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China's coronavirus diplomacy is rewriting the narrative, as Trump and Europe watch

As China seeks to keep dissent quiet at home, it is also seeking to turn itself from an agent of obfuscation into a global goodwill ambassador.
Image: Spain Extends Stricter Coronavirus Lockdown As Death Toll Continues To Rise
A plane from China arrives at Madrid airport with medical supplies for the fight against coronavirus in Spain on April 5, 2020.Comunidad de Madrid via Getty Images / Getty Images

Beijing may have moved slowly — too slowly — to share news of the coronavirus with the rest of the world. But in the past month it has moved quickly to offer assistance to countries suffering from the spread of the coronavirus in camera-friendly moments of health care diplomacy.

Beijing may have moved slowly — too slowly — to share news of the coronavirus with the rest of the world. But in the past month it has moved quickly to offer assistance.

China swiftly stifled information about the virus after its first detection in November by clamping down on doctors and reprimanding those who dared to sound the alarm over what they were seeing in Wuhan. It's quite possible that China is still not giving world leaders and scientists a clear picture of the pandemic and its aftermath, even while China's own investigative reporters work to unearth the truth.

But even as it seeks to keep dissent quiet at home, China's leadership is also seeking to reframe the narrative and turn itself from an agent of obfuscation to a global goodwill ambassador. And by running short on medical supplies for their own people, the United States and the European Union have left an opening for Beijing to deploy coronavirus assistance as a diplomatic tool.

This crisis presented an opportunity for the U.S. and Europe to lead the global fight against this virus. Instead, China was the first to use soft diplomacy via TV-friendly moments. "All my personal hopes are focused on and directed toward China and its president," Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić told China's ambassador to Serbia in mid-March. "We are waiting for our Chinese brothers here. Without you, it turns out that Europe is having difficulty defending itself. We do not hide the fact that we cannot. Without China and our Chinese brothers, we are incapable of doing so."

The Serbian leader went on to say: "European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. I have sent a special letter to the only ones who can help, and that is China."

Serbia's fellow European nation Poland joined it in hailing China's generosity.

"Even though the fight with coronavirus is ongoing in China, they decided to show solidarity with Poland and help our country by providing tests to uncover COVID-19, as well as protective medical gear," said a statement from Poland's Foreign Ministry last month, noting that China would send "20,000 masks, 5,000 protective suits, 5,000 medical goggles, 10,000 single-use medical gloves and 10,000 shoe covers."

In Italy, which has suffered mightily so far as a result of COVID-19, the Chinese flag can be seen on shipments of medical supplies with the slogan: "The friendship road knows no borders.'"

And it is not just Europe where China's virus largesse has been felt.

"Gracias China!!!" Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted on April 1. The message came in response to the donation of medical supplies from charities in China. One week later, the Chinese state-run Xinhua news outlet quoted Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador expressing his gratitude as well.

"Medical equipment and supplies from China are arriving. We very much thank the government of China because it facilitated the acquisition of equipment we didn't have, above all personal protective equipment," López Obrador said.

And, closer to home for Americans, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been vocal about the state's shortage of medical equipment and supplies in his popular daily news conferences. "The Chinese government helped facilitate a donation of 1,000 ventilators that will arrive in JFK today," Cuomo tweeted on April 4. "I thank the Chinese government, Jack Ma, Joe Tsai, the Jack Ma Foundation, the Tsai Foundation and Consul General Huang."

Cuomo's tweet is particularly notable given his public criticism of the Trump administration's handling of the crisis.

This is the same Chinese government that tamped down on whistleblowers, kept the World Health Organization and much of the rest of the world in the dark during critical weeks in December and January, insisted that the disease could be managed and treated, and banned foreign journalists from some of America's most reputable newspapers. If this seems rich in irony, that's because it is. But again, the United States and the European Union created this opening, allowing China and China's surrogates to complicate and rewrite the narrative. And complicate it they have, turning a story of government-enforced silence into one of government-backed generosity. Those who defy the narrative do so at their own peril.

In Iran, the Health Ministry's spokesman stated that China's description of the coronavirus as flu-like but "with even fewer deaths" was a "bitter joke." Iran's official death toll is over 4,600 as of April 14. "If in China they say an epidemic was controlled in two months, one should really think about it," the spokesman, Kianush Jahanpur, said.

A day later, the Iranian government, which also has received Chinese medical supplies, reacted by censuring the minister. Taking to Twitter, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry praised the Chinese government for leading the way "in suppressing coronavirus and generously aiding countries across the world. The Chinese bravery, dedication & professionalism in COVID19 containment deserve acknowledgment." He finished his Tweet with the hashtag #StrongerTogether.

That the Chinese government also suppressed information about the virus at the outset was not mentioned.

The U.S. and Europe, if they wished it, could make a difference here. The U.S. has announced it will offer an additional $225 million in aid to coronavirus-affected countries and is sending more resources to Italy, a move Italy has welcomed. But much more could and should be done by the United States and the European Union to deliver help to countries in need. Trump's controversial decision this week to cut off funding to the World Health Organization may not be the way to go about this.

Without a change, by the time COVID-19 has finished its cruel work devastating entire communities across the globe, the facts of the story may be lost in the gauzy haze of a soft diplomacy campaign designed to render opaque the grim reality of how the crisis began.