Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2020-9):
The Novel Coronavirus Outbreak and Its Political/Economic Impact on China (Continued)

LI Hao (Research Fellow, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)
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The author released a short paper in early March 2020 on China's reaction to the spread of novel coronavirus infections, but circumstances have since progressed to a new stage. A pandemic of historic proportions has broken out, and the spread of infections has been relentless even in the Western countries that initially looked upon China coolly. The numbers of infections and deaths in the US in particular have significantly surpassed those in China, making the US the most infected country in the world. At the same time, China continues to contain the spread of infections, and appears to be moving toward resuming economic activities. Nevertheless, there are numerous issues that still need to be addressed. This paper will briefly examine the novel coronavirus situation in China since March.

Successful containment and several problems

China imposed strict city lockdowns and restrictions on movement nationwide in an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The results have been apparent, with the number of infections in China clearly being brought under control. On March 10, Xi Jinping made a long-awaited inspection visit of Wuhan, where he praised local medical personnel and residents combatting the illness as heroes. As a triumphant mood takes hold, economic activities have been steadily resumed in various regions, and the Wuhan shutdown was finally lifted on April 8. A new date of May 22 was announced for the previously postponed National People's Congress. Victory may soon be declared in the fight with the novel coronavirus. Although the initial responses were slow, the potent containment measures taken thereafter have fundamentally succeeded. However, several serious problems remain.

The novel coronavirus has now spread worldwide, and large numbers of infected persons entering China from overseas have been observed since March. As of April 26, there were 380 infected persons in the city of Suifenhe in Heilongjiang Province on the Chinese-Russian border. China has tightened its immigration controls in an effort to prevent the virus being brought in across its borders, and any breach of these controls would increase the risk of reigniting the spread of infections. Patients who have not yet fully recovered as well as asymptomatic infectees have been discovered on a daily basis, so China cannot be said to have completely contained the virus. With no vaccine available for the novel coronavirus, there is always the fear of a second wave of infections.

The economic circumstances have also been trying. China's gross domestic product (GDP) posted an unprecedented -6.8% growth rate for the first quarter, a clear indication of serious damage. It goes without saying, however, that infections could begin rising again if social distancing is not maintained after economic activities resume.

Manning the front lines in the fight against the novel coronavirus and in the resumption of economic activities are local governments. These two political issues are at odds with each other, but neither of them allows for failure. Local governments are compelled to steer a difficult course. More than a few locales are hesitant to take steps to stimulate their economies, fearing a renewed spread of infections. The Xi Jinping administration is, of course, hoping to achieve a V-shaped economic recovery by the end of this year, but it is unclear to what degree this can be achieved.

Another key point for the Xi administration is that the critical review of responses to the novel coronavirus outbreak poses a potential problem. Xi has engaged in a propaganda campaign to put the onus on leading local officials and to portray himself leading the response from the front, and it does seem for the time being that this appeal has met with a degree of success. Once the outbreak settles down, however, it is always possible that the country's sluggish first response will be dredged back up. During the SARS epidemic, the newly inaugurated Hu Jintao administration blamed its political opponents for the problems that plagued the country's response and successfully boosted its own standing by making information more transparent. As is well known, though, the Xi administration has created a highly centralised structure unlike that of the Hu administration during the SARS epidemic, and Xi's leadership on a variety of policy issues has been firmly established. It is questionable if Xi can get away with shifting responsibility for any mishandling of coronavirus responses to local officials under such a structure. This issue is in flux, connected as it is to the strength of Xi's individual authority and the situation of domestic power struggle. For the moment at least, it does not appear that Xi's position has been destabilised.

Foreign policy becomes the main theatre of battle

The spread of the novel coronavirus has become a global issue. The world is in the midst of a pandemic, and infections continue to spread across most major countries. Having been able to get a head start in halting the spread of infections, China has begun pursuing a more active foreign policy.

The Xi administration has from the outset pursued a foreign policy characterised first and foremost by a sense of national greatness, and it has assumed a similar posture in its responses to the novel coronavirus. China has been insisting that it should earn the respect of countries around the world for its help and that it deserves their thanks. However, this active diplomacy has led to a number of problems.

One especially serious problem is the growing criticism of China by the US. Continued outbreaks of infections in New York State and elsewhere has put the US in dire straits. The Trump administration did not necessarily regard these infections as a grave crisis initially but, as the situation has worsened, it has openly begun demanding that China be held responsible. Particular attention has become focused on the dispute over the source of the novel coronavirus. Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was criticised for posting online a conspiracy theory that the US military might have brought the virus into China, with Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai dismissing the statement as a "crazy" remark. For its part, the US government has begun investigating the possibility that the virus might have leaked out of a virology lab in Wuhan. The controversy has thus left the realm of science and entered that of politics.

