Commentary: China’s Coronavirus Tack Includes More Abrupt Officials and Political Warfare; Its Diplomatic Tool Must Endure the Consequences

Communist Party of China Headquarters (above). The Communist Party of China’s line on the coronavirus pandemic has been thoroughly questioned in the West, especially in the US. Beijing’s finger wagging in response has not resulted in some grand conversion of anyone in the US or anyone in the world to China’s point of view. If Beijing stays on its current course, activities in support of the Party-line will surely intensify. Political warfare units and officers overseas of the Chinese intelligence services possess the know-how to propagate the Party-line and are being relied upon. A quiet sense of resentment has likely risen among Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomats and professionals who seem to be increasingly tasked with making right turns on the truth and have watched as their legitimate work, to promote China’s policy interests, is regularly supplanted by intelligence efforts.

From the moment the coronavirus outbreak began, the People’s Republic of China was not able to overcome and resolve all challenges that beset it. Facing that reality appears to have shaken the psychological foundations of China’s Communist Movement to its core. Under the somewhat mechanical guiding principles of the Communist Movement reinvented by Chairman Mao Zedong insist that China must be forever driving upward and making progress. All efforts should be directed at pushing China to meet its destiny of taking a dominant position in the world. If China did not reach the top, it would remain a sheep not a shepherd. The volumes of collected concepts and quotes could not offer answers for Beijing to quickly and effectively contain the coronavirus, Having failed to meet the needs of its people, Beijing then failed to prevent a coronavirus outbreak worldwide which it must have come to term with by now. Thereby, any sense of failure has likely been intensified. Yet, Beijing has refused to give up the ghost and has continued to extol the virtues of its medical, scientific, and advanced technological capabilities. The identity of the Party is dependent on a certain worldview concerning the Communist Movement, the teachings of Mao, China’s greatness, and China’s world dominance in the future. When that worldview was threatened, the Party would only hold even more tightly to it and potentially double-down on that line of thinking. That possibility of doubling-down most likely led to the decision by Beijing to contain the virus in China as robustly as possible and contain any information just how bad the situation was. Certain medical approaches were approved and taken. Concern over what might have happened outside China was not given equal importance. and few real steps, if any, were taken that related to a concern over an outbreak. No alternative ideas concerning an almost certain outbreak from the discerning and wise in Beijing–academics, scientific scholars, any with relevant expertise–were investigated or allowed any light. Controversies were to be avoided. Those few who said anything contrary to the Communist Party of China line were effectively silenced.

Indisputably, the Communist Party of China’s line on the coronavirus pandemic clashes with the truth. It has been questioned in the West, especially in the US. Although finger wagging at the US in response may seem morally invigorating, it has not resulted in some grand conversion of anyone in the US or anyone in the world to China’s point of view. It certainly has not improved relations with the US. In China, the Communist Party of China, the National Party Congress, and the State Council of China are the immediate sources of all the daily needs of the Chinese people, that certainly would include information. The government would like to convince the Chinese people that international affairs, it says what it has to say, does what it has to do, to lay up a future of world dominance for China. Given this, perchance Beijing has continued this course because it believes the rebuke of the US has served to assure the Chinese public that there is no ambiguity in what the Communist Party of China has determined are the facts. Beijing may believe it is helping Chinese citizens live their lives fully and clear because they are provided “the truth.” By now, though, a good number of Chinese citizens are aware that one cannot know with certainty what is real from what one hears from the government.

In hac re ratio habenda est ut montio acerbitate. (Reason should be held to (applied) in this matter so that the admonition may be without harshness.) While greatcharlie would prefer to avoid being seen as providing advice to Beijing–which in reality would most likely have no interest in its meditations on the matter. Nonetheless, one might say out of academic interest, greatcharlie has sought to conceptualize what Beijing could have done on the world stage when the coronavirus epidemic began in China and offers some thoughts on what it could still do today to recurvate better present itself as “a leader” on the world stage. Related to that, greatcharlie also takes a brief look in the abstract at why any immediate change in the attitudes and behavior may not occur so quickly as its diplomatic tool, the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), has been going through a type of transition contrary to its purpose of building better relations with other countries.

As a net result of its ongoing tack concerning the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing has thoroughly encased itself in the dreadful mistakes it made by unintendedly, yet repeatedly, shining light on what it did not do right and by its continuous attempts to muscle its way out a disastrous situation with words and actions cobbled together inconsistently in an unsuitable emergency public relations campaign. It would seem that in undertaking its current course, not one appropriate contingency has been considered.

