April 2020

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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April was a month of reckoning as media across the wider Mediterranean region published polls and commentaries that helped shed light on how the public reacted to Beijing’s aid campaign and to Washington’s attempt to reshape the COVID-19 narrative with an emphasis on Chinese responsibility.

In Southern Europe, it seems that Italy was the only country where Chinese so-called “mask diplomacy” proved effective, despite the criticisms that we discussed in the previous issues of the ChinaMed Observer. A poll carried out by the polling company SWG shows that China is ranking first as the friendliest country among Italians, followed by Russia and the United States. It is important to highlight the fact that the positive opinion toward China grew by 42% (from 12% to 52%) between 2019 and 2020. While 36% of the respondents believe that Italy should align with China in the future, 30% are in favor of close relations with the United States. Formiche’s journalist Francesco Bechis argues that such an important change of the situation can be explained by looking at two factors. [1] The first is the penetration of Chinese propaganda into the Italian media ecosystem through a series of agreements signed during Xi Jinping’s visit to Rome in early 2019. According to the journalist, this should explain why Chinese aid was covered much more extensively by Italian media than the American one. The second factor is the strong endorsement from Alessandro Di Battista, one of the main figures of the Five Star Movement, arguing that China “will win the third world war” and that China provided generous assistance to Italy because of the special relationship established by Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who is also the former leader of the Five Star Movement. [2] According to Pier Ferdinando Casini, the former President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the relationship with China and Russia must be strengthened while the friendship with the United States remains the main pillar of Italian foreign policy. [3] Instead of pointing to China’s soft power strategy, Casini argues that the explanation for the surprising result of the SWG poll lies in the deep dissatisfaction amongst Italian citizens toward the European Union and the declining trust in the American President Donald Trump. At the same time, Casini makes the case that Italian public opinion is rather ignorant about foreign affairs and, implicitly, the poll should be taken with a grain of salt. The leaders of the Northern League and Brother of Italy, the two main right-wing parties, have launched strong attacks against Minister Di Maio and the Five Star Movement for the friendly attitude toward China. [4]

In comparison the situation is rather different in Greece and Spain. According to polls, 44% of the Greeks believe that China is responsible for the spread of COVID-19. [5] While 39% percent of the people do not think that it is a man-made virus, 20% of the Greeks do think so. Consistently, the popularity of Xi Jinping in the country has decreased by 16% to 37% from December 2019—still more than Donald Trump and Angela Merkel though. Despite this negative perception, 43% of the people put China among the “winners” of today’s situation. Against this background, Thodoris Pelagidis, Professor of Economic Analysis at the University of Piraeus and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes that Italy received massive assistance from China not by chance. [6] Rather, this is because the areas stricken by COVID-19 are inhabited by a large Chinese community. Similarly, he argues that China helped Greece and Spain for the same reason: to protect its interests there as Europe becomes increasingly sensitive to Chinese influence. In Spain, Carmen González Enríquez, Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, conducted a survey that indicates perceptions of China are somehow ambiguous. [7] On the one hand, the trade war with the United States and COVID-19 are seen as significant threats for Spain. On the other hand, however, there is widespread acknowledgement of China’s crucial role in the Southern European country. Xi Jinping, nonetheless, remains more popular than Donald Trump.

French media, too, displays an attitude of reflection on China’s recent actions. For example, Le Figaro published an article calling for making China pay reparations for the damage caused by COVID-19. [8] Surely, the article published in the website of the Chinese, titled “Restoring distorted facts - Observations of a Chinese diplomat posted to Paris,” did not win any favor to China as many French media published a number of articles and commentaries that are extremely critical of Chinese diplomats and foreign policy. [9] The anonymous author of the much-criticized article makes a series of accusation against the French government and claims that doctors refuse to treat the patients. At the same time, Chinese influence in Africa, especially in Ethiopia (the country of origin of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus) is identified as one of the reasons why the World Health Organization keeps on excluding Taiwan and refuses to criticize the initial cover-up in Wuhan. [10] Chinese presence in Africa is also part of the discussion on African debt. According to French commentators, China will have to intervene to stabilize the financial situation of its local allies now that it tamed the new coronavirus at home. [11] As the French President Emmanuel Macron called for an international debt moratorium to help Africa, some perceive his words as an attempt to place pressure on China and challenge its presence in the Sahel. [12]

