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China facing worldwide backlash

Countries pursue origins of coronavirus, recourse for damage by Steven Erlanger The New York Times | May 4, 2020 at 3:10 a.m. | Updated May 4, 2020 at 3:10 a.m.

BRUSSELS -- Australia has called for an inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus. Germany and Britain are hesitating anew about inviting in Chinese tech giant Huawei. President Donald Trump has blamed China for the contagion and is seeking to punish it. Some governments want to sue Beijing for damages and reparations.

Across the globe, a backlash is building against China for its initial mishandling of the crisis that helped loose the coronavirus on the world, creating a deeply polarizing battle of narratives and setting back China's ambition to fill the leadership vacuum left by the United States.

China, never receptive to outside criticism and wary of damage to its domestic control and long economic reach, has responded aggressively, combining medical aid to other countries with harsh nationalist rhetoric and mixing demands for gratitude with economic threats.

The result has only added momentum to the blowback and the growing mistrust of China in Europe and Africa, undermining China's desired image as a generous global actor.

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Even before the virus, Beijing displayed a fierce approach to public relations, an aggressive style called "Wolf Warrior" diplomacy, named after two ultrapatriotic Chinese films featuring the evil plots and fiery demise of American-led foreign mercenaries.

With clear encouragement from President Xi Jinping and the powerful propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party, a younger generation of Chinese diplomats have been proving their loyalty with defiantly nationalist and sometimes threatening messages in the countries where they are based.

"You have a new brand of Chinese diplomats who seem to compete with each other to be more radical and eventually insulting to the country where they happen to be posted," said Francois Godement, a senior adviser for Asia at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne. "They've gotten into fights with every northern European country with whom they should have an interest, and they've alienated every one of them."

Since the virus, the tone has only toughened, a measure of just how serious a danger China's leaders consider the virus to their standing at home, where it has fueled anger and destroyed economic growth, as well as abroad.

In the past several weeks, at least seven Chinese ambassadors -- to the African Union, France, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda -- have been summoned by their hosts to answer accusations ranging from spreading misinformation to the "racist mistreatment" of Africans in Guangzhou, China.

Just last week, China threatened to withhold medical aid from the Netherlands for changing the name of its representative office in Taiwan to include the word Taipei. And before that, the Chinese Embassy in Berlin sparred publicly with the German newspaper Bild after the tabloid demanded $160 billion in compensation from China for damages to Germany from the virus.

Trump said last week that his administration was conducting "serious investigations" into Beijing's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

He has pressed U.S. intelligence agencies to find the source of the virus, suggesting it might have emerged accidentally from a Wuhan weapons lab, although most intelligence agencies remain skeptical. And he has expressed interest in trying to sue Beijing for damages, with the United States seeking $10 million for every American death.

Republicans in the United States have moved to support Trump's attacks on China. Missouri's attorney general, Eric Schmitt, filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to hold Beijing responsible for the outbreak.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, called the suit "frivolous," adding that it had "no factual and legal basis" and "only invites ridicule."

The suit seems to aim less at securing victory in court, which is unlikely, than at prodding Congress to pass legislation to make it easier for U.S. citizens to sue foreign states for damages.

It has been imperative for Xi to turn the narrative around, steering it from a story of incompetence and failure -- including the suppression of early warnings about the virus -- into one of victory over the illness, a victory achieved through the unity of the party.

In the latest iteration of the new Chinese narrative, the enemy -- the virus -- did not even come from China, but from the U.S. military, an unsubstantiated accusation made by China's combative Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian.

A Section on 05/04/2020

Print Headline: China facing worldwide backlash


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