China, the new moral power?

China, the new moral power?

With the magnitude of China’s Covid-19 crisis declining — the number of new domestic infections has fallen in recent weeks and no new cases of community transmission have been reported over the past week — the Chinese government is now turning its attention to supporting the efforts of other countries struggling with the pandemic. It has offered to share its expertise and experience in fighting the virus with India. China is sending planeloads of testing kits, masks, ventilators and medicines as well as health professionals to dozens of countries. These include poor and developing countries like Liberia and Cambodia as well as economic powerhouses and G-8 members like Italy and France. NATO and EU members, who in the past would have turned to Washington for help are now looking to Beijing for support. China is reshaping the global order. If the Belt and Road Initiative signalled Chinese global economic heft, with the coronavirus pandemic, China is positioning itself as the world’s new humanitarian superpower. And even as it does so, US President Donald Trump is twiddling his thumbs. China’s rise is being facilitated by Trump’s abdication of a responsible and empathetic leadership role in the current global health crisis. His ‘America First’ policy saw the US downsize its participation in various global initiatives and institutions. American self-absorption has assumed unprecedented levels now. Not only has the Trump administration turned its backs on even its European allies, it was too late in helping its own people. Trump’s strategy was focused on name-calling and scapegoating, as when he called the coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus.’ That does not make for world leadership.  

It is true that Covid-19 originated in China. China’s initial handling of the outbreak was inept and flawed; whistleblowers were arrested in an attempt to downplay the crisis. Its government was opaque and disingenuous on facts and figures. But after some initial floundering, the Xi Jinping government got its act together. Hospitals and isolation facilities were built at remarkable speed and quarantines and lockdowns were imposed. They were often harsh. However, several weeks later, with the domestic situation improving, China is reaching out to others.

At a time of grave uncertainty and crisis, the world needs strong leadership, and this China is providing through its global outreach. Many are criticising this outreach as a public relations exercise aimed at improving its image, which it might well be. But this exercise is helping other countries in a positive way. China’s use of soft power to win friends and influence is neither to be scoffed at nor taken lightly by either the US or others that have pretensions to global leadership.

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