Even before the coronavirus pandemic, China was no stranger to the spotlight. The “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) had already raised the issue of the country’s global engagement. In compliance with the traditional concept of 面子(mianzi), China had in fact put its internationalreputation forward when relating to other countries. Despite some bumps in the road such as doubts over the country’s setting of “debt traps,” this approach had generally proven successful. Seven years after the launch of the BRI, China can in fact count on a network of 138 partners, spanning across the continents. The majority of these partners are low or lower middle-income countries, with whom China had cultivated relations since the1955 Bandung Conference. To an extent, the “Bandung spirit” continues to resonate in China’s foreign policy. Drawing from China’s positive track record, the Bandung spirit facilitated renewing historical ties and weaving new relations.
Yet, China’s international reputation suffered a severe blow with the spread of the coronavirus. From an internal viewpoint, the pandemic brought the promises made after the 2002-03 Severely Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic (SARS) back to light, poisoning state-society relations. From an external viewpoint, doubts about the timing of China’s notification to the World Health Organization damaged the country’s international reputation as a responsible and dependable power, especially in light of the long-standing controversy concerning the delayed issuing of an international warning about SARS. In fact, many of China’s closest partners are among the countries that suffered the most from the pandemic, either because they were asked to confront the virus on top of prior fragility or because they had to rely on inefficient health systems. Only time will tell whether the blow inflicted by the pandemic to China’s reputation around the world will prove fatal or not.
As Professor Adaora Osundu-Oti from Afe Babalola University in Nigeria argues in this dossier, China’s greatest reputational challenge after Covid-19 will remain people-to-people relations, which were the weakest link in the country’s outward engagement during the pandemic. While China had been quick to make up for lost ground in other domains such as aid, investments and trade, the divide had conversely widened in terms of trust between civil societies. Although Professor Osundu-Oti made a case for Africa, this tendency remains true for China’s partners around the world and especially at the regional level, where the pandemic up-rooted century-old anti-Chinese sentiments. Regional middle-powers, like Japan and South Korea, are prime examples.
To ground considerations on empirical data, a comparative analysis on China’s international support before and after the pandemic was conducted on the signatories of the supporting/opposing letters forwarded to the United Nations Council on Human Rights (UNCHR) with regards to Xinjiang’s internment camps (July 2019) and Hong Kong’s national security law (July 2020). These letters in fact can help us navigate the effects of the pandemic on China’s international reputation as a) they address issues that are recognised as a matter of human rights and political and civil liberties; b) they rely on the same channel and institution; and c) they were forwarded one year apart, shortly before and after the pandemic.
In July 2019, 22 countries deposited a letter to the UNCHR condemning China’s counter-terrorism program in Xinjiang, while 50 responded with another letter praising the country’s work in the region. A similar exchange occurred after Hong Kong’s National Security Law came into force on July 1. This time, China’s opposers were 27, while its supporters were 52. Just by looking at the sheer numbers, it is clear that the Hong Kong issue has gained more traction among the international community. Some differences in the distribution of the countries from one letter to the other is worth noticing. In terms of China’s “opposers,” Spain, a signatory of the Xinjiang’s letter, is absent in Hong Kong’s letter. At the same time, small, non-European countries like the Marshall Islands or Palau took a stance in the Hong Kong issue. The presence of Pacific islands among China’s “opposers” is particularly telling of the power struggle occurring between the country and Australia in the area. In terms of China’s supporters, it is interesting to notice that the total number of signatories remained roughly the same, despite considerable variation among the single countries. 14 were the signatories of the Xinjiang’s letter that did not renew their commitment to China after the pandemic, while 15 new countries offered their support. Among those that took a step back, there is the Russian Federation, which had been a frontliner a year earlier.
Both supporting letters also show that China can rely on a wide pool of supporters from sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the region also was the one where the greatest variation occurred in terms of commitment. Indeed, six signatories of the Xinjiang’s letter did not renew their support, while eight new countries joined the pledge for China’s National Security Law in Hong Kong.
The analysis helps us shed new light on China’s international future after Covid-19. First, the country’s reputational strategy has proven successful in certain areas of the world, especially among those partners that are economically dependent from China. Second, support from these countries is highly volatile, thus the country’s future task will focus on how to consolidate the relation.
Although the pandemic has put China’s economy under strain, the country can still count on its own well-known resilience to look for a re-balancing. Yet, international support is a two-way street that China has restlessly been trying to secure: the pandemic now risks damaging it substantially, unless the country develops a coherent and long-term strategy.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.