China's virus diplomacy: global saviour or 'Wolf Warrior'?

Beijing (AFP) –


China has played two roles in the global battle against the coronavirus: a benevolent donor of aid, filling the US void, and combative superpower ready to bite back at critics.

Gone are the days of low-profile diplomacy promoted by late leader Deng Xiaoping, who said Beijing should "hide your strength, bide your time".

Attitudes have changed under President Xi Jinping, who has pushed an increasingly confident policy abroad since taking office in 2012.

The country has become even more assertive this year in the face of attacks over its handling of the pandemic, which started on its shores in December.

Beijing has sent planeloads of medical equipment abroad, pledged $2 billion in international aid to combat COVID-19 and offered to make its potential vaccine available to all.

The strategy is in line with China's use of its economic might to win friends on the world stage, with Xi's signature Belt and Road global infrastructure programme also expanding its influence abroad.

"Chinese aid, like other countries, is part of its soft power and also has commercial and political aims," Jocelyn Chey, a former Australian diplomat and visiting professor at the University of Sydney, told AFP.

The policy has been successful in China's battle for influence with self-ruled Taiwan and in securing support against criticism of its treatment of Muslim minorities in far-western Xinjiang, Chey said.

But mixed with its generosity is a new-found readiness to tussle with geopolitical adversaries including the United States, Australia and France.

It's a risky PR battle.

- 'Wolf Warrior' -

Foreign minister Wang Yi summed up China's attitude in a press conference on Sunday.

"We never pick a fight or bully others, but at the same time, we have principles and guts," he said. "We will surely fight back against any malicious slander to defend national honour and dignity."

Since last year Beijing has unleashed a pack of "Wolf Warrior" diplomats who use Twitter to vociferously defend and promote the Communist-led country -- while ignoring the irony that the platform is banned in mainland China.

The monicker comes from the title of a blockbuster Chinese film about a Rambo-like special forces soldier who takes on foreign mercenaries.

A prominent member of the "wolf" pack, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has raised eyebrows by promoting conspiracy theories that the US army may have brought the virus to China.

President Donald Trump has also provided easy fodder for nationalist sentiment in China by calling the pandemic the "Chinese virus" and pushing ideas that it originated in a lab in the city of Wuhan.

Relations between the two countries were already wounded by a bruising trade war, and Wang has warned that some US political forces are pushing them "to the brink of a new Cold War".

"After Trump came to power, China has been unable to evade the repressive policies he has adopted against China and can no longer keep its low profile," Hua Po, a Beijing-based independent political commentator, told AFP.

- 'Uphill battle' -

The United States has not been the only target of Beijing's ire.

In Australia, the Chinese ambassador threatened a consumer boycott of the country's products after Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origins and spread of the coronavirus.

China's ambassador to Paris was summoned by the French foreign ministry last month over a message on the embassy's website that criticised the Western response to the pandemic.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said Monday that the 27-nation bloc must adopt a "more robust" strategy against the Asian giant.

"China is getting more powerful and assertive and its rise is impressive and triggers respect, but also many questions and fears," Borrell said in a speech to German ambassadors.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said Beijing's foreign policy is driven first by the interests of the ruling Communist Party and its priority to stay in power, especially with the COVID-19 crisis testing faith in authorities.

"The aggressive propaganda and the 'wolf-warrior diplomacy' have turned many in the West against China, but this is just a price to be paid for a much more important objective of China's policy," Tsang said.

While it might prove popular at home, winning friends on the international stage could be harder.

Zhiqun Zhu, political science professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said China "faces an uphill battle to improve its international image".

"I don't think China has won the PR battle since China's soft power is weak and its narrative is largely shrugged off as official propaganda," he said.