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Brief #17: COVID & China’s relations, foreign influence/interference, community of shared future

Hi folks, this week we did something different. We posted a Twitter and in a mid-week post that we are going to let you suggest what we write about for this issue.

There were too many recommended topics for us to accommodate, so apologies to some of you. On the topics that we wrote about, its somewhat humbling given that, in some cases, the folks that suggested them are the true experts. At the risk of 班门弄斧, “teaching granny how to suck an egg” (Englis is a weird language) , happy reading!

- Yun and Adam

1. Implications of COVID on China’s relations

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has not significantly changed China’s bilateral relationships with other countries. In some cases, it extended or exacerbated the trend that was underway before the pandemic.

COVID-19 deepened the division and mistrust between China and the US. But this is just a symptom, the underlying trend has not changed. Both governments are using COVID for their own purposes, aiming at mostly the domestic audience, but with international ramifications. The bilateral relationship has deteriorated further as both governments continue to blame each other in order to lessen domestic scrutiny.

Predictably, China is pointing out the shortcomings in other countries’ COVID response. This propaganda campaign is mostly aimed at the domestic audience and the Chinese diaspora overseas and is unlikely to affect its position on bilateral relations. Many governments in liberal democracies are being criticised domestically already without encouragement from China.

Unlike the US, it appears that most countries around the world are not as willing to highlight China’s role in order to deflect blame.

However, we’re seeing the emergence of a new narrative — that China’s usage of medical supplies in January and February has supposedly led to the shortage of medical supplies in other countries. Note, of course, that when China was sourcing supplies (including via individual donations by members of the Chinese diaspora), there was no publicly acknowledged shortage of these supplies in countries such as Australia.

China is also attempting “mask diplomacy” to help foster better bilateral relationships. But questions have been raised around the quality of the medical supplies from China. In general, the reception of this mask diplomacy depends on a country’s receptiveness to China’s overtures before the pandemic. For countries that were more amenable to China, such assistance is often appreciated. For countries that were more suspicious of China, there can be a more sinister reading. Indeed, Huawei has stopped its European donation program after EU’s top diplomat’s claim of “battle of narratives”. On the other hand, a Global Times article, citing an analyst, has explicitly linked Huawei to medical supplies:

The US move to restrict normal sales of US products to Huawei may backfire, as China could ban the export of face masks and other medical gear to America which are in acute shortage due to the rapid spread of  the coronavirus, a Chinese analyst said on Wednesday.

On global governance and multilateral institutions, China is trying to seize the leadership position vacated by the US. While the G7 failed to agree on a statement after the US insistence on the naming of the virus, Xi’s statement at the G20 titled “Working Together to Defeat the COVID-19 Outbreak” was heavily promoted by official party-state media.

On commercial and economic links, it is unlikely that this COVID experience will lead to a mass exodus of firms from China. From a multinational corporation’s perspective, so far China has been able to contain the spread of the virus and restore economic activities reasonably fast. Apple’s announcement to close all its stores other than those in Great China is a case in point.

On people to people links, COVID has led to rising xenophobia, both in China against foreigners and in Western countries with big Chinese diaspora population. If this deteriorates further, it may shift people’s preference for travel and study destinations.

2. Differences in COVID responses

We’re experiencing frequent deja vu, as we see COVID spreading first within China, and now within other countries, including across European countries, the US, and Australia.

There are many factors in why countries respond similarly or differently. Some key differences in how countries respond are:

  1. How seriously the leaders and the people take the pandemic
  2. The role and power of the government in a pandemic
  3. The different levels of government (e.g. federal/unitary)
  4. Compliance with government directives (e.g. trust in government, social attitude, enforcement measures)
  5. How the healthcare system functions (e.g. universal healthcare)
  6. The government’s attitude towards stimulus
  7. The structure of the economy (e.g. services or manufacturing)
  8. The capacity of the economy to absorb shocks
  9. The flexibility of the economy and society to rapidly redirect resources

The first point is the most important factor in determining how quickly the government and society respond. On this, many countries in East Asia took COVID very seriously early on. Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea took measures such as extensive testing, contact tracing, quarantining months ahead of countries such as Australia. Their past experiences with SARS are likely a factor.

For Australia, although it implemented travel restrictions on 1 February, it took another six weeks (16 March) to implement domestic measures such as banning of large gatherings (initially only for more than 500 people). The United States also did not take the pandemic seriously early on, with the President calling it a “hoax” on 28 February.

It was not just the governments that didn’t take it seriously. Even after governments in Australia and the United States released warnings about COVID, people were still seen partying in large groups and not observing any physical distancing. Meanwhile, many people with connections to East Asia in those countries were taking precautionary measures above what the government has recommended, including wearing masks. Yet, often they became targets of abuse for taking these precautions.

On economic responses, governments with a built-in well-functioning social safety net are likely better able to respond quickly to the economic shock. As the service industry taking a big hit from physical distancing measures, automatic stabilisers will kick in from rising unemployment. However, this is not enough. Whether and how the government implement economic stimulus will depend on a variety of factors, including governance philosophy, and political constraints.

3. Responding to China’s foreign influence and interference activities

We have spent a fair bit of time thinking about this, both in and outside of government. We wrote about Australia’s experience for the February issue of The Diplomat Magazine. Below are a few relevant bits from our article, Confronting Foreign Influence in Australia.