If one were to allow Beijing a bit of latitude, purely out of academic interest, its response to the Western, particularly the US, may be the sense that Chinese leaders might have seared into their psyches over decades about Western perceptions of China. That sense might be informed by utterances of identifiable relics of bigotry from a bygone era to the effect that China is nothing for the West to worry about and the Chinese lack the intellectual power and scientific and technological know-how to ever match US capabilities. That was the case when former US Vice President Joe Biden stated: “I mean, you know, they’re nice folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” To that extent, Chinese leaders view their country a being wronged for too long and they endeavor to right that wrong. (Interestingly, in the administration of US President Barack Obama from which political leaders who have made such statements mostly emerge, a laissez faire attitude resulted in policies on China lost in the wilderness that failed to genuinely protect or promote US interests. The delinquency and lethargy of previous administrations also allowed for the steady progress of China versus US power and further advances in technology.)

Certainly, the moment for immediate action has passed. However, a better course than the one taken, to be brief, would have been to accept the reality of their situation, listening to those in their own country who presented the truth about the virus, and fully acknowledging all of the different developments as they happened, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Most important would have been to be the very party that sounded the global alarm, proactively suggesting constructive precautions to all countries, interacting closely with those leading industrial powers which could have a real impact in stemming the problem worldwide while there was still at least a modicum of time for all countries to act, not just China. Beijing could have worked strenuously with international organizations to include the UN Security Council, fully alerting them that the threat that global pandemic may be in the making. Within those institutions, practical and promising forward-looking recommendations to forge a synergistic international response could have been formulated and promoted by China. The flurry of positive action, that would most noticeably include Beijing’s humble recognition of its errors, would have been an astonishing, powerful display of international leadership by Beijing, albeit over a crisis it caused. The fact that something akin to this approach was not undertaken, and perhaps not even considered, has been a sticking point for Trump.

If it so chose at this stage, Beijing could still direct energy and resources at pecking away at the shell in which they trapped themselves much as a chick breaking out an egg. Nuanced approaches requiring positive action by all relevant bureaucracies across the government to create a positive image and firm, favorable picture that a sanguine China is taking all affirmative steps possible should need to be developed. They would need to be finessed, reshaped continuously, to maximize impact upon viable opportunities to break out its self-inflicted shell the country’s earlier missteps. It would also require more humble cooperation with the rest of the world, not reckless antagonistic verbiage that has so far only triggered the never previously considered process of genuinely isolating China from the international community, international trade and political economy, that is slowly gaining momentum. Rather than experiment with anything new, thoughtful, and inspired, Beijing simply turned to the derivative tactics of locking down and concealing less-desirable and outright unpleasant developments. Disappointingly, the leadership of China appears to lack the reflexes, sensibilities, and sadly, the sophistication, to turn toward the more advanced notions required for positive cooperation. Perhaps, brooding leaders of the Communist Party of China have managed to convince themselves that the main front in all of this is a battle of wits between East and West, in which two disparate political and economic systems compete for dominance.

If no erosion of its current positions occurs, and Beijing stays on its current course, one can expect activities in support of them to intensify. Seemingly, the quondam Cold War era, in which such thinking held prominence is apparently not dead, at least not in the foreign affairs parlors of the Communist Party of China, as well as the Chinese intelligence services, particularly the Ministry of State Security (MSS), and to an extent, departments of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and intelligence elements of the Communist Party of China. The MSS, a civilian intelligence agency, comparable to some degree to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is the embodiment of the logic that created the Chinese system’s intimidating, authoritarian order. Since 1983, it has choreographed events to accomplish the Communist Party’s purposes worldwide. With regard to China’s coronavirus crisis, MSS possesses the know-how through specially trained personnel in political warfare units and officers overseas who could engage in active measures, propagating the line of the Communist Party of China. So far, the apparent political warfare attack against the US, has not been the smashing success leaders of the Communist Party of China were hoping for. However, its effects are doubtlessly being felt throughout the foreign and national security policy apparatus of the Chinese government. With regard to the MFA, large swathes of activities concerning China’s foreign relations with other countries have been taken out of the hands of the diplomats and other professionals at the MFA and put in the hands of the intelligence services.

