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International relations

China scores propaganda boost from US protests and COVID-19 woes

Beijing stokes nationalist fires to divert attention from economic problems

China is watching as the U.S. is hit by race protests and the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world. (Nikkei Montage/Source photo by AP)

TOKYO -- The U.S. is being torn apart by race protests and has the most coronavirus deaths in the world, and China appears to be reveling in the situation -- despite its own shortcomings. 

Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party tabloid, has been trolling the U.S. on a daily basis.

In a June 11 tweet, he wrote: "With COVID-19 cases in US exceeding 2 million, all I want to say is that I really did not realize that American capitalism is so ruthless. The US that my generation worshipped in Tiananmen Square when we were young is already dead."

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying borrowed the final words of George Floyd, the black man whose killing in Minneapolis on May 25 sparked demonstrations across America and beyond. "I can't breathe," she wrote in response to a tweet by a U.S. State Department spokesman who accused Beijing of breaking its promise to the people of Hong Kong.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded last week to such comments by China, labeling them as "obscene propaganda" in a no-holds-barred statement issued June 6.

"The Chinese Communist Party's callous exploitation of the tragic death of George Floyd to justify its authoritarian denial of basic human dignity exposes its true colors yet again," he said. "As with dictatorships throughout history, no lie is too obscene, so long as it serves the Party's lust for power. This laughable propaganda should not fool anyone."

Even so, U.S. President Donald Trump has toned down his online attacks on China.

His "CHINA!" tweet on May 29 was the last time he directly invoked Beijing as an enemy of America -- a tactic that had appeared to be part of his strategy for reelection this November.

That was four days after Floyd's death, which has exposed the increasingly radicalized political divisions in a superpower heading toward deep recession while China shows signs of recovery.

Just as Trump's likely short-lived pause in attacking China hints at troubles at home, China's verbal barrage can be taken as a sign of domestic insecurity. Beijing is stoking the flames of nationalism to divert attention from social and economic problems that threaten social harmony: The pandemic caused a 6.8% contraction in the first quarter compared to a year earlier and jobless numbers are soaring.

Nevertheless, observers with vastly different worldviews appear united in the belief that China is destined to become the leading global power within a few decades. It is a question of timing, and how Beijing handles that responsibility. For now, China is clearly happy to watch the U.S. struggle as it moves toward what it sees as its rightful position at the top of the global tree.

"The Xi Jinping administration is convinced that the U.S. is in decline and China is the rising power," Willy Lam, a political commentator and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"The Chinese propaganda machine has gone into overdrive portraying the U.S. as a society without equality, without human rights," Lam said. "They're pointing to the riots, pointing to the disorderly handling of the coronavirus to show the Chinese audience that the Chinese way is better, the Chinese way is more efficient, in some ways even more humanitarian than the U.S. way."

Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a nongovernment think tank in Beijing, told Nikkei the world should work with China rather than bashing it.

"Because of the U.S.-led campaign against China, so many countries are jumping on the bandwagon, but economically every one will rely on China in the future," Wang said. "The rest of the world is still in crisis and we don't know how long it will take to recover. The world in the future will have to rely on China for support. China is the leading engine of the world economy."

China's leaders know, however, that they need to keep the economy growing to maintain harmony among the country's 1.4 billion people. 2020 was supposed to be the year China hit its goal of becoming a "moderately prosperous," or middle-class, society by doubling gross domestic product from a decade earlier and ending poverty.

The country needed an expansion of at least 5.6% this year to achieve that, but the first quarter contraction makes that highly unlikely.

"Restoring economic growth is obviously an immediate concern and dealing with unemployment is a very serious concern for Xi," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Reform of the economy in a way that the party remains in control and the state remains in control, but ensuring that they continue to have economic growth, has to be a very high priority for Xi Jinping."

Even so, China is projected to surpass the U.S. to become the world's biggest economy around 2030, according a forecast by the Japan Center for Economic Research, a Tokyo-based think tank.

Chinese President Xi Jinping walks past officials as he arrives for the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 28.   © Reuters

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College in London and an associate at Chatham House, believes it will be a "propaganda coup" for Beijing if its economy recovers from the pandemic quicker than others. "They will do everything they can to do that because it's just too good an opportunity to miss," he said.

On the situation in the U.S., Brown said that China "probably feels quite ambiguous about what's happening, but is absolutely aware of the opportunities."

"The world's most powerful country in perpetual crisis is not a good thing," he added. "So while China is opportunistic over what is happening in America, having so much division or so much fighting in America, and the recent unrest is not a good thing."

In recent weeks, China has drafted a national security law for Hong Kong, ramped up the rhetoric on Taiwan, and clashed with India. But analysts say that this firmer stance is part of a longer-term plan and not influenced by Trump's distractions at home.

"China will continue to be assertive and it won't take things lying down," Brown said. "But China is going to wait and see what happens. America is tearing itself apart at the moment so they don't need to do anything."

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