China’s Strategy to Overcome the Virus Stigma is “Belligerence”
Praveen Menon

On June 15 2020, Col. B Santosh Babu probably didn’t expect to walk up to a Chinese observation post at the vertex of the bend in Galwan River. It was strange because the PLA themselves had dismantled the post after the talks few days back. A sense of curiosity may have dominated his mind when he decided to not leave it to “youngsters” and set out to enquire personally at 7 pm. After all he had the responsibility of controlling the border in which no shot has been fired for decades. The Commanding Officer (CO) of 17 Bihar Infantry battalion was in for another surprise as he reached the post to find “fresh faces” indicating a premeditated plan. As Col. Babu opened the conversation asking why the post had been re-erected, a Chinese soldier stepped up and pushed the Indian Commanding Officer backwards hard. What followed was a series of brawls where the PLA would get beaten down in a barbarian fight they initiated with the primitive weapons like iron rods and barbed wires. (Aroor 2020).

The question is not as much about the date June 15th. It is clear that the attack was an attempt to please their political master Xi Jinping on his birthday which the brave Indian Army foiled.

The question is: What changed in the Chinese attitude so drastically in 2020 that a largely peaceful border was purposefully turned into a battleground?

The obvious answer is: Coronavirus originating from China.

The cause: The Chinese strategy to overwhelm the stigma associated with virus amidst their own internal economic & political anxieties.

The Chinese belligerence is a sum total of a sense of hurt with their long term domineering plans seeming watered down, the nervousness of economic uncertainty which the whole world is going through, the fear of a long term contempt and stigma over the coronavirus origin in China and the desperation to regain the dominating aura which signified pre-Covid-19 China. China is not unique in the sense that the whole world today longs for a pre-Covid-19 sense of normalcy. China is unique that its dirty wet market is the origin and cause of the coronavirus.

Setback to Long Term Plans

The most important sentiment dominating the Chinese citizens’ psyche in 2020 isn’t the long term grandiose plans of world domination as most commentators wonder. In a single-party regime where Chinese public opinion counts for little (unless it becomes overwhelmingly negative), the grandiose plans matter to the ruling elite only. Specifically the ruling elite who want to bask in the glory of being the chosen leader. However, since the Chinese nation-state is an authoritarian regime, primacy is to the power elite in a country where “reckless” comments on government by a common citizen is frowned upon and “dealt” with.

There are several factors indicative of where the Long Term Chinese plans were headed in normal course.

In 2018, China approved the removal of the two-term limit on the presidency effectively allowing Xi Jinping to remain in power for life. Instead of being due to step down in 2023, he defied the tradition of presenting a political successor as party rubber-stamped the constitutional changes by enshrining his name and political ideology in the constitution. The elevation of Xi Jinping to the status of Chairman Mao was complete. (BBC 2018)

For a few decades after Mao, the Chinese world view and approach can be summed up by Deng Xiaoping’s “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”. While many commentators on China attributed it to Deng Xiaoping, some also credited a similar “Bide your time” phrase from the Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Nevertheless, the strategy worked well in reducing the apprehensions of the world as China has risen to be a manufacturing hub.

With Chinese economy being No. 2 by the time he occupied the presidency, Xi Jinping clearly believed that the time to bide time was over evident from the hawkish stance embodied by him. In The Hundred-Year Marathon, Michael Pillsbury puts out evidence showing detailed Chinese strategy to overtake US as the world’s dominant power by 2049, the centennial of China’s Communist revolution.(Mauldin 2019)

The Xi Jinping speech to double income by the end of next decade combined with the ambitious BRI project provides vital clue of the imperialistic goals of China much before 2049. China’s vow to double GDP and income in a decade needs to be seen from the prism of the personal ambitions of Xi Jinping. (Cox 2019). China had back in 2017 stated that the goal of doubling GDP starting 2021 would not be pursued in a break from the past practice in order to focus on higher-quality long term growth. (Reuters 2017). The change in approach could be due to Xi Jinping’s urgency to Preside over the glory after the constitutional changes assured him Presidency for life. A hawk like Xi Jinping was in a hurry for a place in history much before 2049 because life may not last that far even though Presidency may last if he lived long enough.

