Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

China Changes Diplomatic Styles in Central Asia Over COVID-19

Why is China rushing to comment on domestic COVID-19 developments in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan?

Umida Hashimova
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China Changes Diplomatic Styles in Central Asia Over COVID-19
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / CDC

In the past several weeks China has reacted to COVID-related events in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with out-of-character zeal. In both cases China’s embassies in the respective countries jumped at the opportunity to comment on local events related to the pandemic rather than keep to their historically low profile. In Uzbekistan Beijing rebutted the claim that China is the source of the novel coronavirus. Earlier, China had sowed panic that a new, deadlier virus had emerged in Kazakhstan. 

On July 17, in a YouTube video clip, a 58-year-old man in white garb appeared, holding a staff in his hand, claiming to be the only chosen “prophet” for God’s mission to save humanity from COVID-19 if allowed to reach the source of the infection in China. The State Committee of Religious Affairs of Uzbekistan reacted immediately, appealing to the local population to not believe the man. According to the local police, the man is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation for a brain injury endured during his military service in Afghanistan in the early 1980s.

Despite the clear, obvious conclusion that the most absurd part of the video is the man’s claim to prophethood, the Chinese Embassy reacted strongest to the suggestion that the novel coronavirus originated in China. The embassy deemed it necessary to issue a statement that China is not the “motherland of the coronavirus,” but merely the first country to report it. The statement continued that “scientific research” indicated that the coronavirus appeared in other parts of the world much earlier than the first outbreak in China.

Chinese officials and state media have been trying to deflect blame surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing back against language that notes Wuhan, China as the origin of the virus. 

The recent Uzbekistan incident indicates that China will take any opportunity, large or small, to stress its perspective. The embassy’s behavior follows the stance taken in Beijing’s white paper “Fighting COVID-19: China in Action,” published in June 2020, which states that the country is a victim of a campaign, furthered by certain politicians, to stigmatize China over the outbreak of COVID-19 and “cook up theories that China is where the virus originated.” 

In furthering its line, Beijing continues to jump into domestic discussions in Central Asia.

In Kazakhstan, on July 9 the Chinese Embassy in Nur-Sultan scrambled to comment on the developing COVID-19 situation. As pneumonia cases not attributed to COVID-19 in official statistics soared, China issued a warning to its citizens to take necessary precautions in Kazakhstan in response to the spread of a new pneumonia, “deadlier than COVID-19.” Later, the Ministry of Health of Kazakhstan debunked the statement.

There has, indeed, been a sudden jump in pneumonia cases in Kazakhstan compared to the same period last year; those statistics were being accounted separately from COVID-19 cases despite the reasonable conclusion that a bulk of that jump is likely COVID-19. Whether those statistics should be merged under a single COVID-19 category is still being debated by the country’s health officials. Earlier in July Kazakh officials had decided to merge them, as Kyrgyzstan has done, as of August 1, but walked that decision back. Nevertheless, the Chinese Embassy jumped into the opportunity to comment without confirming its suspicions, even with its Kazakh colleagues. The news led to discussions among Chinese experts calling to contain the new form of the virus and misleading headlines around the world based on the embassy’s unfounded alert.

From the outset, Beijing has sought to cast doubt on the theory that the virus originated in China. In both incidents in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, China acted as an opportunist and jumped in to comment on domestic COVID-19 related developments. In Uzbekistan, Beijing used an opportunity to reiterate its aggressive line deflecting talk about the origins of the virus in China. In Kazakhstan, Beijing’s purpose was to divert attention from China as the infection originator and sow panic.

By issuing these statements, Beijing has altered its typical diplomatic course in Central Asia. China is shifting from a low profile, characterized by avoiding commenting on domestic affairs in partner countries, to an aggressive posture that injects Chinese commentary into local developments to further Beijing’s talking points. No arena is too small for the war of narratives Beijing has delved into.