The Man Behind China’s Aggressive New Voice
The Man Behind China’s Aggressive New Voice
The Chicago consulate’s outreach to Roth built off a template that has been used by China around the world. In Poland, President Andrzej Duda was reportedly pressured into calling President Xi Jinping to express gratitude for medical aid — a call that was then repurposed for China’s internal propaganda. In Southeast Asia, China asked that governments thank China for dispatching medical teams to help fight the pandemic. “They do this as a standard practice in many countries,” Sun, of the Stimson Center, said. “But you don’t hear about it because the governments there just do it.”
As the pandemic accelerated beyond China’s borders, a litany of other examples came to light. In March, Xinhua, the official state news agency, called the United States’ outbreak the “Trump pandemic” and suggested that China could easily withhold exports of medical equipment, without which the United States would be engulfed “in the mighty sea of coronavirus.” When the Netherlands changed the name of its representative office in Taiwan to include the word “Taipei,” China warned that it could withhold medical aid in response. No offender was too small: The Wall Street Journal reported that when a Sri Lankan activist named Chirantha Amerasinghe criticized the Chinese government as “low class” on Twitter, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo replied, “Total death in #China #pandemic is 3344 till today, much smaller than your western ‘high class’ governments.” At the time, Amerasinghe had fewer than 30 followers.
“There’s this common theme of Western hypocrisy, Western decline, publicizing China’s model,” Peter Martin, a journalist and the author of “China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” said. “There’s an ideology behind that. The idea is, our system has a model and it works and the world increasingly recognizes it, and the West’s system is immoral and broken and on the decline. It really is this kind of ‘sun sets on the West’ ideology behind it, and the strong belief in the efficacy of the Chinese party-state.”
The campaign was not all punitive, though; it also included incentives for good behavior. One facet of the response was “mask diplomacy”: wielding China’s near-monopoly over essential P.P.E. manufacturing as a tool for rewarding friends and punishing perceived enemies. Huawei, the embattled Chinese telecom giant, donated 800,000 face masks to the Netherlands, a few months before the country was set to hold its 5G telecom auction. More donations went to Canada and France, neither of which had decided on their 5G infrastructure. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, warned his colleagues that there was a “global battle of narratives” underway — an assessment that gained more traction in April, when, facing pressure from Beijing, E.U. officials rewrote a report on pandemic disinformation to focus less on the actions of the Chinese government.
Roth responded differently. On March 26, he introduced a resolution in the State Senate. The “Communist Party of China deliberately and intentionally misled the world on the Wuhan coronavirus,” the resolution stated, and Wisconsin stood “in solidarity with the Chinese people to condemn the actions” of the Communist Party. The resolution went on to list a litany of alleged misdeeds for which the party was responsible, including crackdowns on Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs, the one-child policy, organ harvesting, forced sterilization, crushing the Tiananmen protests, currency manipulation, intellectual property theft and restricted market access. Roth wasn’t sure if Wu had bothered to look up his political party, much less his policy positions, before asking him to pass the resolution. If she had, she might’ve known he was unlikely to go along with it.
But Roth had no illusions that China actually cared about him or Wisconsin. “Initially, I thought they were just coming to me,” he told me when he spoke to me last summer. “Then I realized this is standard operating procedure. They wanted us to pass it so they could run it through their national media and say, ‘Look, the U.S., Wisconsin, is praising us.’” The result was the opposite: He was working on a resolution supporting Hong Kong. “By the time we’re done, we’ll have one on Taiwan,” Roth said.
According to data from a 14-country survey released by the Pew Research Center in October, just weeks before Zhao’s Australia tweet, negative views of China have soared in the past year, hitting historic highs in nine of the 14 countries. The change was especially stark in countries like Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands that have been on the receiving end of China’s most bellicose diplomacy. In Australia, unfavorable views have risen 24 percentage points since 2019, the largest single-year change in the country since Pew began conducting the survey in 2008. Sixty-one percent of respondents said that China had done a bad job handling the pandemic; the most negative views came from China’s regional neighbors in Australia, Japan and South Korea. (Only the United States received a worse grade for its pandemic response.)