On the key challenge facing Australia:

For an open country like Australia, the big challenge in dealing with foreign interference is to strike a balance between deterring and stopping foreign interference while also preserving individual liberties and social cohesion. There can be a temptation to treat legitimate influence activities or political expression with suspicion and scrutiny. This may inflame existing prejudices within society. We have already seen instances of this in Australia’s heated China debate.

On the problem of defining “foreign interference”:

[T]here has been a lack of public conversation and an absence of clarity on what constitutes foreign interference and examples of foreign interference activities. This lack of clarity, to a large extent, is due to the amorphous nature of foreign interference. The diversity of sources and forms of foreign interference makes it hard to pin down.

On Chinese diaspora communities:

The lack of clarity on what constitutes foreign interference has a big effect on the Chinese diaspora communities in Australia. On the one hand, the people on the receiving end of deceptive or coercive conduct may not know what to do. On the other hand, the political actions of individual Chinese-Australians or Chinese nationals in Australia would be scrutinized more closely than other groups for signs of foreign interference. Their political views may be assessed by some in the community in the context of countering foreign interference, which could raise suspicion that may discourage some Chinese-Australians from fully participating in political activities. This can unintentionally impede freedom of speech and exercise of democractic rights.

We proposed some principles for a response:

Legislative changes are not enough to deal with the problem of foreign interference; a broader approach is needed. There are three principles Australia should consider: targeted response, building resilience, and community engagement.

First, Australia needs to target its counter-foreign interference efforts to behaviors and actions with the greatest potential for negative consequences instead of coming up with one-size-fits-all solutions. Most importantly, policy responses must not yield more negative side effects than the problem itself. Limiting immigration from selected countries or screening political candidates are examples of proposed responses that will have major negative externalities that do more harm than good.

Second, Australia needs to build resilience through efforts to reinforce its democractic institutions in the face of undue influence and interference. This includes ensuring trust in Australia’s political and election systems, and educating its people on disinformation.

Finally, Chinese diaspora communities have a big role to play in Australia’s counter-foreign interference efforts. However, current efforts are inadequate, partially due to the lack of understanding and the lack of representation of Chinese-Australians in the intelligence and defense community. More needs to be done to engage the Chinese communities in Australia.

We also made a submission to the Australian Senate’s Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media on the issue of China’s foreign interference through social media. In it, we made five recommendations:

  1. Prioritise China in Australia’s strategy addressing the challenges of foreign interference through social media.
  2. Increase government outreach to Chinese-Australian communities.
  3. Increase Australian Government support for digital media literacy.
  4. Consistently articulate and demonstrate the importance of freedom of speech.
  5. Upgrade Australia’s analytical capabilities on China’s foreign influence, interference, propaganda, and misinformation operations.

You can read the full submission here.

All of the above are for the Australian context, but many liberal democracies face a range of similar challenges in thinking about, responding to, China’s influence and interference efforts. There is much that we can learn from each other.

4. A community of shared future for mankind

The “community of shared future for mankind” 人类命运共同体 concept, essentially, argues that the world is interconnected and our fates and intertwined, no one country is an island.

First raised by Hu, and later adopted by Xi as a key part of his foreign policy plank, the implications of this concept is that great power relations need to move away from Cold War-era models towards something more cooperative. The concept is a response to a changing world: economic globalisation, proliferating global challenges that are beyond the control of any one country, and China’s rising role in global governance.

In the current COVID-19 context, official state media has to urge efforts to enhance international cooperation on:

  1. disease control and prevention;
  2. development of drugs, tests and vaccines; and
  3. medical aid

China’s efforts to influence the global narrative on COVID-19 heavily features talking about the above, focusing on the supposed international public benefit of China’s efforts (slowing spread and buying time for the international community), providing data and advice to other countries, and giving medical aid.

The concept has been adopted by Xi in thinking about China’s COVID-19 priorities. For instance, early this month at a forum on epidemic prevention and control, he listed enhancing international cooperation as one of the seven priorities in China’s public health strategy against the virus:

Strengthen international cooperation in scientific research on epidemic prevention and control. Public health security is a common challenge faced by humankind, and all countries needs to work together to address it. Currently, the new [coronovirus] epidemic has appeared in many countries. It is necessary to strengthen communication with WHO, and cooperate with relevant countries, especially in countries with high incidence of epidemic, in scientific research on traceability, drugs, vaccines, and testing. [We need to share] scientific research data and information, jointly research and propose coping strategies, and contribute wisdom and strength to promote the building of a community of shared future for mankind.


COVID-19, at least from the vantage of Beijing, has confirmed the efficacy and importance of the “community of shared future for mankind” concept, mainly by highlighting the interconnectedness of our world and the importance of international cooperation on global challenges.

There are genuine efforts at cooperation, especially from China’s scientists and doctors. On the other hand, the state is using the concept as a propaganda tool. In some cases, the two are not exclusive: actual cooperation is played up.

A recent article in People’s Daily authored by the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era Research Centre at the China Academy of Social Sciences (talk about a mouthful) illustrates well this blend of genuine interest in international cooperation of COVID-19 with nationalist and party rhetoric and propaganda. It is worth a read if you want to know more about how the concept is being used in the current context of the virus.

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