Trump and Xi.

ANALYSIS

  • President Donald Trump has overseen a chaotic response to the US coronavirus outbreak, downplaying its severity and repeatedly changing his stance on China.
  • This is undermining US authority to criticise how China handled the initial outbreak, which began in Wuhan.
  • China has capitalised on this, with state media and government officials highlighting the US inconsistencies and saying it is "hid[ing] their incompetence by blaming China."
  • There are signs that the Chinese public - the Communist Party's most important audience - is also losing trust in the US.
  • For more stories, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

China's Communist Party has in recent weeks embarked on an expansive propaganda campaign to recoup its public image as the coronavirus ravages much of the world.

Its efforts have included sending medical equipment around the world and injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the World Health Organisation, from which the US has withheld funding.

But the biggest help in this propaganda push could just be President Donald Trump.

Trump has stumbled through the coronavirus outbreak, overseeing what has become the world's largest outbreak and, in a particularly low moment, suggesting people inject disinfectant into their bodies to heal themselves.

This chaotic response is making China look good.

The US has for years been the loudest voice against China - in terms of trade, freedom of navigation, and human rights - and has, in recent weeks, repeatedly slammed China's attempt to cover up the virus in its early days.

There are good grounds for the US to make this argument: China did suppress early warnings of the virus and hide crucial information from its citizens and the World Health Organisation. This delayed many countries' responses and likely cost thousands of lives.

But Trump's actions are making him look untrustworthy, and undermining these accusations.

He has flip-flopped on his stance on China - tweeting at various points in January, February, and March that President Xi Jinping was dealing with the outbreak well, while at other points accusing China of covering up the coronavirus.

In the early stages of the US outbreak, he also did his best to claim that the virus would not be that bad.

Trump has even repeatedly floated unfounded theories that the virus came from a lab in Wuhan - which US intelligence sources and scientists have refuted.

He has also accused Beijing of using the virus to jeopardise his efforts to secure a second term as president. (Critics say Trump is doing this to deflect from his own failures at home.)

China is capitalising on Trump's chaotic response.

It appeared to position itself as the victim of the US' criticism, with foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang telling reporters in late April: "We hope the US will stop dragging China into its domestic politics."

"For some time, certain US politicians neglect facts and attempt to shirk their responsibility and hide their incompetence by blaming China," he said.

"But such attempts, instead of eliminating the progress our people made through arduous efforts, will only expose certain US individuals' malicious intentions and the serious problems in the US."

The most colourful example of China's anti-US campaign saw the state-run Xinhua news agency produce an animation - using Lego figures and voice-overs - mocking the US coronavirus response, in which a toy Statue of Liberty says: "We are always correct even though we contradict ourselves."

A video from China's state-run Xinhua news agency, which used Lego figures to attack the US coronavirus response.
China Xinhua News Agency
There are signs that normal citizens in China are keen to follow the party line on the Trump administration.

One instance came after Trump said in late March that he will have done a "very good job" if the US ends up with between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths.

The hashtag "Trump says reducing death toll to 100,000 people is 'not bad'" quickly became a trending hashtag on microblogging site Weibo (Hashtags on Weibo are often much longer than ones on Western platforms.)

Users also called him a "joker" and a "blowhard," Politico reported.

And when US cases surpassed 1 million last month, people on Weibo called the US "not the world's number one" and its pandemic response "the disaster flick of 2020," according to Politico.

Weibo is not a perfect representation of the Chinese population - the platform is heavily censored - but gives some sense of national sentiment.

And this kind of reaction is exactly what the Communist Party wants, as it is far more focused on maintaining its grip on power at home than improving its image abroad.

(It's largely why its "Great Firewall" censors anything that could weaken its grip on power, from sex scenes to pictures of Winnie the Pooh, the fictional bear which many say looks like Xi.)

Throughout the pandemic, there were strong signs that Chinese citizens were losing trust in its government.

After the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan ophthalmologist who was censured for sounding an early alarm on the virus, people risked Chinese censorship to call for democracy.

In early March, Wuhan residents heckled a top-ranking Communist Party official who was touring their neighbourhood, shouting "Fake, fake, everything is fake" after officials tried to promote a food donation scheme,

Such scenes are extremely unusual, and outside observers wondered whether such calls for greater democracy in China could defy recent history and achieve some kind of change in the face of a pandemic.

Weeks later, it is unclear how strong this sentiment still is - China has muzzled citizen journalists and democracy campaigners, and expelled prominent American journalists.

In the past, the US has been a strong supporter of such calls, and made life difficult for China - mainly out of concern over its public image.

But now the US is the one being embarrassed on the world stage, limiting its ability to influence events outside its borders.

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