When the coronavirus struck China earlier this year, the world sat up and took notice. But there was little sympathy.
Later, when China locked down Wuhan, the world looked on bemused. And, when Beijing brought COVID-19 under control, there was grudging admiration but no overt show of appreciation.
Soon after, when the coronavirus spread to the rest of the world, China was the butt of anger with accusations that it had deliberately allowed COVID-19 to seep through its borders into other countries. The outbreak was blamed on the food-eating habits of the Chinese.
And now, when China is offering help to other nations and transporting much-needed equipment to take on the pandemic, there is no gratitude, only resentment if not suspicion about its motives.
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What is it about China that evokes so much negativity? Despite opening up to the world in 1971 after the famous visit of the then United States President Richard Nixon, China has had to consistently live with bad publicity, especially from the western media which plays a huge role in influencing world opinion including in India.
Take the latest instance where face masks are in short supply. Now that China has turned the corner in its control of the pandemic, it has started making these masks in their millions and transporting them around the world.
US President Donald Trump, unsurprisingly, called the coronavirus the “China virus.” At the same time, he pulled strings in Beijing and got an aircraft carrying millions of face masks, about to take off for France, to divert to the US. For someone who deliberately gave a racist slant to the COVID-19 aggravating taunts and attacks on diasporic Chinese individuals, this act of grabbing the masks meant for someone else speaks volumes of the hypocrisy of the US. You take what you want from the Chinese but bad mouth them in return.
Social media has been flooded with a variety of conspiracy theories of how China manufactured the coronavirus and exported it. It then doused the disease within the country and is now making money and taking control of the rest of the world, goes the theme of these tales of conspiracy.
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If one again considers the latest issue, that of the face masks, the stories going around is that Chinese President Xi Jinping and his clever mandarins are using this as a leverage to get their way on other issues. For instance, the Chinese technology giant Huawei has been in the forefront of 5G technology that will change forever the way the world communicates and functions.
In the mad competition to be first with the technology, by all accounts, Huawei is ahead. It is now waiting to get permission from countries like the United Kingdom, other European countries and India to put the 5G to test. The US, panicking that China has beaten it in the 5G game, has applied pressure on all countries, especially allies like the UK and India not to entertain Huawei’s trials.
This was the situation when the coronavirus struck. Now, the theory is that China is forcing countries not to impede Huawei’s 5G trials in return for all the help that Beijing is providing to fight the pandemic. Many social media groups have been busy discussing, arguing and bad-mouthing China for this supposed misuse of its position. Surprisingly, there is no evidence anywhere that China has indeed done anything of the kind. On the other hand, what one comes across are only speculative reports to this effect.
Ironically, it is the West that makes such brazen threats. Earlier this week, President Donald Trump threatened retaliation if his close ally, the Narendra Modi government, blocked export of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to the US.
New Delhi did as told and the issue was defused. It is another matter that officials of both countries are now trying to pass off Trump’s threat as a minor retort to a question, in an attempt to sanitise it and save a few blushes in the foreign offices of both countries.
The history of animosity between China and the West stems from the Communist revolution in 1949 and the rise of the country as a superpower in the last seven decades. One reason why criticism of China sticks is because it is not a democratic country. From this stems the image of a totalitarian state with little space for free expression. On top of it is the mass sequestering of the Uighur Muslim community in Xinjiang. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) too is controversial as nations that have taken loans from China find themselves stuck and at the mercy of Beijing.
While these are issues on which China finds itself on the defensive, it is also true that the so-called pillars of the “free world” including the US or countries of western Europe can not also hold the torch for democratic rights.
The US prison in Guantanamo Bay, for instance, holding terror suspects is a blight on democratic processes. The innumerable instances of rendition, where those suspected of terrorism were transported by the US covertly to other countries known for extreme torture, is very well-documented. Or, the blanket military support to Saudi Arabia by the US and UK in its bombing of Yemen which has caused a massive humanitarian crisis there. These are but the extreme tip of a gargantuan iceberg reflecting the misdemeanours of the so-called democratic countries. On the economic front, the “dollar diplomacy” of the US is but a precursor to China’s BR Initiative, and equally controversial.
But the dice of publicity is loaded against China. Scouring through mainstream media and social media, one need not be surprised to find little appreciation or admiration in the way China managed to stamp out the coronavirus. Few would know, for instance, that the huge quantities of anti-malarial drugs or the common paracetamol (both of which are reported to help in the treatment of COVID-19) that India makes and exports elsewhere is possible only because the basic drugs to make these come from China at a very low cost.
By the time the coronavirus pandemic subsides, hopefully China will at least get some credit for its positive intervention along with criticism for any mistake that it may have committed. For, it is only fair that the world should work towards a more balanced narrative on the role of the Chinese.