Virus diplomacy: As outbreak goes global, China seeks to reframe narrative

SINGAPORE/BEIJING (Reuters) – As new coronavirus cases track downward in China, it is looking to burnish its credentials as a responsible power by sharing expertise and equipment with countries seeing a surge in cases and to repair an international image dented by the disease.

China’s diplomats have fanned out to deliver a message that it can control the outbreak and to call on countries to ease travel bans on Chinese people. They have given more than 400 media interviews and published more than 300 articles, according to the foreign ministry.

That outreach, which has included donations of medical gear, is part of an effort to change the narrative after China was criticized for an initially secretive response that exacerbated the early spread of the virus.

Beijing is even disputing the widely held belief that the disease originated in China.

More recently, China has won plaudits for the success of its drastic containment measures, including the virtual lockdown of Hubei province, home to 60 million people, dramatically slowing the increase in new cases even as the epidemic spread globally.

“China is carefully reshaping its image damaged by the outbreak, but the fact that the Chinese government delayed a timely response and led to an international crisis will make the mission almost impossible,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Part of the effort to repair damage is the challenge to the assumption that the virus originated in the central city of Wuhan, in Hubei province, where it has been traced to a market that was illegally selling wildlife.

China is not to blame, it argues.

“Confirmed cases of #COVID19 were first found in China, but its origin is not necessarily in China,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Twitter on Thursday.

“We are still tracing the origin.”

David Ho, a prominent Columbia University AIDS researcher, said the coronavirus almost certainly started in China.

“Given what we know of SARS, and this one, and what we know of all the coronaviruses that are found in other animal species, I have very little doubt that the origin is China,” he said in a recent interview with Voice of America.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was also caused by a coronavirus. It emerged in China to kill 774 people in 2002/03.

More than 98,000 people have been infected by the new coronavirus globally and more than 3,300 people have died, most in China.


China has been increasingly assertive on the global stage under President Xi Jinping, but its hesitant early handling of the coronavirus has threatened to undermine trust in Beijing. With the virus spreading far more quickly outside China than inside, its messaging is now evolving.

While repeatedly accusing the United States of spreading panic about the virus, China has also been describing a challenge facing humanity and offering help to hard-hit countries such as Iran, Italy and South Korea.

Last week, China sent a medical team to Iran along with 250,000 masks and 5,000 test kits packed in boxes bearing a centuries-old verse by the Persian poet Saadi Shirazi: “The children of Adam are the limbs of one body, that share an origin in their creation.”

This week, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, said the outbreak showed the need for a global “Silk Road of Healthcare”, referring to Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure-building program viewed with suspicion in Washington and other western capitals.

“China is trying to showcase to the world its goodwill and friendship by taking a similar approach to its famous ‘panda diplomacy’,” said Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation and an adviser to China’s Cabinet, referring to China’s history of gifting pandas as a grand gesture.

“This medical diplomacy is also trying to improve its negative international image over the past few years,” he said, referring in particular to opposition to the Belt and Road plan.

A global shortage of medical supplies as the virus spikes far from China’s shores gives it an opportunity to show both benevolence and its industrial might.

The city of Shanghai sent half a million face masks to the city of Daegu, the center of South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak. A trade association in Zhejiang province donated 2,600 pairs of protective goggles to the Italian city of Turin.

Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said the fact that other political systems were struggling with the virus presented China with an opportunity.

“It does lend itself to very effective propaganda to be able to say China is now able to help other countries that are perhaps considered more developed,” she said.

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