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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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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.

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.

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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