Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Covid has woken the world up to the threat that China poses

The People’s Republic of China has never faced as dire an image problem as it currently does. Covid-19 has suddenly woken up much of the world to the threat that the Chinese regime poses to humanity. And it’s high time, since it has been taking the world for a ride for far too long.

Three factors have led to the unmasking of China. One, supreme leader Xi Jinping began disregarding Deng Xiaoping’s wily advice to “hide your capacities and bide your time; maintain a low profile; and never claim leadership", because he perhaps believed that the shi was upon him—that mystical alignment of the forces of history that Chinese leaders since ancient times have waited for to make momentous moves. Two, a blunt instrument called Donald Trump came to power in the US. And three, a virus jumped from bat to man.

Today, despite initial furious opposition from China, 116 countries have passed a motion for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus epidemic. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) reputation has taken a beating. We have all seen the circumstantial evidence that suggests that the WHO, under Chinese pressure, soft-pedalled the crisis till it had no option but to sound the alarm. But consider this: Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan is one of the WHO’s “goodwill ambassadors". A singer-superstar entirely created by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), she now holds the rank of major general in the PLA.

The way China’s response to the world’s accusations has evolved over the last couple of months has been quite revelatory. First came its vociferous denials, and when that did not work, the country tried to present itself as a noble global health player. Unfortunately, many of the testing kits it supplied to Europe proved to be faulty. It also came to light that Chinese state-backed companies had started stockpiling medical supplies—surgical masks, thermometers, antibacterial wipes, gloves, hand sanitizers—quietly from many countries soon after Wuhan was struck by the virus and the world was still in the dark about the seriousness of the threat.

When Trump started talking about the “Chinese virus", China tried to spread a rumour that the pathogen had actually been planted in China by the US. This didn’t stick, except perhaps with the world’s remaining communists and, to use MAD magazine’s immortal phrase, “the usual bunch of idiots". It has now begun resorting to naked intimidation. For instance, since Australia has been one of the prime movers of the call for the investigation, Beijing banned beef imports from four Australian producers, imposed 80% tariffs on Australian barley, and is now threatening to take similar action on the country’s wine and dairy products. Chinese state mouthpiece Global Times plumbed new depths when, in an editorial, it quoted an unnamed Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) user likening Australia to a “giant kangaroo that serves as a dog of the US".

Scanning the headlines of Global Times editorials over the past month is both educative and entertaining. Here’s an assortment in ascending chronological order: “China rectifies death toll based on facts, unaffected by Western noise", “(German newspaper) Bild editor sells soul attacking China’s virus record", “(US secretary of state Mike) Pompeo betrays Christianity with lies" (my personal favourite), “To safeguard national security, it is time for China to build up nuclear deterrent", “It’s US that fears probe on virus origin".

On 19 May, it carried an editorial headlined “India’s attempt to replace China (in the global industrial supply chain) is self-righteous", whatever that means. The piece goes on to say: “Fundamentally speaking, India’s indulgence in its manufacturing prosperity illusion is partly derived from a rise in nationalism at home." Clearly, China’s vast talent pool finds it easier to master artificial intelligence than the English language.

Meanwhile, Chinese troops have escalated tensions at the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh and north Sikkim. And Nepal’s communist Prime Minister K.P. Oli, on what seems like Beijing’s instigation, has redrawn the country’s map to claim some Indian territory. But the Narendra Modi government has never suffered from any illusions about the Chinese menace to India’s interests and ambitions. It refused to join the Belt and Road Initiative. During the Doklam stand-off of 2017, it stayed resolute on the ground and civil in its diplomacy, and gave no quarter.

Suddenly, we now see China flailing about, oscillating between whining, petulant posturing and outright bullying. The image it has tried so cleverly to build for decades—responsible global player, reliable trade partner—has been blown to pieces. Beijing has been revealed as a muscled-up Uriah Heep, a duplicitous and malevolent regime. Though I always found it incredible that any intelligent observer could have ever believed otherwise, one hopes that good sense will prevail now. If that happens, it could be a very significant positive effect of the covid epidemic. But not, sadly, for the Chinese people. Having lost face out in the world, Xi may turn even more repressive at home.

Sandipan Deb is former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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