Coronavirus News Asia

Has China lost Europe? – Asia Times

When the China Daily mysteriously appeared on the director’s desk at a Prague government agency one day last month, heads almost rolled in the Czech capital, one employee told me. The director, a young leader with no affinity for China’s worldview, ordered the Communist Party newspaper removed from the premises. Staff members were quizzed on the publication’s provenance and even the mailman was chastised for delivering it.

How did a newspaper with headlines like “Japanese convenience stores ban porn” and “Leg fat better than belly fat for older women” become a point of contention for a civil servant in one of Europe’s strongest democracies? Like many things in Europe these days, everything China touches is being re-evaluated.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, China’s activities in Europe, as elsewhere, attracted far less attention. Ten years ago, as the global financial crisis rippled across the Atlantic, China’s deft handling and timely contribution to the European Financial Stability Facility generated a fair amount of goodwill in European capitals. As recently as last year, public opinion in places like Bulgaria, Greece, Poland and Lithuania was largely favorable.

European Union leaders in Brussels were also smitten. True, there was some concern that Beijing was trying to sow discord and division within the bloc and China was even labeled a “systemic rival” in 2019. But the EU’s main focus remained on trade and investment with Beijing. In other words, many in Europe believed that the benefits of increased engagement with China outweighed the risk.

The global pandemic upended that calculation. China’s poor initial handling of the outbreak – from covering up the virus to punishing whistleblowers – coupled with the overt politicization of aid, put Europe’s ties to China in a less appealing light.

In the Netherlands, Spain and elsewhere, defective Chinese medical equipment delayed containment of the virus, prompting an outcry. Even in Greece, long a pro-China stalwart, Beijing’s favorability began to decline. In a May poll, 44% of the Greek public blamed China for the virus’ spread.

The question now is whether the tarnishing of China’s image will galvanize the EU into adopting a more assertive policy toward its rival. If it does, the result could be a stronger European project and a return of the bloc’s values-based high ground. But if the status quo persists, the EU could become even weaker.

Historically, Brussels has had little sway over member states when it comes to marshaling a united stance against China’s aggressive tactics, from economic statecraft to “elite capture” – the nurturing of personal relationships in a bid to influence pro-China policymaking. While Beijing’s human-rights transgressions in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong have drawn muted condemnation, trade and investment have long trumped liberal ideology.

But now that many believe China’s brand of governance has directly contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world, China can no longer get a free pass.

In some ways, we’re already seeing a more assertive EU. In May, more than 100 politicians from member states signed a letter supporting Taiwan’s bid to attend the World Health Assembly as an observer, drawing a fierce Chinese response.

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