The Covid-19 pandemic would be a drag on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with countries part of BRI including China facing economic uncertainty. The scope and extent of the BRI already had the international community worried from the very outset. The BRI is not just another instrument of Chinese expansionist agenda but a project on which Xi Jinping has staked political capital on. The BRI written into the constitution of Chinese party is Xi Jinping’s signature foreign and economic policy. While Chinese economic contraction of 6.80% in first quarter of 2020 would hurt in the immediate term, the possible long curve of recovery of global economy will put BRI on the backburner for many countries. The Policy attention of BRI participating countries is fixated on combating contagion. Even in post-Covid-19 world, Xi Jinping foresees trouble due to disruptions in international trade, tariff-wars, transparency diktats and policy backlash like Japan’s proposed plan to bring home manufacturing having long term repercussions on China. (Ji 2020) China would consider itself lucky if coronavirus inflicts only short term disruptions but prolonged global lockdowns and seething anger over the same doesn’t give hope.

Insecurity on Sustaining Prosperity

Back in 2018, the Hong Kong based South China Morning Post reported of Huizhou turning from a bustling city to a “ghost-town” after Samsung closed its smart phone factory. With no manufacturer in sight to take up the huge space left by Samsung factory, more than 60 percent of the nearby businesses got closed. The Samsung factory in Huizhou had built an entire ecosystem of supply chains in Guangdong and nearby provinces in the past 20 years. It was reported that at least 100 factories in Guangdong had to close down apart from small shops and restaurants in the area. Local consumer spending went down as ripple effects of the void left behind by the giant manufacturer were felt. Even 100 km west of Huizhou, a factory owned by Shenzhen listed Janus Intelligent Group, a robotics company had their hours significantly reduced. (PTI 2019)

The Huizhou experience gave the first taste of visible fallout of trade war launched by Trump demanding reduction of the massive trade deficit. The Chinese economy is export-led and bitter experiences due to low demand in domestic economy combined with global lockdown slowing exports to western economies gives them jitters. If the pinch of decline in manufacturing output wasn’t bad enough, the Chinese establishment stares at a possibility of “permanent” changes in economic structure and threat to their current prosperity. China stares at the prospect of more and more cities turning ghost towns if the proposed changes in western economy to decouple from China pick up steam.

The USA-China Bilateral trade had already sunk 15% in 2019 after the tariffs imposed on Chinese imports and the Chinese response in kind. The momentum for reconsidering the supply lines was already initiated from 2019 but the pandemic may just have lent pace to the process. Many companies are reportedly either convincing their Chinese partners to relocate to Southeast Asia to avoid tariffs or simply opting out of sourcing from China altogether. (Rapoza 2020) Apple is in talks with India to shift part of its production capacity from China to India and may turn another bustling Chinese city to a ghost town just like Samsung did. (express 2020)

With a slew of companies set to shift out of China to Vietnam and other countries, the Chinese are undoubtedly worried of losing their prosperity built over the decades. While the Chinese economy may have borne a steady decline, the coronavirus may have fast forwarded the process and increased long term losses immediately. In 2019, more than 50 multinational companies had already decided to relocate their manufacturing operations to Southeast Asia and Mexico from China. (Agrawal 2020)

To be fair to China, a sense of insecurity over the economy is a shared feeling across the globe today and China is no exception. The middle-class across the world is grappling with the possibility of being jobless once the lockdown opens up. The only difference between China and rest of the world is owing to restlessness of a possible economic backlash for being the origin of coronavirus and also the real damage to lives and economy the virus caused internally. Unlike the rest of the world, the Chinese figures on coronavirus deaths are suspect being a system shrouded in secrecy and lack of transparency.

