Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

China Missteps With Wild Allegation of a ‘New’ Deadly Pneumonia in Kazakhstan

Fortunately for the world, there is no new plague coming out of Kazakhstan. 

By Tristan Kenderdine for
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China Missteps With Wild Allegation of a ‘New’ Deadly Pneumonia in Kazakhstan

A medical worker wearing a protective suit helps a woman with her child suspected of having the coronavirus infection to get into an ambulance in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Thursday, March 19, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov

Kazakhstan was the unlikely target of China’s latest misfiring pandemic diplomacy.  A reasonably innocuous Ministry of Commerce communique was reprinted as fact in both Hong Kong and mainland China in English, leading to international news wires making the same spurious claim that a new form of deadly pneumonia had emerged in Kazakhstan since June. 

The original message was from the Economic and Commercial Office of the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan. The note was replicated by Xinhua a little over an hour after being posted by the China Embassy in Nur-Sultan, and soon after went viral on WeChat. The claim of a new pneumonia disease was cited widely as Chinese media sounded the alarm and ran with a series of stories that took the disinformation seriously. 

English-language media coverage was led by the normally credible South China Morning Post, which uncharacteristically echoed the state-run English language tabloid, the Global Times. The SCMP article cited unverified claims, while the Global Times went into plain diplomatic spin mode.

The Kazakh Ministry of Health has distanced themselves from the Chinese media reports, outright denying the claim. Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Health has faced strong criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the health minister was replaced in June after contracting COVID-19.

The Kazakh government COVID-19 portal itself was a cause of concern for many impartial watchers, as Kazakhstan official statistics ceased including asymptomatic carriers in the top-line data. A statistical recalibration to include these cases is what caused a massive spike in Johns Hopkins University’s reported numbers on July 1. 

But Kazakhstan’s spike in deaths is not attributable to a new form of pneumonia more deadly than COVID-19.

Kazakhstan’s infections have been recorded at a suspiciously stable but high rate of around 1,400 per day for the past week, which is not in line with the exponential growth logarithm of the virus. This high but stable rate seems like a managed number, which is unsurprising in a country that has seemingly lost control of its testing regime. 

COVID-19 is now so widespread in Kazakhstan that monitoring the infection rate is essentially meaningless. The only serious statistic to watch now is the mortality rate. At the moment, that number is deaths reported as COVID-19, plus those reported as pneumonia. Such a count puts the total dead at around 2,250, over a reported infection total of 54,747, which yields a mortality rate of around 4.1 percent, exactly within the known range for COVID-19. That is still a mortality rate less than half of Italy at its peak. Kazakhstan’s current “unknown pneumonia” mortality rate could double and still be below Italy’s COVID-19 mortality rate. 

This spike in Kazakhstan’s COVID-19 death rate is more readily explainable by poor governance systems. An already fragile healthcare system is overburdened, not enough tests are being completed, poor social practices meant that the general population did not follow social distancing guidelines, and pervasive incompetence permeates every level of government. 

The situation among the majority of Kazakhstan’s citizens also makes it a prime population for a pandemic. The minimum wage is just $110 per month. Oil exports mean that the country’s GDP per capita statistics paint a picture of moderate prosperity, but income inequality is extreme, meaning there is a large poor population increasingly without access to pharmaceutical or medical systems.

The Kazakh response to the pandemic and its fiddling with the statistics was not unique in Central Asia. Tajikistan’s statistics on infections and deaths remain wildly implausible. Turkmenistan claims no infections while it is largely understood that the pandemic is silently raging through the country. Uzbekistan began its second lockdown period on July 10 after a surge in infections.

Fortunately for the world there is no new plague coming out of Kazakhstan — just the known pandemic run amok.

Unfortunately for China’s supposed Belt and Road partner Kazakhstan, the source of the fake pneumonia story is the Economic and Commercial Office of the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan. This means that there cannot be any plausible deniability as would be the case if the rumor were started by a Chinese media outlet.

That’s exactly what happened when a series of nationalist internet posts emerged earlier in the year. The inflammatory post “Why Kazakhstan Desires to Return to China” (哈萨克斯坦为何渴望回归中国) was dismissed by the Chinese government as the work of a rogue nationalist. But the post resulted in an official summoning of Zhang Xiao, China’s ambassador to Kazakhstan, who already had tested his credibility with his belligerent tirade after being unable to contain public knowledge of the Xinjiang camps. Ethnic Kazakhs being caught up in the repression campaign against Uyghurs in Xinjiang is a divisive issue in Kazakhstan — widespread public discontent is in friction with the elite’s pro-China economic integration project.

Zhang Xiao in Kazakhstan, though, is but one of a series of unlikable Chinese ambassadors and foreign policy officials, including China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming, who has actively fed COVID-19 conspiracy theories, the now infamous Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, or fellow spokesperson Hua Chunying, whose unenviable spin tasks have included painting Canada as a threat to global security.

As Professor Kai He also argued recently, the “Wolf Warrior” foreign policy narrative that these pantomime villains personify has run its course. The belligerent foreign policy has set China’s diplomatic relations with some of its closest trading and strategic partners back years, if not decades. The levels of diplomatic immaturity in this rhetoric and strategy from China are hard to comprehend. 

Kazakhstan was supposed to be a linchpin in China’s Eurasian economic foreign policy. Rather than geopolitical strategy, though, the embassy’s reckless issue of disinformation seems like China’s wider political and geoeconomic engagement policy in Eurasia is flying ideologically blindly. This virus diplomacy is a far cry from the aspirations of global economic leadership that China had projected throughout the past decade. Why does China still not have a coherent narrative for its Kazakhstan policy? The answers must lie in the highest levels of leadership in China.

“Wolf Warrior” diplomacy has already failed China’s foreign interests. The wider political and diplomatic fallout from this 2020 foreign policy misstep may counterintuitively be that the nationalist faction majority within the CCP could reduced to a rump at the next Party reshuffle in 2022. Overplaying the nationalist rhetoric now may actually strengthen China’s market liberals and internationalist reformers within the very fractious institutions of China’s Communist Party leadership. Any changes to China’s foreign policy though could take upwards of 18 months to become visible, particularly in Central Asia.

Tristan Kenderdine is research director at Future Risk.