Moving to the Middle East, we found articles that praise China’s response to the COVID-19 at home and abroad. Some, like one published by the Algerian newspaper Dzair Daily, speak loudly about how China’s diplomacy was helped by Western delays. [13] Indeed, the author points to the fact that, in comparison with China, the European Union is Algeria’s first trade partner but was slow to provide aid. Moreover, it provided more aid to Morocco and Tunisia. Others, such as the articles published by the Qatari newspaper Lusayl and the Egyptian Al-Ahram, show that China’s aid and the words of its ambassadors were effective in winning the support of local politicians, at least officially, [14] though the rush to send aid made Chinese diplomats careless as they were questioned by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs for sending boxes of aid to Armenia decorated with wishes mentioning the Mount Ararat. [15] The Mount Ararat is within the Turkish border but is seen by Armenians as theirs.

Yet, there are also articles that indicate the presence of a general cautiousness in the assessment of Chinese aid and response to the coronavirus. For example, the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm published an interesting article about the “frightening success” of China in fighting COVID-19 in comparison to European countries and the United States. [16] According to the author, it is evident that the Chinese political system has its own advantages in reacting to crises like the one of today. However, that is not a system that the author admires in how it treats it citizens. This is why he argues that the Chinese success requires others to think about how to redefine the social contract between state and citizen in ways that guarantees both protection from natural threats and individual freedom. He mentions South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore as potential sources of inspiration. In Jordan, the problem with COVID-19 and China is not about politics but economy as the dependence on Chinese products is seen as significant liability for Jordanian companies and consumers. [17] Hence, diversification of the suppliers is described as a priority, even more if it can help local companies in this difficult moment. In Israel, the Tel Aviv District Court is called to decide whether to approve a class action lawsuit against China for coronavirus-related reparations worth NIS 100 billion. [18] The lawsuit was filed by the Herzliya Association, which claims to represent all the citizens of Israel who were affected by their alleged negligence of the Chinese government.

We conclude with a review of the discussion in Iran, which is surely the most interesting one in the region. In an interview with IRNA, Professor Mohsen Shariatinia provides a pragmatic description of the Sino-Iranian relations and China’s current status. [19] He argues that it is difficult to say if and how much China is winning the struggle for international influence as the economic repercussions of the pandemic are not clear yet, though it is evident that they are and will be significant. Moreover, the Chinese model of response to the coronavirus cannot be replicated by other countries, despite its extreme effectiveness. Therefore, there is a limited number of lessons that others can learn. The Sino-Iranian relations will hardly change. From an ideological point of view, there are significant differences between the two countries. It is energy and American pressure that connects the two and makes the relationship unbalanced in China’s favor. Only the normalization of Iran’s relations with other countries can lead to a change of the situation. Somehow similar comments were made by Majid-Reza Hariri, the Head of Iran-China Joint Chamber of Commerce. [20] The fact that Iran and China are close is mostly about economics rather than politics. According to him, China is the top trade partner of many countries in the region, some are allies of the United States and some are not. Iran has strong economic relations with China mostly because China is a key player in the world economy and that would be the case, he points out, even if the 1979 revolution had never happened. On the contrary, it is the fact that Iran has relations so strong only with China that is strange but it is not Iran’s fault. Rather Hariri, declared to the IRNA journalist, it is because the United States made it impossible for Iran to have normal economic relations with other countries.  

