Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the World Health Assembly (WHA) on Monday, May 18. Decoding that speech shines a powerful light on China’s lines of defense as well as weaknesses and priorities for the future. This is the discourse the world will be confronted with in the next months.
Beijing’s priority is to transform the perception of the COVID-19 pandemic from “China made” to a global health emergency a “catching the world by surprise,” where “races or nationalities are irrelevant.” The Chinese people are assured that the leadership did everything to save and protect them, and succeeded in “turning the tide” to win the battle against COVID-19.
Under this narrative China is a victim, in no way responsible for the damages caused to the world. At the same time, preempting condemnations that the PRC refuses to entertain, Xi Jinping offered his “condolences for every life lost.”
On the defensive against criticisms of China’s initial response to the outbreak, the Chinese president also firmly reasserted the new mantra that China acted with openness and full transparency in a “most timely manner,” sharing the new virus’ genome at the “earliest possible time.” In reality, the Shanghai laboratory that shared the genome was actually asked to suspend its research and refer to the central authorities.
Xi also strongly underlined the decisive role of the WHO and the “good work applauded by all” of its director-general, Dr. Tedros, in a bid to silence any criticism against an institution that initially at least followed China’s position closely.
Xi Jinping speech is a fight to regain lost grounds and reassert China’s leadership or “central position” on the international scene. The Chinese president made proposals whose main objective is to play on divisions between the United States and the rest of the world and defend multilateralism — in words rather than in deeds — in the face of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First policy.” China, recently accused by Brussels and the United States of increasing its hacking operations against biomedical laboratories researching COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, also proposed to give any treatments the status of a “global public good” accessible to all.
To rebut critics, particularly from Europe, Xi offered to increase cooperation in information sharing and international cooperation in medical research, “putting people first” before financial interests. The leading role of the WHO is reasserted and China – again contrary to the United States’ posture — promises to increase its financial contribution further. Xi Jinping asked for better “global governance in the area of public health,” ignoring the fact that Beijing alone was responsible for the early lack of information and applied pressure to delay the declaration of a pandemic by the WHO, in contradiction with new rules adopted by the international organization in 2005.
Meanwhile, Xi did not reject the increasingly popular idea of a “comprehensive review” into COVID-19, but spoke of a review focusing on “global responses” rather than the origins of the virus. It should be “based on science,” a code word used to reject any “political” criticism. This comprehensive review should also be led by the WHO, which, under Dr. Tedros, has gone out of its way to avoid causing any trouble for China, including by denying Taiwan’s WHA observer status under pressure from Beijing.
Xi Jinping also mobilized his concept of “shared future for the people of the world to work as one.” To reach out to Europe, and try to diffuse critics, Xi Jinping mentioned the necessity to “safeguard our planet” and the global commons, a theme at the center of the recent — censored — letter sent by European ambassadors to Beijing to commemorate the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations with the PRC. Climate change is indeed a priority for France – a major actor in Europe — and the EU; it is also a domain where China is comfortable, and seeks to nourish a dialogue damaged by COVID-19 and the country’s “wolf warrior” diplomatic style.
China also offered to contribute to a “humanitarian depot” and “fast track health corridors,” in order “to guarantee medical equipment delivery” and reverse a global feeling of insecurity regarding the PRC’s monopoly of these strategic resources.
The main target of Xi Jinping’s speech is the “global South” and, more specifically, the African continent. The terrain lost in Western democracies amid the pandemic will be hard to win back. However, in terms of global influence, the role of the global South and Africa is vital for China. There also, the image of China has been severely damaged. For the first time, African ambassadors to the PRC had to write a joint letter to protest how African residents were being treated in the PRC. On the defensive, Xi reminds his public that he will “work with G-20 countries” on debt relief, conveniently forgetting that China tried to exclude loans “offered” under the Belt and Road Initiative from these mechanisms. Xi also proposed to provide $2 billion over two years to help fight the coronavirus, focusing on developing countries.
Xi strongly reminded “Africa” of the help it received – and still receives — from Chinese medical doctors “over seven decades” and the “tremendous amount” of assistance provided. China, the more developed country or “elder brother” of the global South, also offered to help by “pairing” Chinese hospitals with African ones, failing to recognize that, up to now, the African continent can also be considered as a model in dealing with the epidemic and – unlike China — limiting the spread of new diseases to the world.
Xi’s speech is a signal that for China, the blow has hit hard. Rebuilding the image of a benevolent power, a source of opportunities to all, will be difficult. The more so because the COVID-19 crisis indeed accelerated tendencies that already existed regarding the integration of the PRC into a system of shared global norms.
China also will have to face the economic consequences of this crisis and the risks posed by potential delocalization at a time when the country cannot afford to lose its status of “the world’s factory.” In that context, the most crucial recommendation in Xi’s speech – as it concerns the immediate interests of the PRC directly — might be to “restore economic and social development and reestablished global supply chain.” This indeed remains the top priority for the stability of the Chinese regime.
Valérie Niquet is head of the Asia program at the Foundation for Strategic Research, Paris.