Opinion: China is a coronavirus friend in need, but is it a friend indeed? | Opinion | DW | 21.05.2020

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Opinion: China is a coronavirus friend in need, but is it a friend indeed?

Beijing is helping many countries, mostly developing ones in Africa, fight the coronavirus pandemic. But taking support from China's communist government has its moral downsides, says DW's Dang Yuan.

The World Health Organization's (WHO) annual oversight convention became the scene for a political power struggle this week. The coronavirus pandemic, which should have dominated the proceedings, was pushed into the back seat.

Even though almost 5 million people have been infected by the potentially deadly pathogen, there was no debate about the crisis it has caused. Instead, a quarrel broke out over what political system better protects a country and its people in the case of a catastrophe. The United States was held up as an example of democracy and China as that of a totalitarian regime.

While US President Donald Trump is cutting funding to the WHO and threatening to leave the world body, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping is being astoundingly generous. In the next two years, China intends to make $2 billion (€1.82 billion) available to developing countries, Xi promised in a video message. As a comparison, the US contributes some $500 million yearly to the WHO. Xi also pledged to place any vaccinations developed and certified by China at the world's disposal as a "global public commodity." 

Magnanimity with a motive

Many health systems around the world, especially in less-developed countries, have been overwhelmed by extremely high rates of infection and are relying on rapid international assistance. These countries are particularly willing to accept generous aid from China.

China Hilfe Pakistan

Pakistan welcomed a team of Chinese doctors who arrived to help in Islamabad hospitals

As far as China is concerned, this all fits in with its master plan for working its way up to the top of the world order, where the US has left a vacuum after reducing its international cooperation, such as in various UN institutions. China, with its financial power, is moving into the gap and gaining increasing heft on the global political stage.

Beijing's stated aim is to form an alliance among developing countries so that they can become independent from their former colonial masters — both economically and politically — and strike out in new directions. But, in fact, China is itself seeking hegemony, although it would, of course, never admit it.

Read more: Sieren's China: Aid with ulterior motives

Addicted to development aid

China gives its aid without stipulating any political preconditions such as good governance. Beijing is financing huge infrastructure projects as part of its Silk Road initiative, which encompasses half the globe from China via the Strait of Gibraltar right across to the South Pacific. In the process, its government secured access to strategically important resources in Africa that feed the ever-hungry maw of the Chinese economy and has opened up new markets for Chinese exports, particularly in eastern and southeastern Europe.

The enormous debt burden of the recipient countries increases their political dependence on China as well. A single decision at the Communist Party headquarters sometimes suffices to determine whether a government has a chance at reelection or whether a dictator retains the reins of power. In such countries, Beijing chooses politicians it finds convenient as heads of state and government.

Straw man in the battle of political systems

The United States does not want to give up this struggle of systems without a fight. Washington is using Taiwan, officially a part of the Republic of China, as a straw man at the WHO. This democracy of 23 million people is not allowed to be a member of the UN body owing to Beijing's One China policy. Even its bid to receive observer status at the WHO has come to naught in the face of China's resistance.

Taiwan's government, which is critical of China, has managed the coronavirus crisis in an exemplary fashion and has rightly been praised for it. But to take this example and say that all democracies can master the coronavirus pandemic better than authoritarian regimes would be a false conclusion to draw.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo committed a beginner's mistake by lauding Taiwan while, unfortunately, forgetting that in his own country — the model for all the world's democracies — the coronavirus crisis has set everything in turmoil.

But it is just as disingenuous when Beijing's propaganda maintains that the Chinese model is more effective than any democracy. People have a right to more than just health and physical integrity. Indivisible, universal human rights such as that of free exercise of religion and freedom opinion are just as essential. And China is light years away from implementing those.

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