March 2020

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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The spread of COVID-19 to many countries in the wider Mediterranean region has occupied significant space in Chinese media in March. However, Chinese commentators have not forgotten other ongoing crises, especially those in Libya and Syria.

Chinese media have leveraged the comments made by foreign scholars and politicians in order to strengthen the narrative about China’s responsible role in the fight against the global pandemic. In particular, it seems that they did so in order to achieve two interrelated goals. The first is to show how much the countries that received Chinese assistance, especially in Europe, are appreciating Chinese solidarity. The Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić are among the foreign politicians that are quoted the most. [1] The message, clearly intended for a domestic audience, does not fail to emphasize how parts of European societies have embraced Chinese help and, at the same time, turned very critical of European and American slowness in providing aid. One of the most interesting (and misleading) methods of conveying such a message can be seen in an article published by China News. [2] The article is introduced as a summary of another article published by the American magazine Fortune. Yet, some of the statements made by the people interviewed by Fortune are not reported in the Chinese “summary.” For example, while MERICS’ analyst Lucrezia Poggetti mentioned both China’s availability to supply medical personal protective equipment (PPE) and the fact that Chinese media were engaged in a large propaganda operation, the latter part of this statement was not reported.

The second goal for which foreign voices have been brought in the debate is to fight the mounting criticism against China’s so-called “mask diplomacy.” A typical example of this can be found in an article published in the Global Times. [3] Its authors quote Song Wei, an official from the Ministry of Commerce saying that the huge demand for PPE has put Chinese producers under great pressure and some have failed to carry out internal quality controls, as well as contacting European authorities to ensure the compatibility of the production standards. However, accusations to China of using the crisis to score public relations and strategic points, as well as profiteering from the crises in other countries, are strongly rebutted.  Statements made by foreign commentators are meant to show how local elite support Chinese actions. At the same time, Zhang Yiwu, a Professor from Peking University, attacks China’s detractors by saying that their negative comments are caused by the disbelief that China managed to bring the situation under control while many Western countries are still struggling.

Beyond the propaganda war, a number of Chinese newspapers wrote about the risk of economic recession Europe. [4] Yicai dedicated an article to Italy’s specific situation, emphasizing the possibilities that the economy will suffer heavily because of the prolonged lockdown. [5] Cui Hongjian, the Director of the European Studies Department of the China Institute of International Studies and one of the most frequent commentators on European affairs, highlighted the fact that the survival of the Eurozone is at risk because of the economic imbalances that have been magnified by the pandemic. [6] Against this background, he argues, both Chinese and European companies are facing severe challenges. In particular, he seems to imply that the side more at risk is the Chinese ones as European companies might look for other suppliers if China is not quick to resume economic activity. Yet, Li Xingqian, the Director of the Foreign Trade Department of the Ministry of Commerce, remained optimist in his declaration regarding the medium- and long-term trends of Sino-European trade.

Of course, the European side of the Mediterranean region is not the only one mentioned by Chinese media. Xinhua, for example, published a report on the situation that Chinese medical teams have found in Iran and Iraq, and how they are helping to fight the coronavirus. [7] In an article written by Wang Jin, a researcher of American affairs at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, Chinese assistance - RMB 4 million of private donations, 250,000 masks, and 5,000 tests - is taken as an example of the friendship between China and Iran in a moment of crisis that has been made worse by American sanctions against Tehran. [8] Beyond geopolitics, assistance to Iran is seen as particularly important because, as former ambassador Hua Liming pointed out, failing to contain the pandemic there could cause a region-wide health disaster.[9]

Another topic that Chinese commentators continue to write about, and do so in negative terms (see the issues of the ChinaMed Observer of December 2019 and January 2020), is Turkey’s foreign policy. In an article in Xinhua’s Globe magazine, Shanghai International Studies University’s Zou Zhiqiang summarized well why Turkey is at the center of many articles in Chinese media. [10] On the one hand, Erdogan’s Turkey has greatly expanded its influence in many regional issues thanks to its assertive and adventurous diplomacy. On the other hand, Turkey lacks the material and, because of its confrontational foreign policy, diplomatic resources to sustain this course of action in the long-run. Indeed, the weaknesses of Turkey’s strategy are constantly highlighted in commentaries regarding the situation in Syria.Turkey is described as “having fallen in the trap of passivity” and, without the support of the Europeans and the Americans, is constantly forced in a weak position under the pressure of Russia and the Syrian government. [11] Although Russia cannot afford to completely turn the table on Turkey, it is clear that Turkey is in a very difficult situation. [12] Chinese commentators clearly see Turkish threats to allow Middle Eastern refugees to cross the border in Greece as an attempt to blackmail European countries to provide economic and/or diplomatic support in Syria—although it is very likely to fail as the Europeans have very little influence there. [13] Naturally, how these trends will evolve has a direct bearing on the prospects of peace in Syria, which, for the moment, remain extremely bleak. [14]

We close this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with an article written by a scholar from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of West Asian and North African Studies, Wang Jinyan, on Germany’s role in Libya. [15] This is the first time that Germany is at the center of an article that we review. In many ways, Wang’s assessment of Germany’s role is similar to that of Japan put forward by other Chinese scholars: it actions and good intentions will inevitably be frustrated by the extreme local political fragmentation and by the presence of numerous, much-more invested other actors. In Germany’s case, Wang points to the necessity to prevent other refugees to reach Europe as the main reason to get involved in Libya. It is clear that Chinese scholars, as in the case of the Sino-Turkish relations, are sure that immigration is the main driver of European foreign policy today.  This is why, Wang argues, Germany will continue to try to influence the situation in North Africa despite the fact that the Berlin conference on Libya in January produced nothing more than “an empty piece of paper.”