Yet, there are also those who have a far more critical view of the current situation, especially as the coronavirus continues to spread in Iran. Shahruz Barzegar Kalashani, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, made the argument that Iran is being too silent about the alleged cover-up by Chinese authorities in the early stages of the pandemic in Wuhan. [21] The dependence on China has made it impossible for Iran to cancel the flights to and from China, thereby allowing COVID-19 to enter the country. His comments came just a few days after the Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahan declared that the data provided by China are “a bitter joke.” Interestingly, it seems that some interpreted these comments as a way for the Iranian government to escape its responsibility to deal with the coronavirus. Abbas Abdi, an influential figure among Iranian reformists, claimed that China’s political system and the taste for unusual animals in some of its regions are responsible for the development of COVID-19. [22] However, he accuses the Iranian government of mimicking the American government in using China as a scapegoat for its own carelessness. It is not China’s fault if there are so many cases of contagion in Iran. Moreover, given China’s centrality in Iranian foreign policy, the declaration of the Health Ministry spokesman is akin to a diplomatic gaffe. Although it would be better for Iran to expand its diplomatic horizon so to rebalance its relations with China, Abbas Abdi stated, this is not possible at the moment and certain comments should be kept private. After all, Iran’s hands, he somehow agrees with Shahruz Barzegar Kalashani, are tied.

[1] Francesco Bechis, Se gli italiani preferiscono la Cina agli Usa (e alla Ue) [When Italians prefer China over the US (and the EU)], Formiche, April 21, 2020, link.

[2] Polemica su Di Battista e la Cina. Il Pd: "Ci vuole servi sciocchi di Pechino". I renziani: "Conte si dissoci". Malumori tra i grillini [Debate on Di Battista and China. The PD: “He wants us to become foolish servants of Beijing.” The renziani: “Conte must speak against this.” Discontent among the grillini], la Repubblica, April 19, 2020, link.

[3] Francesco De Palo, W la Cina! Il sondaggio Swg che non ti aspetti. Parla Pier Ferdinando Casini [Long live China! The SWG poll that surprises you and the comment of Pier Ferdinando Casini], Formiche, April  7, 2020, link.

[4] Emanuele Buzzi, Coronavirus, scontro tra Di Battista e Salvini: “Finto populista” “Vuole affidarci alla Cina” [Coronavirus, clash between Di Battista and Salvini: “Fake populist” “He wants to sell us to China”], Il Corriere, April 21, 2020, link.

[5] Oi ellines theoroun pos I kina exei eythines gia ton koronoio kai polloi pos organothike apo isxura symferonta, Οι Έλληνες θεωρούν πως η Κίνα έχει ευθύνες για τον κορονοιό και πολλοί πως οργανώθηκε από ισχυρά συμφέροντα [Study: Greeks believe that China is responsible for COVID-9 and many believe that it was organized by certain interest groups], Lifo, April 23, 2020, link.

[6] Thodoris Pelagidis, Europi: Apofisi tis Kinas?, Ευρώπη: Απόφυση της Κίνας [Europe: An extension of China?], Ta Nea, April 18, 2020, link.

[7] Alonso Ana, Los españoles perciben a China y EEUU como amenazas en tiempos de coronavirus [Spaniards perceive China and the United States as threats in times of coronavirus], El Independiente, April 16, 2020, link.

[8] Francis Journot, Nous devrons exiger de la Chine une réparation du préjudice subi [We should demand Chinese reparation for the damage], Le Figaro, April 23, 2020, link.

[9] For example: Frédéric Lemaître and Brice Pedroletti, Chine : la diplomatie du “loup combattant” [China : The “wolf warrior” diplomacy], Le Monde, April 30, 2020, link.

[10] Niquet Valerie, Un défi pour le multilatéralisme: l’instrumentalisation de l’Afrique par la Chine et ses conséquences sur les décisions de l’OMS [A challenge for multilateralism: China’s instrumentalization of Africa and its consequences on the WHO’s decisions], Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique, April 14, 2020, link.

[11] Luc Lenoir, Coronavirus: en Afrique, la Chine veut faire figure de sauveur [Coronavirus : China wants to be a savior in Africa], Le Figaro, April 8, 2020, link.

