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China may win the war against coronavirus but lose the battle of the narrative

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 10/10/2020 Wang Xiangwei
a group of people walking on a city street: Shoppers in Beijing, China, over the Golden Week holiday. Photo: Bloomberg Shoppers in Beijing, China, over the Golden Week holiday. Photo: Bloomberg

The people thronged on the Bund, Shanghai's iconic waterfront; drone shots of bumper to bumper traffic jams on major national highways stretching kilometres; and shoppers packed the Taikoo Li Sanlitun, a Beijing downtown complex owned by Swire Properties, a Hong Kong developer.

Those sample images of economic activities and mass migrations of people are typically associated with China's Golden Week holiday, which is built around the October 1 National Day celebrations and coincides with the Mid-Autumn Festival this year, which extended the break to eight days from the usual seven.

But those images have special significance this time as this is the first major holiday since the country has brought the coronavirus pandemic under control.

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As the holiday ended on Thursday, tourism officials estimated 637 million domestic trips had been made during the holiday and the tourists' spending was tallied at 466.56 billion yuan (US$68 billion), higher than expectations as officials previously forecast 550 million trips.

While these figures may be considerably lower than last year's 782 million trips and 649.71 billion yuan, they are still truly impressive, a clear sign that China, which first reported the virus outbreak late December last year, has largely returned to normal.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Tourists visit the Temple of Heaven during 'Golden Week' public holiday in Beijing, China. Photo: EPA © Provided by South China Morning Post Tourists visit the Temple of Heaven during 'Golden Week' public holiday in Beijing, China. Photo: EPA

In fact, this year's figures could have been higher. During Golden Week, officials still put some restrictions in place, limiting all major tourist spots to 75 per cent of their usual capacity and encouraging primary and secondary school students not to travel outside the cities where they live. In addition, many universities were instructed to keep most students on campus.

The hive of spending and travel, along with the data that showed the country's manufacturing activity expanded in September, has further strengthened confidence in a continued recovery from the world's second largest economy, probably making it the only major economy globally to post positive growth this year.

All this has certainly stirred national pride and has given the official media good excuses to praise the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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This has also raised some optimism that China's impressive speed in returning to normal life will inspire the international community and help the country win respect and recognition, particularly at a time when the United States and much of Europe are bracing for continuous spikes in infections and deaths from the pandemic.

That optimism is misplaced, according to the latest survey of major advanced economies by the reputable Pew Research Center in the US, released on Tuesday.

Most of the 14 countries polled, including the US, Germany and Britain, rated China's Covid-19 response negative.

A median of 61 per cent said China had done a bad job dealing with the outbreak, while 37 per cent believed it had done a good job.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: People wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Photo: AFP © Provided by South China Morning Post People wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Photo: AFP

Perhaps more interestingly, the most negative reviews of China's handling of the outbreak came from the three countries in the Asia-Pacific region. More than seven in 10 in Japan, South Korea, and Australia said China had done a bad job with its Covid-19 response.

Disapproval of Beijing's handling of the pandemic also coloured people's overall views of China and Xi.

A majority in each of the countries polled had an unfavourable opinion of China. And in Australia, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the US, South Korea, Spain and Canada, negative views have reached their highest points since Pew started polling on this topic more than a decade ago.

Meanwhile, a median 78 per cent across the 14 countries said they had "not too much or no confidence" in Xi to do the right thing in world affairs. Pew surveyed 14,276 adults by telephone between June and August this year.

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The Chinese government was under heavy criticism at home and abroad for its initial mishandling of the outbreak which first started in Wuhan late December last year.

But since then, the Chinese government has taken draconian measures including lockdowns and strict social distancing rules to succeed in bringing the outbreak under control.

By Thursday, China had not reported any locally transmitted cases in 54 consecutive days even though it continued to report low double-digit imported infections daily including those who did not exhibit symptoms.

For months, US President Donald Trump and some other senior officials in his administration have blamed China for allowing the virus to spread to the rest of the world.

Chinese officials have countered that the Chinese government promptly notified the World Health Organization and individual countries including the US as early as January, arguing that the Trump administration's own failure to tackle the outbreak is to blame.

a bicycle parked on the side of a road: A cyclist passes a Chinese flag ahead of National Day in Beijing. Photo: EPA © Provided by South China Morning Post A cyclist passes a Chinese flag ahead of National Day in Beijing. Photo: EPA

Still, the survey may have been conducted against the backdrop of the pandemic but the increasingly unfavourable views of China over the past year point to a wider trend. Over the past year, an international backlash has been building against Beijing's tightening of control over Hong Kong, through the imposition of the national security law, and increased reports about the government's crackdown in Xinjiang as well as rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. China's wolf warrior diplomacy has also caused disquiet in many Western countries.

In a way, the survey results across the 14 nations have called into question Beijing's narrative that only a small group of anti-China politicians and elites in the Western countries, the US in particular, are trying to shift the blame for the pandemic on China and mislead the general public as part of their intensifying efforts to contain the rise of the country.

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Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor-in-chief of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, said the survey findings were the consequences of Washington's extreme measures to split the world.

As China advances, he said, most of the Western countries would have no choice but continue to do business with it. This may be true.

But the survey findings should serve as a wake-up call for Chinese officials pumping out propaganda about its global leadership.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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