A key element in the US' criticism of China is the relationship between the World Health Organization (WHO) and China. The gist of this critique is that the WHO's China-friendly posture kept it from issuing adequate warnings to other countries about the danger posed by the virus, exacerbating the calamity. The WHO, and in particular Director-General Tedros Adhanom, are now widely seen as having been overly sensitive to China's position in responding to the crisis. While it cannot be conclusively determined at the moment whether the WHO was excessively pro-Chinese and whether that attitude hindered appropriate responses to the virus, it is both a fact and a serious problem that the political stance and capabilities of WHO, the international community's most important public health institution, are now widely held in suspicion.

The countries of Europe, emphasising their relations with China, have heretofore refrained from such criticism, but major European countries like Germany, France, the UK have in recent days begun voicing dissatisfaction with China. Several problems have also arisen in that China's coronavirus diplomacy toward Europe.

First, more than a few of the masks and medical equipment imported from China have been found defective. China claimed that these countries had simply imported goods that did not meet their standards and stepped up quality control of its own exports, but this move appears belated. There has been mishandling during this emergency in providing goods required to meet extremely tight quality standards, creating anxiety and mistrust among European governments.

It has also been reported that China has asked governments receiving Chinese assistance to offer public expressions of their gratitude. Mutual expressions of thanks and closer cooperation are essential for states helping each other out, but a donor country demanding that a recipient country openly declare its appreciation is not a basis on which a sound relationship can be built. Viruses respect no borders, but it must be borne in mind that there is a deeply-rooted view in some countries that China's slow first response turned the coronavirus catastrophe into one global in scale. China seemingly intended for its assistance and the gratitude therefor to enhance its image domestically and abroad, but an outside observer can easily understand that this approach will not win the country respect in the true sense.

In addition, some diplomats, who should by all rights be working closely with governments of other countries to deepen cooperation, have engaged in criticism of the West's responses to the novel coronavirus that has prompted outcry. These apparently arrogant words and deeds are themselves a major issue.

Closer to home, the problem of discrimination against Africans in Guangzhou cannot be ignored. In mid-April, more than 100 African residents of Guangzhou were confirmed to have been infected with the novel coronavirus, sparking frequent instances of discriminatory behaviour toward African residents. This developed into a diplomatic problem when the African Union conveyed its concerns to China, and China has promised to actively address this problem. Discrimination against persons of Asian heritage became a problem in many countries when the novel coronavirus first began to spread. Discrimination against Africans in Guangzhou is reaffirming the universal nature of the problem of racial discrimination surfacing in the wake of disasters and epidemics. 

As noted above, China's coronavirus diplomacy, in particular its public diplomacy, has not been as effective as hoped. China is seeking to provide the world with assistance and hold itself out as a respected major power. However, its over-the-top propaganda campaigns and the inconsiderate words and deeds of its diplomatic officials cannot help but give other countries a negative impression. Perhaps out of awareness of this, Xi Jinping has had frequent telephone conversations with the leaders of more than 20 countries during the pandemic, expressing his solidarity with them and promising aid and cooperation. Nonetheless, the influence of any single national leader is limited. China's image as a nation will depend on interactions in the diplomatic arena and at the corporate, personal and other microlevels.

Japan-China political relations have been improving, and China has been almost entirely positive in its reporting and statements on Japan-China cooperation. Government officials in Japan have also avoided criticising China. However, with Xi's official state visit to Japan postponed and the Japanese government exceedingly busy dealing with rising infection numbers in Japan, the media's reporting on China's active diplomacy has had a certain impact on public opinion as well. It is unclear whether the momentum toward closer relations between Japan and China can be restored.

The spread of the novel coronavirus has thrust to the forefront universal questions regarding restrictions on freedom and human rights. China continues to enjoy success in containing the coronavirus by limiting people's freedom of movement and employing new technologies to track people's behaviour and assess infection risks. China has been touting its own achievements, linking them to the superiority of its hardline approaches. Liberal democracies are now seeing their own governance capabilities being tested by the pandemic as they strive to prevent the spread of infections, provide welfare, restore economic activities and otherwise protect people's livelihoods and lives.


LI Hao, "The Novel Coronavirus Outbreak and Its Political/Economic Impact on China", The Japan Institute of International Affairs, March 13, 2020 (

(Dated May 14, 2020)