is the human rights costs of the most severe measures imposed by China.
"Let’s face it, many people sickened and died as the CCP’s propaganda organs trumpeted a false narrative. Not a sterling example of the system’s efficacy," Young, the former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, said.
And other places, such as Taiwan, have demonstrated that it may be possible to keep people safe without imposing heavy-handed interventions on millions. Taiwan, which has scores of flights from China each day, has kept the number of infected to under 50 people.
Officials credit Taiwan's proactive measures to identify arriving passengers from affected parts of China, as well as a robust public health system focused on identifying and quarantining infected people. Taiwan officials say being transparent with information is important.