China’s Victim Card Doesn’t Work

By Rahul Sharma

Summary: China’s attempts to project itself as a victim at a time when it is being squarely blamed for infecting the world with the deadly coronavirus won’t work, for while the world might not have come together to fight the pandemic, it has definitely joined hands to take Beijing head-on.

The US President Donald Trump, under huge pressure as the virus demolishes the American economy and people in an election year, has led the war by inserting “China virus” in our vocabulary. Other countries have followed suit, with India being the latest — indirectly blaming China for the ills by introducing tighter norms against Chinese investments.

Trump hasn’t minced his words. China could face consequences if it was found that Beijing was “knowingly responsible” for the outbreak. His second term as president is at stake and he would do all he can to ensure the blame doesn’t stick to his doorstep. He doesn’t want to be a one-term president.

The international pressure is huge and there are diplomatic and economic repercussions that China must face for its tardiness in managing a crisis that has prompted the world to declare what the International Monetary Fund called the Great Lockdown, which is likely to trigger a most expansive recession since the Great Depression almost a century ago.

We know we are in exceptional times when more than 170 countries are expected to see their per capita income fall this year due to effects of the pandemic when only a few months ago the IMF projected 160 economies to see an uptick in their per capita income growth.

Tens of millions of people across the globe will be jobless, hunger will rise, businesses will shut, forcing governments to take unprecedented action and spend billions of dollars to safeguard their economies and people since the impact is expected to be felt for much longer than any crisis in the past.

So when the Chinese say the global community should work together instead of blaming it for the pandemic and demanding compensation, it sounds more than hollow. It sounds trite and even condescending.

At a time like this, China has to be a responsible citizen of the world since it is indeed on a sticky wicket here. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have raised the number of deaths in Wuhan, the epicentre, by 50 per cent one fine morning as criticism mounted.

It can’t try to show itself to be as big a victim of the virus as various European countries and the US that are battling for space to bury their dead or for that matter India and several other countries which have been forced to declare a complete lockdown in the face of below-par public healthcare facilities and difficulties in maintaining social distancing due to large, congested poor neighbourhoods, and migrant labour.

While it is largely understood that at this point the enemy is the virus, and not China, in the days to come the pace of making Beijing an enemy is likely to rise sharply.

China doesn’t like scrutiny; it is too proud and suffers from civilisational impunity that it uses to its benefit. It would rather question the intentions of the countries coming together to push it back.

However, when Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne questions China’s transparency and demands a global investigation into the origin and handling of the spread of the virus, he is only echoing the fears of many others.

Australia, of late, has been extremely suspicious of China that almost owns its top soil, buying millions of tonnes of natural resources to fire its factories and make for the world. This is a good time for Payne to push the bully back.

Similarly, if Japan says it is willing to financially help its companies move out of China or South Korea considers a change in its outlook towards Beijing and Britain weighs in too, the stage is set for a larger, acrimonious blame game that will only explode.

Since China doesn’t like being cornered, it will do what it does best — go on an offensive and flex its military and financial muscle — it has a $3 trillion war chest — but that will only fasten the pace of bringing major powers together to oppose it.

That, however, may not be the best solution since the world does need China for its money power at a time when we are staring at an economic recession. China can make a difference in how the world emerges from this once-in-a-century crisis, as was visible when it announced to give more money to the World Health Organisation when Trump decided to stop U.S. contribution.

The best way, therefore, for China to deal with the situation would be to accept some blame and then get on stitching ties with the world in an attempt to bring back some degree of diplomatic and economic normalcy.

Can China apologise to the world?

The writer is Managing Director, APCO Worldwide, India. Views are personal.