China and the COVID-19 Backlash

As the human and economic cost of the COVID-19 epidemic continues to reveal itself across the globe, in some quarters the blame game has already begun.

Liam Finnigan suggests now is not the time to beat any drum demanding China take responsibility for the pandemic. 

In what initially appeared to be a casual interview on TV3’s  AM Show, the US Ambassador to New Zealand, Scott Brown, discussed his exercise routine, his wife, and going for a beer with one of the show’s hosts, Duncan Garner.

Yet when Garner probed Brown on his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ambassador launched a tirade of criticism of China’s handling of the outbreak.

If the US had earlier access to accurate and transparent information, Brown claimed, they could have acted more quickly to prevent the tragic number of deaths in the country.

Brown’s China comments are not just the view of his administration. We have heard similar calls for transparency from Australia’s Scott Morrison, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and to a lesser extent, France’s Emmanuel Macron.

In contrast to the interview with Brown, the AM Show’s interview with Chinese Ambassador Wu Xi lacked any of the friendly chatter of spouses and exercise routines.

Instead, Wu spent her time defending her countries response to the outbreak, batting away unsubstantiated claims that the virus originated in a Government laboratory in Wuhan.

Several leaders are blaming China’s lack of transparency directly, and there is an evident accusatory tone against China – clearly seen here at home in the contrasting interviews between Ambassadors Brown and Wu. Amidst a global pandemic, the world is showing strong signs of anti-China sentiment.

The US response, as Wu noted with Garner, is rooted in blame. Besides blaming China, Donald Trump has frozen payments to the World Health Organisation, shifted responsibility to individual state Governors for failing to contain the virus, and suggested US hospitals have hoarded medical equipment causing a national shortage.

The US response has been heavily criticised. Not only for initially playing down the seriousness of the virus but in ignoring the advice of top officials and failing to enact significant preventative measures. Ironically, it is a classic Maoist tactic to divert any blame or responsibility onto others to fuel domestic support.

The US and Chinese criticism of each other is nothing new. It is expected when the world’s two superpowers are in strategic competition; a continuation of the rhetoric behind the trade war, and conflicts in the South and East China Seas.

Criticism of the Chinese political system is not new either. China’s centralised economic practices have been under scrutiny since China sought to join the WTO and even our own Minister for Trade, David Parker, has expressed concern at the lack of transparency in China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative.

More applicable to the current situation, China was heavily criticised for its cover-up of the SARS outbreak, including by the World Health Organisation.

What is different about this new swarm of China backlash is now the Chinese political apparatus is being used as a scapegoat for massive death outside its borders.

Unfortunately for the critics, China’s authoritarian socialist system means we are unlikely to ever see the levels of political transparency we see in other countries.

On the other hand, China is now more integrated in the world system than it has ever been.

Beginning with the market reforms of 1978, China has slowly adjusted internally to better align itself as an active global member.

More recently we have seen this in several key instances: ongoing human rights dialogues after Tiananmen Square; implementing a more open market economy before joining the WTO; enthusiastic participation in United Nations Peacekeeping missions reverting the long-running policy of non-interference; and continued support for the Paris Accord.

In direct contrast to the SARS outbreak, on January 28th the WHO praised China for its transparency in dealing with the virus. As we know, the disease spread in the weeks after and the US administration largely has itself to blame for not containing it more effectively.

For New Zealand, Prime Minister Ardern has understandably been focused on the domestic response to COVID-19, preferring not to join in on the debate regarding the fault of Chinese authorities.

Though she has voiced support towards an inquiry of COVID-19’s origins, rather than accusing China directly, her support is grounded in “common sense” after a global cataclysmic event.

New Zealand has spoken out against China’s actions before. Recent examples include the rebuke against the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province,  and China militarising islands in the South China Sea.

Yet international criticism is not uniquely directed towards China; we publicly condemned the US invasion of Iraq, and have criticised Australia in the past for not accommodating UN human rights investigators.

It is not in our nature to criticise others at a government level, unless they go against international law, relied upon so heavily by New Zealand as a small state in the world system.

With China, in particular, we have established a relationship that voices concern with each other. If it comes to light that accusations against China are valid, NZ will likely join in international criticism. But history shows that it won’t stop us quickly moving on to the next phase of cooperation.

In the meantime, our leaders are refraining from unsubstantiated blame, and focusing on the domestic response.

The public view against China in NZ is a different matter. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 the Commissioner of Race Relations, Meng Foon, has reported a spike in racism towards Asian New Zealanders. Foon’s comments have been echoed by various leaders in the Asian Community and a flurry of incidents being reported in media.

The sad truth is that many Chinese New Zealanders have been at the front of racism long before COVID-19.

Insight from authors Helene Wong and K. Emma Ng show the persistence of anti-Chinese sentiment as a natural part of growing up with Chinese heritage in New Zealand.

It seems COVID-19 has exacerbated existing tensions rather than created new ones. While there are clear issues of how a multi-cultural NZ works in practice, such overt racism reflects NZ’s relationships with Asian countries being underpinned by difference and misunderstanding.

We are likely to see these tensions further exacerbated, as NZ and China continue to increase economic, political and people-to-people links.

In a time of unprecedented global connectivity, COVID-19 is a global problem. Ambassador Xu said it best on The AM Show, and I paraphrase: this is a global pandemic. We need solidarity and we need to remain fully united to fight against the virus. We should not point fingers at each other.

An international inquiry into the origins of this outbreak will be the natural next step, regardless if COVID-19 started in China or elsewhere.

Let us reserve our accusations until then.


– Asia Media Centre, Liam Finnigan

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