When the coronavirus epidemic began attracting international attention three months ago, the strength of the Chinese state was in full display. Beijing implemented unimaginable mass quarantines while official media channels showcased the country’s ability to construct large new hospitals in record time. Since then, the inward-looking narrative has shifted to one where Beijing has pursued a more aggressive public relations campaign to address growing racism against Chinese citizens abroad and numerous rumours alleging that China intentionally created and spread the virus.
In shipping masks, gloves and other essential medical equipment to large parts of the word through its so-called “mask diplomacy”, Chinese leaders, and business tycoons such as Jack Ma, have been widely praised. And many African leaders have publicly thanked China for not forgetting them in their hour of need. Despite initial predictions by some that the epidemic would weaken the regime, and more recent allegations of underreporting of actual number of coronavirus-related deaths, both the Communist Party and its undisputed leader Xi Jinping appear to have weathered the storm. At least for the time being. Lockdowns are gradually being lifted all over the country and the economy is being restarted, albeit cautiously.
China’s role and influence will only increase in a post-Covid-19 world. In explaining its economic success and the crucial role it now plays in the global supply chain, Beijing has gone at great lengths to project itself as the posterchild of globalisation. The status of the United States as a global leader is under threat. China, on the other hand, is well-placed to reap the benefits of its development diplomacy that emphasises experience-sharing between developing countries and economic self-reliance under the umbrella of South-South Cooperation. It’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative – which funds roads, ports and telecommunications projects all over the world – is also popular in many low-income countries.
China’s role and influence in global affairs has been growing for the past couple of decades. Who will risk discontinuing their already deep ties with, and dependency on, China? Very few, I think. But I may be wrong. While the global crisis caused by the coronavirus has temporarily damaged its international reputation, China will bounce back strongly by virtue of its support for globalisation and its long-term policy of cultivating close diplomatic and business relations with large parts of the world.But Beijing must also be more consistent in its policy priorities and ensure that its massive infrastructure investments are environment-friendly and address local interests. Beijing must also show patience and restraint to combat growing distrust. But when all is said and done, China’s global role and influence will continue to expand. What do you think?