BERLIN — Judging by the propaganda, this really is war.
And China is winning.
As Europe struggles to slow the spread of coronavirus and China begins to show signs that it has put the worst of the outbreak behind it, Beijing is engaging in a not-so-subtle PR campaign.
China’s main strategy is to show that the country that gave birth to the virus (and then covered it up for weeks, allowing it to spread across the globe unhindered) is on the front lines trying to save humanity, while the EU can’t get its act together and the world’s other superpower is busy pointing fingers.
Over the past few days, China has sent planeloads of masks, teams of doctors and even ventilators around the world to help battle the crisis. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma donated one million masks and hundreds of thousands of testing kits to the U.S., with the first load arriving in Seattle on Monday.
“We’ll do whatever we can to help other countries in fighting the COVID-19” — Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the U.N.
“We are doing instead of talking. We are the friends not enemy. Could the American do the same to Chinese?” China’s ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian, tweeted on Monday.
A shipment of 300,000 masks, sent by Chinese charities founded by Ma and his Alibaba empire, arrived in Belgium this week. Chinese state news agency Xinhua published a photograph of one of the containers draped with the slogan “Unity makes strength” in French, Flemish and Chinese.
Though the saying serves as the national motto of both Haiti and Bulgaria, it would appear the Chinese were taking a swipe at a lack of solidarity on display in Europe in recent weeks.
Italy, by far the hardest hit country in Europe so far, has struggled to get supplies and assistance from its EU partners, for example. Maurizio Massari, Italy’s ambassador to the EU, expressed frustration last week over member countries’ failure to heed a European Commission call to send equipment and supplies.
“Unfortunately, not a single EU country responded to the Commission’s call,” he wrote in an op-ed for POLITICO last week. “Only China responded bilaterally. Certainly, this is not a good sign of European solidarity.”
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio rammed home the point by posting a video on Facebook that showed live coverage of a Chinese plane loaded with medical equipment and doctors arriving to help fight the coronavirus.
China’s willingness to help has won Beijing praise from the highest levels.
World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the Chinese-Italian cooperation a “heartwarming example of solidarity” on Twitter.
“A friend in need is a friend indeed,” Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, responded. “We’ll do whatever we can to help other countries in fighting the COVID-19.”
Unlike, say, China’s No. 1 rival.
As China has polished its global image by dispatching supplies to the countries hit hard by coronavirus, U.S. President Donald Trump has faced questions over his reported attempt to secure exclusive American rights to a vaccine under development in Germany.
Though U.S. officials disputed the story, German government representatives insisted it was true and vowed to make any vaccine developed in Germany available to the world.
“European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale” — Aleksandar Vučić, Serbian president
“Viruses don’t have a nationality and neither will the antidote,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said during a national address on Monday in a thinly veiled rebuke of Trump, who has begun referring to coronavirus as “the Chinese Virus.”
Trump’s decision last week to seal U.S. borders to Europeans without first informing the EU also did little to burnish his image. While such moves have become commonplace in recent days, the aggressive manner in which Trump justified the decision (“When they raise taxes on us, they don’t consult us”) confirmed to many Europeans that he has little interest in helping allies.
More surprising is that European countries don’t seem that interested either.
Italy isn’t the only country not feeling the Europe’s love.
Serbia, which is in the midst of the circuitous process to join the EU, complained on Monday that the bloc’s ban on the export of critical medical supplies had left the country in the lurch. President Aleksandar Vučić, a politician not known for hiding his emotions at the best of times, unleashed a torrent of criticism on Brussels.
“By now you all understood that great international solidarity actually does not exist,” he told a news conference. “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale.”
Melodrama aside, China long ago identified Serbia as an important partner in southeastern Europe and has cultivated Vučić for years by making substantial investments in the country.
Vučić often berates the EU for not moving faster on Serbia’s membership application. His critics argue his real goal is to turn his population against the EU because he worries joining the club would threaten his iron grip on power in the country, something authoritarian China welcomes.
Whatever the case, Vučić’s appearance — which went viral on social media — offered a huge win for China’s propaganda machine.
Vučić, his voice dropping into a dramatic semi-whisper, explained that had sent a special appeal to President Xi Jinping, addressing the Chinese leader as his “brother,” because the Chinese “are the only ones who can help us.”
Likely sensing the shift in the PR tide, China has become bolder in recent days in trying to rewrite history, claiming without any evidence that the virus originated not in China, but in the U.S.
“More evidence suggests that the virus was not originated at the seafood market in Wuhan at all, not to mention the so called ‘made in China,'” Lin, the Chinese ambassador, tweeted on Monday, as if to prove the maxim that truth is the first casualty of war.
Trouble is, with the U.S. facing its own credibility issues in recent years, China’s false narrative threatens to spread as quickly as the coronavirus.