Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts China’s COVID-19 Diplomacy is Backfiring in Europe
China’s COVID-19 Diplomacy is Backfiring in Europe

China’s COVID-19 Diplomacy is Backfiring in Europe

According to China’s embassy in Paris, France is failing the test of the COVID-19 crisis. Employees at French nursing homes are collectively abandoning their jobs leaving retirees to die of hunger, unlike in China, where exemplary lockdown measures beat the virus, the argument goes. And China’s foreign ministry spokesperson tweets a fake story of Romans blasting the Chinese national anthem from their balconies to thank Beijing for its support.

China’s propaganda efforts in Europe have reached a new level, but are they working?

European perception of China has been positive for a long time. China’s break-neck economic rise is admired. Some politicians deplore losing industry jobs to China. But on the whole, European governments have viewed the People’s Republic as a land of opportunity for their businesses and an ally for a strengthened multilateral and rules-based world order.

Trust in Beijing was so high that the European Union (EU) even invited China’s state-owned companies to invest in the continent’s trade and energy infrastructure during the Eurozone crisis. That China was no democracy and had no rule of law did not pose a problem. After all, the country was in the midst of a breathtaking economic and social transformation.

China was paternalistically viewed as a teenager that had not yet graduated: One should provide love, time, and the benefit of the doubt to lure the country into the family of advanced nations. But Europeans are having second thoughts—and China’s diplomats are the problem.

Rival and Partner

The fact that Chinese companies are moving up the value-chain is not the main story here. Of course, Europe’s business establishment now sees China as a threat, not just as a reserve of cheap labor. The European Commission labelled China as an “economic competitor” in a strategy paper published in spring 2019.

China’s refusal to become a Western-style democracy or a fully-fledged market economy is not the problem, either. Europe has come to accept China for what it is and acknowledges its success. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that Europe has to face a “rivalry between systems” with China. “China has managed to become economically successful. That’s different to what we experienced during the Cold War,” Merkel has said, pointing to the Soviet Union’s economic failure.

For Berlin and Paris, this does not mean pursuing Trump’s strategy of isolating China. Sure, the EU is monitoring Chinese investments in Europe and wants to tighten international trade rules on state-subsidies. But it doesn’t want a tariff war. “One can develop a partnership between competitors. This must be based on reciprocity, on adherence to certain rules,” Merkel told the Financial Times in a recent interview.

American Power Politics

But over the last months, Europeans are getting the sense that China is not that interested in a partnership built on mutual respect. Instead, Beijing is increasingly perceived to mimic Moscow and Washington in its dealings with Europe.

Indeed, over the past year, Chinese diplomacy has left its usual reserve behind. In the spat over the construction of Europe’s 5G network, the Chinese embassies in Berlin and Paris publicly threatened retaliation should Huawei’s involvement be excluded or limited. “Could German cars be deemed unsafe by Chinese authorities?” Beijing’s ambassador said at an event hosted by Germany’s biggest business newspaper.

This approach causes consternation in Europe. Worse, it doesn’t help Beijing. It makes it difficult for European politicians to argue credibly that Huawei is to be trusted, as it is not a state-owned company. And it makes it impossible to argue that China will refrain from using economic instruments for geopolitical goals, as in the 5G debate it openly does that.

Beijing reveals itself to be no different from Washington. Of course, power politics has always been the name of the game. But China’s decision to play it publicly is an own-goal. European leaders have to answer to parliaments and win elections. In Germany, the aggressive communication of China’s embassy helped the opposition to Huawei in the German Bundestag gain real traction in the first place.

Taking a Page from the Russian Playbook

Moreover, Europeans are amazed that China has entered the world of fake news and political destabilization, more usually practiced by Moscow.

Beijing’s embassy in Paris likes Twitter posts accusing French mainstream media outlets of spreading white supremacist propaganda. In a post published on April 12, the embassy alleged a group of French parliamentarians offended the director of the World Health Organization (WHO) with a racist slur. The same post argues Europe’s leaders underestimated the crisis because they thought the virus could only affect Asians. French journalists are decried as “liars” without a conscience for questioning China’s official COVID-19 case numbers.

Such allegations do not go unnoticed. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned China’s ambassador and condemned the April 12 statements as “not conforming with the quality of our bilateral relationship.” President Emmanuel Macron reposted in an interview this week with the Financial Times saying it was impossible to tell whether China managed the crisis well since the country has no press freedom.

And in Germany, the normally relatively China-friendly foreign policy establishment is turning hawkish. Suddenly, economic decoupling from China has become a theme and Beijing is viewed as a bad actor trying to undermine trust in democracy and society, similar to the Kremlin. Frustration with China’s COVID-19 aggressive public diplomacy even provoked the editor-in-chief of Germany’ biggest tabloid Bild to publish an open letter to General Secretary Xi Jinping, entitled “You are endangering the world,” on April 17. China’s embassy in Berlin had previously criticized Bild for its questioning of Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Moreover, Europeans feel tricked. When the EU sent medical protective gear to China in January, Beijing asked Europeans to keep a low profile. China today advertises its aid shipments to European countries all over social media. Not exactly returning the favor. And it doesn’t help that the medical gear China sends doesn’t always meet quality tests.

Of course, Beijing wants to tell its side of the crisis story. And Europeans oppose crude China-bashing, such as U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to label COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” in a G7 statement. But Beijing’s European diplomats are doing their country a disfavor. The public power politics is clumsy at best. The disinformation policy via official channels is backfiring. In Europe, Beijing’s assurances it was no imperialist power was for a long time given the benefit of the doubt. No more.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.