China, Corona Pandemic, and Struggle for Sovereignty of Interpretation 

George Hendrik Breitner "Girl in White Kimono" // CC0

In a statement of March 24, 2020, Josep Borell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, formulated a fundamental insight. According to him, we are currently experiencing a global struggle to interpret what is actually happening in the context of the pandemic.

In this struggle we must not overlook the geopolitical dimension. According to Borell, the central question here is who will play the role of the “savior”.

Ultimately, then, it is a question of nothing less than the readjustment of political influence on the world stage. It should not be forgotten that this debate is also being conducted with those who want to dismantle the European Union.

So let us first ask which external actors want to weaken the European Union. According to a recent analysis by the Semantic Visions Institute, which specializes in the analysis of flows of information and disinformation on the Internet, a flood of deliberately false information is continuing in the midst of the pandemic, mainly caused by actors in the Russian Federation.

The result is a “Molotov cocktail” of disinformation containing a series of contradictory messages designed to create confusion, mistrust in public institutions, and bring chaos to Western democracies.

But the flood of disinformation also originates from other sources: According to reports from London, the People’s Republic of China is a new player in this field. First and foremost because China’s leadership would have significantly distorted the statistics of patients and victims of coronavirus infection. 

Indeed, it is important to question how we should interpret the information published by the People’s Republic of China and who it should possibly influence.

China’s ” Face Mask Diplomacy”

In this context, China’s foreign trade balance in the first months of 2020 is worth a closer look. According to the Chinese customs administration, its main task was to speed up the clearance of goods to combat the infection that spread from Wuhan.

In just five weeks between January and February, the volume of protective equipment inspected reached 2.46 billion units. Based on these figures, it must be concluded that China has imported a gigantic amount of protective equipment from the world in recent months. It bought wherever it could.

For example, some time ago the Czech Security Information Service noted with concern the Chinese efforts to buy protective equipment in large quantities from the Czech Republic.

By the end of January 2020, EU countries were delivering dozens of tonnes of humanitarian aid to China. However, at the request of the Chinese authorities, these deliveries should not be discussed publicly.

However, the opposite order came into force when the protective equipment was imported back to Europe from China. These material deliveries were used by Chinese representatives in the media to strengthen relations with states that would have a “shared destiny” with China.

It must be mentioned that most of the deliveries from China were not for humanitarian aid, but for conventional trade. Thus, the Chinese side systematically spoke of humanitarian aid, but in reality it was just a normal transaction “money for goods”, as the deliveries for Italy or later for the Czech Republic showed.

According to the website of a Chinese think tank that promotes the cooperation of Central and Eastern European countries with China within the 17 + 1 format, the epidemic in these 17 countries opened a unique opportunity to strengthen cooperation with China.

The Chinese Communist Party was given the opportunity to show how the common future should look like according to Beijing’s ideas. The Chinese propaganda machine claims that China has demonstrated its ability to respond to the health crisis and that European countries could also benefit from China’s experience.

A new phase of 17 + 1 relations would now begin, mainly because the Central and Eastern European countries could not expect any help from the EU.

According to the Chinese source, health systems in the region have long been underfunded, hospitals merely have outdated equipment and there are places without access to running water. These are the quotes from the Chinese sources.

Chinese Influence in the Czech Republic

The example of the Czech Republic is also interesting in this context. With the first delivery of respiratory masks from China, the Chinese authorities determined that the aircraft with the protective equipment should be ceremonially received by high-ranking representatives of the constitutional bodies directly at the airport on 20 March.

And so the Czech Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior, and the Minister of Finance stood next to the aircraft at the press conference at Václav Havel Airport, which did not bear the coat of arms of the Czech Republic, but that of China Eastern.

They all thanked the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China who was present. All this despite the fact that it was not humanitarian aid, but commercial goods.

All this is happening against the background of a situation in which the Czech Parliament has been discussing a scandalous letter from the Chinese Embassy for several weeks. With this document, China tried in January 2020 to change the plans of the then Czech President of the Senate, who declared his intention to visit Taiwan.

While both parliamentary chambers criticized the letter as inappropriate interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country and some even demanded the replacement of the Chinese ambassador in Prague, the pandemic is now creating a whole new context for Chinese influence.

For example, although the fight against the pandemic forced the organizers of the forthcoming summit with China (17 + 1) to postpone it, Beijing has clearly shown that it is taking advantage of the current situation.

The way in which China markets the sale of protective equipment would have made even the Kremlin’s advisers, who worked in Czechoslovakia after the Second World War to pave the way for the Communists to seize power, green with envy. In 2020, this will be known in Prague as Chinese ”face mask diplomacy”.

Litmus Test for European Democracy

The situation is grave. People are worried about their family and friends. Trust in state institutions, whose task it is to care for the health and life of the population, is being put to the test.

It is now important to defend parliamentary democracy and personal freedoms and to take the necessary steps to shift the production of medical protective equipment back to Europe.

The EU countries will be put to a very hard test in this. They must act in a coordinated way in dealing with the crisis. It is not just a question of better coordinating economic and social policies, but of understanding that we are in a battle for the sovereignty to interpret the crisis and thus in a battle for influence in the world.

The game of ”face mask diplomacy ” that the Chinese communists have started must be a warning to us that working with the totalitarian regime is never without risk.

It is all the more important that any future cooperation with Beijing must follow clear rules. Otherwise, we might end up wondering what other principles of the “common destiny of humanity” that Beijing is talking about could find their way into Europe.

One thing I am sure of: Václav Havel would have been surprised by this face mask theater. Perhaps he would have immediately found ideas for another of his plays in the tradition of absurd theater.

Our task, however, must be not to play a tragicomic role in this theater.

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Pavel Fischer
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom