CJ Werleman looks at the international conspiracy theories being thrown around about the Coronavirus and how the Chinese Communist Party is using the pandemic to further its geopolitical goals.
COVID-19 is not a “Wuhan Flu” and nor are Chinese cultural habits to blame for the outbreak of the virus. If China is to be blamed for the Coronavirus, then the cultural practices of the United States should also be blamed for the Spanish Flu; Jordan for MERS, and Mexico for the Swine Flu, which is patently absurd given that viruses don’t make distinctions between borders and people.
We know from recent history, and the present day, that holding distinct groups of people responsible for societal ills and economic crises can end with concentration camps and mass graves. The spike in hate crimes against Chinese people and those perceived to be Chinese over the Coronavirus outbreak emphasises the dangers of stigmatizing the foreign or ‘other’.
That said, a healthy level of justifiable anger can be held towards the Chinese Communist Party (CCP ), one of the most repressive and brutal regimes in the world, for the way in which it tried to cover-up the initial outbreak – lying to World Health Organisation Inspectors and propagating conspiracy theories blaming Western countries.
None of this, of course, absolves the way in which Western democracies – including the US and the UK – have failed to protect their citizens and economies with meaningful and early-implemented measures, despite enjoying the benefit of weeks and months of advance notice that the Coronavirus was on its way.
The way the CCP exploited the gap between its knowledge of the virus and that of Western governments in marshalling its state-backed billionaires to buy, ship and hoard medical supplies – even as other countries were already gripped by the pandemic – should also cause anger. When the CCP had the city of Wuhan under lockdown, it ordered the Greenland Group, a Chinese-controlled Fortune 500 company, to amass as much medical equipment and supplies as possible in Australia, Canada, Turkey and elsewhere. In the months of January and February, the company covertly raided these countries of face masks, gloves, hand sanitiser, antibacterial wipes, non-contact forehead thermometers, over-the-counter pain medications, and hazmat suits and then shipped them to China, according to an investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald.
Now that China has the spread of the virus reportedly under control (if the CCP can be believed), it is now selling surplus medical supplies to COVID-19 distressed companies for a profit. Last week, Spain procured $467 million worth of medical supplies – including masks and gloves – from China, which has also shipped similar quantities to Argentina, Italy, and other European countries.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” writes Dimitar Bechev, a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Centre. “There is no better illustration than the medical supplies and crews of doctors China has been supplying to Italy and other European countries battling COVID-19. Beijing does carry a large share of the blame for the global pandemic… but now it seeks to shape the narrative of the crisis unfolding before our eyes.”
With the legitimacy of the CCP and its leader, Xi Jinping, under threat by growing perceptions among the Chinese people that the Government has mishandled the crisis in making a dire situation worse, the party has begun peddling conspiracy theories that the virus emerged from overseas – including claims the COVID-19 was manufactured by the US Government and planted by CIA operatives working within China.
Blaming others for the Coronavirus crisis is also part of Beijing’s strategy to project soft power, with the aim of wooing traditional US allies into its sphere of influence. Essentially, the CCP is giving out the message that moral responsibility for the pandemic doesn’t lie with it, that it is the fault of others, and that only it can take a leadership role in the world as the economies of the US and Europe crumble.
To that end, Beijing is testing the US’ longstanding Monroe Doctrine, which opposes any form of imperialism or colonialism in the Western hemisphere – other than its own – by using the virus as an opportunity to establish new alliances in South America.
“China’s aid to Latin America reflects a broader global trend, as Beijing looks to steer the narrative away from being the country where the Coronavirus started and was initially downplayed,” observes Reuters. “Instead, China wants to be seen as a spearheading the global fight against the pandemic.”
In trying to absolve itself of moral responsibility for having initially covered-up the outbreak by blaming foreign countries, immigrants in China’s major cities are now faced with a fresh wave of discrimination. Last week, when China’s Justice Ministry rolled out a draft law that would allow the dependents of immigrants to apply for permanent residency, government and social media sites were hit with a wave of racism and xenophobia. The hashtag “China is Not an Immigrant Country” received 4.8 billion views.
Immigrants are being targeted offline, too, with a large number of hotels now reportedly refusing foreign guests, while some expatriates have been denied access to their own apartments by buildings’ security personnel. There are also widespread reports that a great number of restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai are now displaying signs forbidding foreigners.
“As Chinese officials blame the outside world for the Coronavirus, this treatment is likely to only get worse – and residing in the country is likely to become more difficult,” observes James Palmer, a long-time resident of China and columnist for Foreign Policy.
Others have said that the Coronavirus marks the official start date of a new Cold War between China and the Western world, a claim that holds some merit given Beijing’s recent purge of foreign journalists and academics.
While none of this lends support to erroneous conspiracies claiming that COVID-19 was manufactured by the CCP to elevate its standing in a US-dominated international system, there’s no arguing that the CCP is cynically using the devastating affects of the virus to its geopolitical advantage.