BEIJING’S FIERCE RESPONSE to the call by Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic was both predictable and along predictable lines.
It has threatened an economic boycott of Australian products by Chinese consumers and accused Canberra of being Washington’s pawn. Beijing sees foreign demands for transparency as hostile and subversive. To it, transparency matters less than maintaining domestically the Party’s reputation for competence, one of the underpinnings of its claim on monopoly power. It will not countenance for one minute any risk to that. Political considerations are paramount, as they were in the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan when local officials suppressed early warnings.
A second-order to this is Beijing’s strategic rivalry with Washington. Beijing is attempting to grasp an opportunity to project its diplomatic influence by presenting itself both as having handled the pandemic the better of the two and as being the international leader of the global response, dispatching medics and supplies to the rest of the world. It will not risk an inquiry that could draw conclusions that China had failed to contain the disease early on or had allowed its spread by not curtailing international travel soon enough.
The sensitivities and willingness to strong-arm support were evident in the run-up to the publication of the European External Action Service report that explicitly accused China and Russia of sowing disinformation and distrust over Western nations’ handling of the pandemic and implicitly accused them of deflecting attention from shortcomings in their own responses. The final report was watered down following at least three interventions by Beijing.
However, it was still a sign of how Beijing is finding it more difficult to manage its image internationally than domestically, and how Western perceptions of China’s emergence as a global power are changing. Beijing’s proven formula of a mix of bribes and threats is less effective where it cannot control the flow of information. Hence its new infowars strategy taking a leaf out of Russia’s propaganda book mixed with a dash of US President Donald Trump’s combat tweeting.