What Good Is Chinese Soft Power?

Chinese President Xi Jinping makes statements to the press following his meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece, November 11, 2019. (Aris Messinis/Pool via Reuters)
Silencing whistleblowers, spreading propaganda, and threatening to withhold medications from the West are not ‘soft power.’

The president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas, has been busy writing elegies to the Western world order every time Trump sneezes. Now he sees what will follow that order. This week he tweeted, “US standing taking a hit b/c of how badly we are handling #coronavirus at home & how little we’re doing for others. China, despite its being where the virus began & its dropping the ball at first, gaining influence b/c it is meeting the challenge at home & offering help to others.” A number of suddenly soft-headed analysts are saying the same — that China is increasing its soft power in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

This is dangerous nonsense. Much of it is motivated by a hatred of Donald Trump that extends beyond the legitimate criticisms of how he handled the virus. It rests on grading China on a curve, on admiring the bully and harasser for his occasional moments of charm or remorse.

China has been praised for sending “planeloads” of ventilators to assist Italy when the European Union was blocking medical supplies and ignoring pleas from that country. It is true that ventilators came, but Italy’s hospitals paid for them. China has pretended that fulfilling purchase orders is an act of unprecedented national solidarity. The United States, meanwhile, does real acts of charity without fanfare. As early as the first week of February, the U.S. committed to giving money to countries affected by COVID-19, including China, and sending 17.8 tons of medical supplies to China.

We should see China’s international efforts not as enhancing its credibility and prestige but as a desperate bid to salvage an international reputation from utter ruin. China has been a persistently bad actor in the public-health arena, before and during the initial outbreak. They are also transparent opportunists.

China made its first mistake more than a decade ago. After the outbreak of SARS in 2003, China initially promised to close down its “wet markets,” where exotic animals are slaughtered for human consumption. Chinese consumers eat bats and pangolins for superstitious fad-health reasons. But these markets are a vector for transmitting diseases from bats and other animals to humans. Just one year after a SARS outbreak that panicked East Asia, China reopened these markets despite many warnings from scientists and health authorities that they were a public-health menace to the entire world.

Speaking of those authorities, this crisis has revealed how China has suborned and corrupted the World Health Organization, which, for political reasons, ignored credible warnings about the new coronavirus from doctors in Taiwan and instead credulously repeated statistics from authorities in Beijing, the ones downplaying the extent of the crisis. The World Health Organization delayed calling the virus a health emergency and then criticized U.S. travel restrictions placed on China, without reference to public-health reasoning, only to vague ideology. The WHO was trying to save China its embarrassment. And still, China wouldn’t cooperate transparently with the WHO.

China silenced whistleblowers who tried to warn the world of the emerging disease. It censored news reports until it finally relented and threw tremendous resources at fighting the disease in Wuhan. But experienced and skeptical observers of China are throwing a great deal of cold water on China’s announcements that it has defeated the virus and that work is about to commence again, suggesting that the reported numbers about Wuhan’s infection and death toll could be seriously understated.

Now, during the crisis, China is acting like a bully. The state has threatened to withhold key pharmaceuticals to increase the pain on Americans, saying that without them America will be “plunged into the mighty sea of coronavirus.” Further, China is currently setting restrictions on such American companies as 3M that manufacture medical-grade masks and other safety equipment in China, barring them from exporting these goods from China for use in America and other nations where there is a current shortage. Worst of all, China is actively spreading propaganda that COVID-19 is a bioweapon invented by the U.S. Army. Finally, China has expelled from its territory all American national reporters working for the prestige newspapers of the United States. Say what you will about the New York Times, it has had the best coverage of the coronavirus in the world.

It is true that the Trump administration’s 30-day travel ban on Europe gave an unwelcome surprise to European leaders. And it is true that Trump, certain Republicans, and some conservative outlets spread misinformation in the early days to minimize this crisis. That’s to their eternal discredit. But a measure of real soft power isn’t made by totaling up the credulous statements of foreign-policy mandarins and China-flattering stories in the media. Look at the worldwide lurch for and interest in U.S. dollars.

If the Chinese state had used its massive state capacity to run a minimally functional equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration, there would be no COVID-19 and the world economy would still be humming. If the Chinese state had been minimally honest, the world would have had several weeks longer to prepare. If it had not corrupted the international institutions responsible for world health, we would have been more prepared. And they have the gall to blame the United States military.

COVID-19 is the greatest act of geopolitical arson in six decades. Every journalist and expert praising the pyromaniac for attempting to save himself, blame others, and cover his tracks has made himself contemptible.

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