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China’s response to coronavirus criticism is diplomatic ‘charmless’ offensive

Chinese President Xi Jinping. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File

China is facing a lot of criticism as political leaders from around the world have demanded transparency from Beijing about the origins of the virus and why it chose not to share information about it in a timely fashion.

And there are a lot of questions.

A groundbreaking investigation by Sam Cooper of Global News found that before China informed the world of the potential lethality of the novel coronavirus in late January, it told embassies and consulates around the world to secretly buy up all the personal protective equipment they could.

READ MORE: United Front groups in Canada helped Beijing stockpile coronavirus safety supplies

In the face of reports like this, you might expect China to be responding with a diplomatic charm offensive. Instead, China’s response has been more of a “charmless” offensive.

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When Australia’s foreign minister called for a global inquiry into what China knew about the brewing pandemic, China’s response, from its ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, was to question trade relations between the two countries: “Why should we drink Australian wine? Why eat Australian beef?”

Hu Xijin, editor of the Communist Party newspaper Global Times, caused a sensation in Australia when he reportedly said the country had become “a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes.” 

Beijing’s diplomacy comes with distinctive characteristics. Among the actions it has taken in recent weeks has been to send more warships into the South China Sea and to demand that Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia adhere to a ban it is imposing this summer on fishing around atolls far out to sea there, which it brazenly claims for itself.

However, an international court has ruled its military annexation of these waters was an illegal territorial grab.

In one of the most outlandish recent claims, Zhao Lijian, chief spokesman for China’s foreign minister, alleged last month that the virus had its origins in the U.S., not China, though he did not provide a jot of information to support such a highly charged claim.

Click to play video: 'China asked Chinese nationals to help stockpile PPE' China asked Chinese nationals to help stockpile PPE
China asked Chinese nationals to help stockpile PPE – Apr 30, 2020

The Global News report found that China secretly stockpiled PPE and other medical supplies, leaving many countries, including Canada, with limited supplies of PPE.

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The conduits for the purchases were diplomats, state-owned companies, and “overseas Chinese” working on behalf of the shadowy, state-controlled United Front. They were to buy up more than two billion face masks and other medical safety gear.

In all, about 100 tons of such kit were quietly spirited out of Canada.

China’s action explains why, when I went to a dozen pharmacies in Toronto and Ottawa in early February to buy face masks for a trip to Japan, I could not find one for sale, though there was barely any discussion among Canadians at the time about the need to buy such gear.

Still, a constant theme of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has been that Canadians should be gentle in their criticisms of China so as not to provoke racism.

China has been angry with Canada for a while. Back in December 2018, a Canadian judge ordered that Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the founder of the Huawei telecoms giant, remain in Vancouver while a court decides whether she should be extradited to the U.S. to face serious fraud charges.

Beijing hit Canada with a ban on canola, pork and beef imports. China’s ambassador to Ottawa at the time, Lu Shaye, accused the West of “egotism and white supremacy.”

He justified this by saying Canada had not shown respect for Chinese law after China jailed former Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in December 2018.

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READ MORE: Chinese government report warns of armed confrontation with U.S. over coronavirus outbreak

The leaders of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Australia and the U.S. have demanded transparency from Beijing about the origins of the virus and why China chose not to share information about it in a timely fashion.

Finding incontrovertible evidence of what China knew and when would be difficult. Beijing has said it won’t cooperate. But as Cooper’s scoop for Global News demonstrates, there should be enough evidence available for governments to stitch together a reasonably strong, factual narrative.

Such investigations will likely lead to greater scrutiny of Chinese trade threats against countries that have called for inquiries into Beijing’s role in initially suppressing information about the virus.

It could also eventually result in greater western scrutiny of China’s mistreatment of democratic protesters in Hong Kong and ethnic minorities such as Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans.

READ MORE: Calls for probe into China’s coronavirus response mount — will Canada take part?

It has become tiresome to hear defenders of the Canadian government say that it cannot join other western countries in taking a tough stance on China because President Xi Jinping’s government holds the “Two Michaels.”

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While certainly a complicating factor, it conveniently ignores the fact that a cabal of Canada’s pro-China diplomats, business leaders and retired politicians has taken a far softer line on China than most western countries since long before the Michaels were abducted.

Many developments are not trending in China’s favour at the moment. Tens of millions have lost their jobs. Its economy has already contracted at least 6.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2020.

There has been another consequence of the coronavirus that threatens China’s economic future and reputation. Xi’s much-touted Belt and Road Initiative, which was designed to gain access to raw materials through building massive infrastructure projects and to take control of key ports in Asia, eastern and southern Europe, Latin America and especially Africa, was a huge bet that may now have lost its momentum and mojo.

At least five African countries have called China’s ambassadors on the carpet to explain why their citizens have been banned from their homes and shopping districts in China because of fears that they may be carriers of the virus.

Far worse than that for China, it is unlikely that impoverished African countries faced with their own COVID-19 crises will be able to repay a substantial portion of the US$143 billion a Johns Hopkins University study says they owe to Beijing.

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Predictably, China went crazy when Germany’s best selling newspaper, Bild, demanded China pay Berlin $160 billion for the havoc the virus had caused to Germany’s economy. President Trump has mused about charging China US$10 million in reparations for every American who was killed by the virus.

With more than 68,000 Americans having already died from the virus, that would be a staggering amount of money.

Click to play video: 'Beijing denies Trump’s claim that China wants him to lose re-election' Beijing denies Trump’s claim that China wants him to lose re-election
Beijing denies Trump’s claim that China wants him to lose re-election – Apr 30, 2020

The size of such compensation claims is ludicrous. But such tempests speak to the current international mood.

Ottawa has become an outlier in that it has had barely a harsh word to say about China throughout this tragic drama. It also seems incapable of making up its mind about whether to ban Huawei’s 5G cell phone technology, despite advice from its military and security establishments to do so.

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Australia has banished the new Huawei system because it could be used to conduct espionage. Germany and Britain are reconsidering their decisions to allow some pieces of Huawei’s technology into their country. Japan has created a $2.2-billion fund to try to get Japanese corporations to bring their factories back home or move them to other countries.

It has suddenly dawned on the West that there has been an over-reliance on trade with China. There is talk in many capitals now about the need to greatly diminish dependence on Chinese products, particularly in areas related to national security and public health.

At some point, Canada will have to stop admiring “China’s basic dictatorship,” as Justin Trudeau infamously once put it, and join its European, Asian and American allies in forging a common position on China that reflects the emerging post-COVID realities.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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