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Foreign Policy

How to Silence the Noise of Blame-and-Pay

May 05, 2020
  • Huang Jing

    University Professor at Shanghai International Studies University

U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have been inept, arrogant and insensitive in their approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. The wrangling of partisan politics cost the United States its best opportunity for containing the coronavirus and instead brought its rampant spread, giving the country the highest rate of confirmed infections and death in the world. Rather than reflecting on its own incompetence, the Trump administration has politicized the pandemic for its own interests, stirring up calls for a probe of China’s liability, followed by compensation.

An unjust cause finds scant support, and a majority of countries, including U.S. allies, have opposed such truculent and unreasonable demands. At a recent G7 meeting, six main Western countries openly rejected U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s proposal to include a call for investigating China in the joint declaration. However, as shown by a recently leaked Republican political document, attacking China has been adopted as a strategy not only to shake off responsibility for being incompetent in handling the pandemic but also to gain an edge in the upcoming presidential election against the Democrats. Thus, China must take a firm stance against any liability probe or compensation, not just to preserve China’s interests and international image but also for its own development and progress.

First of all, those advocating investigation and compensation should be carefully distinguished from one another.  The calls are mainly coming from four sources, starting with the heads of governments.  But the fact is that only a handful of leaders — Australians, for example — have echoed the U.S. and openly called for investigating Chinese fault.

Since such calls have policy implications, China must push back resolutely through both political and diplomatic means. This has been ably demonstrated by Le Yucheng, China’s vice minister of foreign affairs, as well as by Chinese ambassadors, For example, in recent interviews, China’s Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai pointedly criticized and rebutted Pompeo’s remarks. Contrasting with the negative mudslinging of the Trump administration, China’s pushback has taken a positive approach, with clarification of facts, coolheaded reasoning and, most of all, respect to scientific research.

There have also been attacks by some members of the U.S. Congress and by politicians in the U.S. and other countries. Their attacks on China are essentially based on prejudice, hostility or even racial bias. These politicians seem to grab any opportunity to hit the Chinese straw man in an attempt to make political gains.

Counterattacks against such people must be carefully managed because direct, public refutation of their claims may only help them stage their shows. It can be more productive and effective to find out who are their supporters, especially those who sponsor them financially, before taking pointed counteraction.

Third are attacks by the media. While some of this is driven by the primitive impulse for scoops, it is often the result of misunderstanding, ignorance or habitual reliance on second- and third-hand information. Against the first category, especially attacks by mainstream media outlets, it’s important to cite facts and reasoning in those outlets. As to the second category, it’s again important to explain patiently and communicate courteously, and leave the outlet time and space to make corrections.

A fourth wave of criticism comes from practicing lawyers, a considerable proportion of whom are preoccupied with taking advantage of the mess to promote themselves. But special attention must be paid to those who are closely related to governments or ruling parties who have been asked to get involved. They warrant careful a study of their professional backgrounds, strengths, political stances, affiliations and the process by which they may bring the case to court.

China must seriously reflect on its own experience and the lessons it learned in containing the pandemic. This is fundamental to fending off any attacks over fault and compensation for the pandemic.

It is undeniable that China, the first victim of the coronavirus onslaught, made some tremendous achievements. These has provided the world with timely references and guidance in the fight against our common enemy, COVID-19. Also undeniable is the high price China has paid. The pandemic has not only exposed flaws and inaccuracies in China’s system of public administration — particularly its pandemic prevention and control regimes, the huge gaps in the transition from information control to information management and backwardness in its public health network and education — but also revealed such problems as bureaucratic red tape, incompetence, formalism and even irresponsible buck-passing by officials.

These are not uncommon in other countries, no matter what political system they use. But at a time when the pandemic has come under control in China yet continues to roll forward elsewhere, timely reflection on the gains and losses in the process is needed. This must be followed by dealing with the faults and mistakes openly and fairly, which is not only necessary for achieving thorough control of the pandemic and overcoming the losses it has brought as soon as possible but will also lay a solid foundation for counteracting the farce of pointing the finger of blame and demanding compensation.

China should not only show the world its achievements but, more important, share the lessons it learned in fighting the coronavirus. The pandemic overwhelmed China, and then the world, with a new challenge, and every affected state has been forced to go through a learning process to cope with it. The key to controlling the spread of the virus has been the isolation of individuals and the elimination of crowds.

Of course, places with high population density and frequent interpersonal relations also happen to be economically advanced, as a rule. Thus, when decision-makers worldwide enact a lockdown or impose rules for isolation, they all face the same difficult choice between economic stability and public health. As the first victim, as well as the first to have brought the pandemic under control, China will serve its interests, and the world’s interests, best if it honestly shares with the rest of the world how it came to understand the danger of the novel coronavirus, how it made the difficult decision to put people and public health first, how it managed to maintain a semblance of an economy while fighting the pandemic, and how it restarted its core economy after exerting general control over the pandemic.

This would make a solid and convincing contribution to the global campaign against the coronavirus. At the same time, it would be an effective and powerful response to those who are trying to lay blame and collect compensation. After all, China is the first to have walked through the COVID-19 minefield and survived.

It is, in fact, more convincing to share with the rest of the world its mistakes, lessons and sacrifices in getting through this minefield than merely showcasing its successes. Only by sharing both sides of the pandemic experience with the rest of the world can China clearly show the international community that the blame-and-pay clamor is not only factually groundless but morally bankrupt.

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