[1] Shang Jing, Tè gǎo: Quánqiú zhàn “yì”,chuándì wēnnuǎn huo xīwàng de zhōngguó dāndāng 特稿:全球战“疫”,传递温暖和希望的中国担当 [Specialcommentary: China’s role in spreading warmth and hope in the global fightagainst the virus], Xinhua, March 22, 2020, link‍; Feng Jiawei, Zhù duōguó kàng yìzhāngxiǎn zhōngguó zérèn dāndāng 助多国抗疫彰显中国责任担当 [The assistance against the virus to manycountries indicates China’s responsible role], Beijing Daily, March 18, 2020, link.

[2] Li Zhi, Ōuzhōu duōguó gǎnxiè zhōngguó chíyuán zhuānjiā: Zhōngguó shì jiùxīng měiguó piēxià wǒmen bùguǎn 欧洲多国感谢中国驰援 专家:中国是救星 美国撇下我们不管 [Many European countries thank Chinese experts for thehelp: China is a savior while the US leaves us alone], China News, March 21,2020, link.

[3] Han Shuo et al., “Mǒhēi zhōngguó zhīyuán” bèihòu de fǎnhuá tàolù: Xīfāng xiànrù duìzhōngguó de “sān bù” sīwéi guàiquān “抹黑中国支援”背后的反华套路:西方陷入对中国的“三不”思维怪圈[The anti-Chinese background of the “smear Chinese aid” campaign: The West fellprey of the anti-China's “Three Nos” way of thinking], Global Times, April 1,2020, link.

[4] For example: Shen Zhonghao, Zuo Wei, and Hu Xiaobing, Cáijīng guānchá: Yìqíngtuōlèi jīngjì ōuzhōu yánjiū yìngduì zhī cè 财经观察:疫情拖累经济 欧洲研究应对之策[Economic observer: Epidemic drags down the economy, Europe studies how toreact], Xinhua, March 4, 2020, link.

[5] Kang Kai, Yìdàlì xīnguān fèiyán sǐwáng lǜ chāo 9%, jīngjì huò yǒu shuāituì fēngxiǎn 意大利新冠肺炎死亡率超9%, 经济或有衰退风险 [The mortality rate of COVID-19 in Italy goes above 9%,there are serious risks for the economy], Yicai, March 23, 2020, link.

[6] Chen Xing, Shāngwù bù dá měi jīng jìzhě wèn: Zhōng'ōu màoyì liánghǎo fāzhǎn shìtóubù huì gǎibiàn 商务部答每经记者问:中欧贸易良好发展势头不会改变 [MOFCOM answers to the questions of theNational Business Daily: The positive development trends of Sino-European tradehave not changed], National Business Daily, March 13, 2020, link.

[7] Wang Jian, Chen Lin, and Zhang Miao, Zhōngguó zhuānjiā zǔ tán kàng yì: Zhōngdōngdìqū fáng kòng yìqíng nénglì zhújiàn tíshēng 中国专家组谈抗疫:中东地区防控疫情能力逐渐提升 [Chineseexperts talk about the anti-pandemic efforts: Middle Eastern countries aregradually improving their capabilities], Xinhua, March 24, 2020, link.

[8] Wang Jin, Guāndiǎn zhōngguó:Kàngjí xīnguān yìqíng tuījìn zhōng yī hùzhù hé guójì hézuò 观点中国:抗击新冠疫情推进中伊互助和国际合作 [Opinion: The fight against the newvirus promotes coordination and cooperation between China and Iran], China News, March 13, 2020, link.

[9] Gǎnrǎn rénshù yuǎn bùzhǐ zhèxiē! Tīng zhōngguó zhù yīlǎng qián dàshǐ huá límíng xì jiěyuányóu 感染人数远不止这些!听中国驻伊朗前大使华黎明细解缘由 [The number of infected people is muchhigher! Listen to the former ambassador to Iran, Hua Liming, discuss thedetails], Beijing Daily, March 1, 2020, link.

[10] Zou Zhiqiang, Āiěrduōān dì mèngxiǎng 埃尔多安的梦想 [Erdogan’s Dream], Globe, March 12, 2020, link.

[11] Sun Degang, É tǔ huì bù huì zài xù bàofā dà guīmó zhànzhēng? 俄土会不会在叙爆发大规模战争?[Could Turkey and Russia clash violently?], Xinmin Evening News, March 5, 2020, link.

[12] Hǎiwài wǎng píng: Yīnwèi xùlìyǎ, èluósī hé tǔ'ěrqíchèdǐ fānliǎn? 海外网评:因为叙利亚 俄罗斯和土耳其彻底翻脸?  [Why have Turkey andRussia turned their back on each other?], People’s Daily, March  4, 2020, link.

[13] Xīn yīlún nànmín cháo chōngjí ōuméng 新一轮难民潮冲击欧盟 [A new wave of refugees hits theEuropean Union], People’s Daily, March 10, 2020, link.

[14] Bi Zhenshan, Dòngluàn 9 nián chāoguò 38 wàn rén sǐwáng xùlìyǎ hépíng lù zàihéfāng? 动乱9年超过38万人死亡 叙利亚和平路在何方?[Nine years of chaos andmore than 380,000 casualties; where is the path to peace for Syria?], China News, March 16, 2020, link.

[15] Wang Jinyan, Lìbǐyǎ wèntí: Wòxuán zhě déguó 利比亚问题:斡旋者德国[The Libyan problem: Germany as a mediator], Globe, March 26, 2020, link.

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