A Fear of the Virus Stigma

Among all the frustrations which the Chinese face, nothing dominates the mind than a sense of contempt with which the world looked at China. In a way a stigma is something which economic strength or diplomatic muscle flexing can’t completely erase. If Xi Jinping were to be given a magic wand which can solve only one problem, he might not choose to solve the trade war or any border issue but would probably use the wand to get rid of the “Chinese virus” tag. For a nation so conditioned over the decade of impending glory, being seen as an object of derision is humiliation which US President Donald Trump never forgets to heap on them.

While Trump calling it the Chinese virus has been criticized for political incorrectness and exposing Chinese Americans to social prejudice, the Chinese fear Trump is merely echoing a global sentiment.

The stigma of Chinese virus has the potential to undermine Chinese standing in the world stage and they will stop at nothing to suppress the message. China had tried the PR effort early in the pandemic and realizing lack of success has just changed its tack now.

The initial efforts by China were through disinformation campaign in Italy being the first EU country badly affected by it. Social media narratives and foreign state actors globally had worked over time in an apparent bid to shift the narrative about China from “the country where the virus originated” to the “country that came to the rescue of other nations”. As Chinese interests actively fostered pro-China feeling in EU with mask diplomacy, the Chinese showed astuteness in understanding the grave long term implications of stigma of “being the country where virus originated”. The use of widespread media coverage and social media to increase the reputation and avoid blame for spread of virus reflects more of the Chinese fear than European situation. (Santoro 2020)

As things went downhill and most of the western world was locked down and anger reached heights, China grew aggressive. Of all things which exposes Chinese fears of stigma, the ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy is the brashest and the most likely to backfire. Chinese diplomats over the decades had a reputation as well-trained and cautious professionals who pursued their goals without attracting much unfavorable attention. The Deng Xiaoping strategy of “Bide the time” was mastered by the diplomats as they managed to convince the world of a peaceful rise of China. As Chinese economy gained massive proportions, there have been indications that China’s rise is anything but peaceful.

A new crop of Chinese diplomats are aggressively promoting China’s self-serving Covid-19 narrative without consequences of backlash. In mid-March, the foreign ministry deputy spokesman Zhao Lijian promoted a conspiracy theory alleging US Military brought the novel coronavirus to Wuhan. While it became the first sign of Chinese fear of stigma, a reckless confrontational style of “wolf warriors” have exposed and actively fanned the flames of anti-China rhetoric in USA. Donald Trump calls the virus “Chinese virus” and China is right if it fears that the sentiment may prevail. The diplomatic gloves are therefore off with the blessings of the powers that be in CCP. The Chinese diplomats are evaluated on the basic of how vocally they toe the party line and not on the successful performance of professional duties. The appointment of Qi Yu, a propaganda apparatchik with no foreign policy experience to an important post like Party Secretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs clearly indicates to the Chinese diplomats on the way ahead for them. The sensitivity of China to criticism on the Chinese virus issue combined with instructions to the diplomatic corps to adopt an assertive approach is likely to become the Chinese undoing. (Pei 2020)

The Chinese not only find a powerful visible figure like US President Donald Trump calling Chinese virus derisively but also stares at the prospect of anti-China sentiment being a unifying force in USA in an election year. A shared stigma across party lines in a country which is the biggest customer of China is something to be apprehensive about. Interestingly, the British Cricketer Kevin Pietersen in March shared on Twitter a video of a market in China where they are cooking a dog alive and blaming China for the lockdown by such practices. He ended his tweet with choice expletives on China.

The fear of China is not unfounded if a number of influential persons like Kevin Pietersen were to spontaneously and vocally expose the filthy practices of China and their lack of hygiene. (Jain 2020)With coronavirus leading to loss of lives and bringing normal life to a standstill, connect of such outpourings among the global community would be high. The Governments whether in EU or US would want a convenient scapegoat too and who better than the country which started it all. The proposed Chinese glory comes to naught if the average citizen in China who visits Western world is looked upon with stigma and recounts story of prejudice back home. An authoritarian regime like the CCP cannot be secure with such negative public opinion. A bully who was proud of evoking fear ended up getting associated with a virus and desperately and belligerently wants the fearsome reputation back.

The ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy is a way to regain that fearful reputation before a reputation of stigmatized Chinese virus overwhelms the hearts and minds of the global community. Nothing can be more disastrous for Xi Jinping’s grandiose plan of China being the centre of the world when China is associated with the filth in Wuhan market. The increasingly brash approach in Taiwan and Hong Kong is more to overwhelm the narrative and retain the image of China as “threatening” (strong in minds of Chinese Han Nationalists) than “dirty.”

When diplomats are having a field day to overwhelm the Chinese virus tag with more sensational news on China, how can PLA be left behind? Therein lies the cause of purposeful attack on Col. Santosh Babu.

Little did Col. Santosh Babu realize on the fateful day that June 15th happened to be the birthday of the “self-chosen” leader of his adversary nation. This was an opportune moment for China’s Western Theatre Commander, General Zhao Zongqi to please his master on birthday and have a shot at the Central Military Commission. Col. Santosh Babu and the Jawans foiled the plans.

In March 2020, the Chinese were more forthright of their fears. In a phone call, State councilor and foreign minister Wang Yi told counterpart S Jaishankar that China hoped India was opposed to the phrase “China virus”. As Beijing urged India not to use China to describe the novel coronavirus, they were being honest about their sensitivity on the matter. (Patranobis 2020)It doesn’t come as a surprise that they chose aggression to supersede the prevailing image of China when they found that democracies unlike Chinese authoritarian regime don’t tightly control what the public opinion would become. Moreover, the average western democracies have all the right to voice opinion, free media and bustling social media opinion on China without the Government conniving or influencing the process. The Chinese diplomats initially led a worldwide campaign to convince host governments not to use the phrase “China virus” but later likely changed course realizing futility of doing so.

There is a prevailing belief in China about 2020 being a really bad year and its turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. As per Chinese astrology, 2020 is the year of Geng-Zi or the metal rat which comes once every 60 years. The Chinese believe that every time the year of metal rat rolls, a disastrous historic event takes place.

While China stagnated for more than a century when the Opium War broke out in 1840 during the Qing dynasty, the Boxer rebellion triggered the movement of alliance of eight nations from Tianjin to Beijing in 1900. The last metal rat in 1960 caused wide spread famine as a result of the policy Great Leap Forward which ended being a Giant Leap Backward led by Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People's Republic of China.

With half of the world breathing down the neck of Xi Jinping over the Hong Kong, Taiwan and South China Sea issues, the Chinese are attempting to turn the headlines towards Chinese aggression globally while endearing themselves to the Han-Nationalists back home. The aggression on Indian soil would have furthered their goals if not for the bravery of Indian Jawans who heaped humiliating casualties on the Chinese side.

The charge of being an aggressive country is something which hawks like Xi Jinping will proudly adorn in their lapel.

The stigma of being a coronavirus country is what had the potential to derail the “self-chosen” leaders name in history. The Chinese are attempting to avoid it by being a more aggressive bully. Xi Jinping probably didn’t expect when aiming for “central role for China” that they would become the stigmatized centre of the world. The Sino-centric world view of China has become a reality and turned into a nightmare.

Stigma is powerful and has the potential to subvert economic progress as a bias over time chips away at a Nation’s psyche and affects the sense of identity.

The Chinese are battling widespread stigma with rude belligerence and sees this as right time to push agendas on Taiwan and Hong Kong. It serves their dual purpose of pushing long term changes in status quo and also diverting attention from the virus and humiliating name-calling of Trump.

A microscopic virus stands in the way of a China’s pride and they wish the world forget about its origin.

The Chinese strategy is “If you can’t be both loved and feared, be feared. If you can be stigmatized as dirty or bully, Choose Bully”.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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