[12] Sébastien Hervieu, Dette des pays pauvres: Macron cajole l'Afrique et tacle la Chine [The debt of poor countries: Macron cajoles Africa and tackles China], L’Express, April 23, 2020, link.

[13] Algérie: Rapprochement avec la Chine et la “nouvelle route de la soie”? [Algeria : rapprochement with China and “the New Silk Road”], Dzair Daily, April 13, 2020, link.

[14] Shawqi Mahdi, Al-Sin ladayha thiqqat kamila fi intisar Qatar ʿala corona sariʿan, الصين لديها ثقة كاملة في انتصار قطر على كورونا سريعاً [China completely confident in Qatar’s quick victory over corona], Lusayl, April 4, 2020, link; ʿIsmat al-Shami, Wazir al-iskan: al-taʿawun al-misriyy al-siniyy bi-l-ʿasimat al-idariyya yaʿkisu matanat al-ʿalaqat bayna al-baladayn, وزير الإسكان: التعاون المصري - الصيني بالعاصمة الإدارية يعكس متانة العلاقات بين البلدين [Minister of Housing: the Sino-Egyptian cooperation in the administrative capital reflects the strength of the relations between the two countries], Al-Ahram Gate, April 22,2020, link.

[15] Dışişleri, Çin’den “Ermenistan’a gönderdiği kolilerdeki Ağrı Dağı atfı”na izahat istedi [Statement of the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Hami Aksoy, in Response to a Question Regarding the Reference to Mount Ararat], Sozcu, link.

[16] Ahmad Jalal, Nijah al-Sin al-mukhif نجاح الصين المخيف [China’s frightening success], Al-Masry al-Youm, April 6, 2020, link.

[17] Khawla Kamel, Tanwiʿ al-shurakaʾ al-tijariyyin li-l-Urdun darurat hatamiyya تنويع الشركاء التجاريين للأردن ضرورة حتمية [Diversifying Jordan’s trading partners is an imperative], Al-Dostur, April 6, 2020, link.

[18] Ezrachy Israel neged sin: bakash leishur yizugit beshach meaa milliard shkel begin nizkay hacorona אזרחי ישראל נגד סין: בקשה לאישור ייצוגית בסך מאה מיליארד שקל הוגשה בגין נזקי הקורונה [Citizens of Israel vs China: Class action worth NIS 100 Billion Filed for coronavirus-related damages] Calcalist, March 31, 2020, link.

[19] Model-e cini-ye moqabele ba corona qabeliyat-e tekrar nadarad, مدل چینی مقابله با کرونا قابلیت تکرار ندارد [The Chinese model of fighting the coronavirus cannot be replicated], IRNA, April 12 2020, link.

[20] Morteza Golpur, Majid-Reza Hariri, raʾis-e otaq-e bazargani-e Iran-o-Cin: vaqeʿiyat-e ravabet-e eqtesadi-e Iran va Cin bayad rowshan shavad, مجیدرضا حریری، رییس اتاق بازرگانی ایران و چین: واقعیت روابط اقتصادی ایران و چین باید روشن شود [Majid Reza Hariri, Head of Iran-China Joint Chamber of Commerce: The reality of the Sino-Iranian relations must be clarified], IRNA, April 13, 2020, link.

[21] Namayande-ye majles: salamati-e mardom-ra feda-ye ravabet ba Cin nakonid, نماینده مجلس: سلامتی مردم را فدای رابطه با چین نکنید [MP: Do not sacrifice the people’s health for the relationship with China], Fararu, April 7, 2020, link.

[22] ʿAbbas ʿAbdi: be-khater-e corona be Cin hamle mikonand ta masʾuliyat-e khwod-ra farafkani konand, عباس عبدی: بخاطر کرونا به چین حمله می‌کنند تا مسئولیت خود را فرافکنی کنند [Abbas Abdi: they blame China for corona to project their own responsibility], Dunya-ye eqtesad, April 10, 2020, link.

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