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On coronavirus, China's ambassador to Japan accentuates the positive

Kong Xuanyou deflects criticism of inaction and stresses global contributions

Kong Xuanyou, China's ambassador to Japan, speaks to reporters on March 27 in Tokyo.

TOKYO -- Two days after Tokyo's governor declared a "critical juncture" in the new coronavirus pandemic, China's ambassador to Japan fielded questions from reporters in the city on Friday, defending his country's handling of the outbreak and rejecting responsibility for it.

Though China has been widely criticized for suppressing early signs of the epidemic and allowing it to spread out of control, Ambassador Kong Xuanyou told a very different story at the National Press Club.

"We have received tremendous praise for sharing information with the relevant countries and our neighbors in a timely manner since the disease outbreak, and for voluntarily providing virus sequences to the international organization," Kong said. He stressed how China has seemingly turned a corner with its own outbreak, curbing the number of daily infections and steadily bringing the economy back online.

At the same time, he emphasized how China has been aiding other hard-hit countries, such as Italy and Serbia. As Beijing's top man in Japan, Kong hewed closely to his government's line that it is waging a successful fight against the virus and doing its part for the international community.

Many questions from reporters went unanswered, however -- at least not directly.

The moderator, for instance, asked Kong to comment on a tweet by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian that implied an American conspiracy was behind the original coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Rather than address his colleague's remarks, the ambassador replied, "We are decisively against discussions from the U.S. that provoke and impute responsibilities to China."

He also dodged a question on Beijing's belated initial reaction. Roughly three weeks passed between the day the disease was first identified in Wuhan at the end of last year, and the first directive from President Xi Jinping on Jan. 20.

While not acknowledging the inaction, Kong instead emphasized how China has "diligently fought for the last two months" and "earned precious time for the world." He added that China has been "open, transparent, and taken a responsible stance on comprehensive, strict and thorough infection prevention measures."

Asked about Western skepticism of China's authoritarian governance, the ambassador again deflected, bringing up China's usual defense of being a "developing country" that needs time to mature, despite its status as the world's second-largest economy.

"One thing I could definitely say is, no matter what the international community says, we are going to continue on walking along the path that we have chosen."

On a few points, Kong gave relatively straight answers.

He confirmed the arrest of Yuan Keqing, a professor of East Asian political history at the Hokkaido University of Education in northern Japan. Yuan has not been in contact with the university since mid-June, when he went home for his mother's funeral.

Kong did not go into the charge of alleged espionage against the professor, but said anyone in China "must not violate the Chinese law." The case, he added, "is not the only example."

Another question Kong addressed more or less head-on concerned China's mass expulsion of American reporters this month.

Over a dozen journalists for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post were forced to leave the country even though their press credentials had not expired. Kong insisted this was a result of "suppression" and "even a crackdown" on the Chinese media in the U.S.

The ambassador was referring to the U.S. State Department's decision to categorize five Chinese state media outlets as equivalent to foreign government missions, meaning their personnel should be treated as foreign agents. Kong argued that ignoring Washington's move and only criticizing China's expulsions signals a lack of "objectivity."

But as with an earlier expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters in February, Beijing's reasoning does not necessarily hold.

In the earlier case, China claimed the impetus was an opinion piece in the Journal by Walter Russell Mead, which carried the headline "China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia." Beijing called the headline "racist" and kicked the reporters out, even though they had nothing to do with the opinion section.

Then, in the latest case, China blamed the U.S. government for its treatment of journalists from privately run newspapers.

So far, Beijing has been careful not to let its spat with the U.S. spoil relations with other countries -- including Japan, perhaps out of deference to the postponed-but-not-canceled state visit by President Xi.

"Think of why we did not take similar actions against the Japanese and the Europeans," Kong said of the journalist expulsions. "We will continue to support reporting activities by Japanese and international communities -- activities based on law."

Given the fuzzy logic that determined the fate of the Americans, however, it was unclear whether the ambassador's assurance meant much to the Japanese reporters on hand.

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