Materiam superabat opus. (The workmanship excelled the materials.) In the offices of the MFA, there is very likely a very quiet sense of resentment among professionals having chosen to represent China and promote its policy interests worldwide only to have their legitimate activities regularly superseded and supplanted by the machinations of the Chinese intelligence services at the behest of Communist Party of China. After decades of proudly engaging in complex, meaningful diplomatic work, mostly behind the scenes, with the goal of having China respected and reckoned as a power that can have a significant impact in international affairs by the international community, it is surely difficult for MFA diplomats and other professionals to watch as China, instead of further establishing its place among dominant powers, is now earning a reputation as an international pariah.

The purpose of diplomacy should be to prevent war. Bilateral and multilateral contacts with other countries, statements, press releases, and other messaging should not have the aim of antagonizing and raising the ire of leaders and other decisionmakers in foreign capitals. MFA diplomats and professionals would surely prefer to avoid a tit-for-tat situation with the US in which one act of retribution would lead to another from China. With every new act, the chance that a serious outbreak of violence increases.

As mentioned, MFA is ostensibly the primary government agency with a portfolio of implementing the foreign policy and managing diplomatic affairs of China, however the ministry now finds its diplomatic efforts with the US being increasingly supplanted by MSS efforts to conduct active measures such having journalist, academics, and other policy scholars promote the Communist Party of China’s hardline and by intensifying its efforts to steal a wide variety of technologies from US companies and universities. More recently, that nefarious work has included efforts to steal the fruits of money, time, and research into therapies and vaccines for the coronavirus. MFA diplomats may find themselves more and more dragged into MSS operations and those of other Chinese intelligence services as their efforts intensify. In a recent incident, it was discovered that a biology researcher at the University of California-Davis lied about her ties to the PLA. After being interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, she sought refuge in China’s San Francisco consulate. While it has not been definitively established that she was engaged in intelligence work in the US, there is a high probability she was. The PLA would not knowingly deploy an officer to the US without tasking her with some intelligence function. MFA is a consumer of information from cloak and dagger work, and it’s diplomats would prefer not to be sacked into the business of obtaining it.

One might suppose that it was already enough for MFA diplomats to tolerate a policy generally understood to be in effect that has MSS personnel assigned to China’s embassies and other permanent diplomatic missions overseas for up to six years, with a few remaining in post for 10 years if required. Reportedly, in the US, there are seven permanent Chinese diplomatic missions staffed with intelligence personnel. When the accommodations to the MSS aforementioned are added to this, it most assuredly piles on to a heap of discontent that has been long standing.

To enlarge on the point of how MFA is intriguingly being utilized in the larger more belligerent approach of China toward the US, recall how early into the coronavirus crisis, the world witnessed the Department of Information of the MFA using a far sharper tone. As time moved on, it seemingly devolved into being simply a direct mouthpiece for the Communist Party of China, providing some cover for the Party’s own offices. What was being declared about the US has been far from plausible, and apparently manifested anxieties, fears, over outcomes of grave errors made within China. Press briefings amplified those statements online with a bit more vigor. Spokespersons propagating the stronger line were abrupt in what is the approved Party fashion. Indeed, all MFA officials comported themselves publicly with an astringency which some regime critics would say uncloaked the true nature of the regime. Disinformation was also being spread from MFA sources through posts on Twitter. Those who are following this matter closely will hardly forget the shocking and incredulous tweet from Zhao Lijian, the Director of the Information Department of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in which he tried to direct blame at US for the coronavirus epidemic in China. From @zlj517 on March 12, 2000, at 10:37 AM, Zhao wrote: “2 CDC was caught on the spot. When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

The hallowed diplomatic doctrine of the MFA has been moderation in all things. Calmness and authority must be shown not only in diplomacy but in all circumstances. The more recent assertive approach has pulled MFA officials from their more traditional conservative, stolid posture. Reportedly, the transition in approach is due to something called “Wolf-Warrior diplomacy.” The name derives from high grossing, action films, “Wolf Warrior” and “Wolf Warrior II,” that feature Chinese special operations forces in battle against China’s adversaries. While the films present a false reality, the nationalistic ideas and ideals they  promote apparently cross-polinated with thinking of China’s leadership on real foreign and national security issues.

Res ipsa repperi facilitate nihil esse homini melius neque clementia. (I have learned by experience that nothing is more advantageous to a person than courtesy and compassion.) With good reason, somber and astute foreign policy analysts worldwide have found it difficult to believe that MFA diplomats and professionals are pleased to adhere to a policy that is named after and centered upon a banal amusement. There is some indication that the Wolf Warrior diplomacy is not novel, but rather has been in effect for a decade. However, the requirement that MFA diplomats and even officials of other government ministries take on a “fighting spirit” has really been something insisted upon by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Wolf Warrior diplomacy is all seen is a response by Beijing to highly biased perceptions of China presented especially in Western media. Recall, that notion was touched upon earlier here. Biases heard from overseas by China are often perceived not only as ideological but racist. There is also a prevalent perception in China that as the country has become more powerful on the world stage, other countries increasingly sense that it poses a threat to their respective interests.

The official position on the impact of Wolf Warrior diplomacy on Chinese diplomats and professionals is that it has raised their morale and encouraged a more assertive style. Yet more plausibly, MFA diplomats and professionals feel Wolf Warrior diplomacy is a load of bollocks, and they could mercilessly dissect the shortcomings of that diplomacy and anything produced under it. Intriguingly, expressions of traditional Chinese diplomacy and professionalism have been heard here and there. Comments of that nature made by the People’s Republic of China Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai about the anti-US declarations from Beijing were highlighted in greatcharlie’s March 31, 2020 post entitled, “Commentary: Beijing’s Failed Political Warfare Effort Against US: A Manifestation of Its Denial Over Igniting the Coronavirus Pandemic”. Reportedly, Cui told the HBO news program “Axios on HBO” that he stands by his belief that it’s “crazy” to spread rumors about the coronavirus originating from a military laboratory in the US. Cui even called this exact conspiracy theory “crazy” more than a month ago on the CBS News program, “Face the Nation.” well before the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs first began publicly promoting the conspiracy. However, despite such coruscating flashes of what could be called true MFA sensibilities, strong disagreements felt by diplomats and professionals are generally left at the door of their office buildings. At best a very cautious demarche should be attempted in house by the most secure diplomats in the face of decisions and policies of the leadership in an authoritarian, and arguably totalitarian, Communist state. That demarche should never be looked upon by outside observers as a fuite du courage, as much as a pragmatic, existential necessity.

Perchance, more MFA diplomats and professionals disagree with Communist Party of China line policies than one could imagine. No one hoping for the best for China would want to see good thinking officials engage in some une enterprise désespérée that could result in having them brutally weeded out of the system. At least for the time being, nothing that could relatively “bring down the house” should be uttered. Having been directed to promote policies based on the attributes of a fictitious character from an action film, MFA diplomats and professionals have done so without question both overseas and at home. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle stated: “It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

At one time, the MFA had a clear cut choice between being a mediator and an enforcer of China’s foreign policy. Its diplomats displayed a certain style and nuance as they made offers and discussed the proposals to resolve issues with other countries. Wolf Warrior requires a hardline stand every time. Insights will not advance efforts, dogma will. In following, as time passes, the MFA will likely be forced to make half turns away from the truth, ensuring that it is never on the correct side of issues. As the MFA is used more and more as a tool to proclaim the aggressive message of the Communist Party of China, it places into question whether the ministry will even keep its main job of making peaceful entreaties with foreign governments. While diplomats might meet with the foreign diplomatic counterparts, there would be superficiality to those contacts. It would be diplomacy after a fashion, albeit in an unsatisfactory way. The work of MFA diplomats, as it once was, would be finished. Maliuolum solacii genus est turba miserorum. (A crowd of fellow suffers is miserable kind of comfort.)

The fact that the Chinese government initiated the ongoing coronavirus disaster cannot be credibly truthfully argued against. Sadly, Beijing so far has not demonstrated any interest in acting appropriately concerning the present matter of the coronavirus. It will most likely attempt to continue to assail the global media with waves of distortions. Nevertheless, despite that having transpired, it is not too late to turn the situation around. China can put the present time to good use. The US, as the true dominant power in the world must maintain its poise. It must not react. It must act in a measured way using effective means, at a time and place of its choosing. Despite all the dissatisfaction and disappointment felt toward China, the US must interact as amiably as possible. Surely, the two countries are not at a point yet when the dark waters of despair have overwhelmed their leaders. When diplomats from both sides meet, they must approach each other with a certain buoyancy and hope. Consilio melius contendere atque vincere possumus quam ira. (We can compete and prevail better through wisdom than through anger.)

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