China is taking pleasure in US mishandling of coronavirus

America prepares.
America prepares.
Image: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
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The US government’s management of the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t been great, to say the least.

Its president roundly denounces scientific facts. Americans are paying extortionate amounts of money for testing and quarantine. And there is concern over how transparent officials are in their communications to the public about the disease. Watching from afar, many in China are reacting to these developments with a mix of shock and pleasure.

They find it hard to believe that the world’s top superpower might be bungling its response to the virus, even after having had weeks to prepare for its possible arrival. Chinese officials reported pneumonia cases in Wuhan to the World Health Organization (WHO) on Dec. 31, and in early January confirmed it as a novel coronavirus. The first case in the US came on Jan. 20, in Washington. The outbreak has only intensified across the country since then, spreading even more rapidly in recent days.

On Weibo, the Chinese social media network, users have read posts under the hashtag #coronavirus conditions in the US# more than 500 million times. In comments, many users expressed surprise that a country that holds itself up as the world’s foremost democracy would struggle to manage an epidemic like this, and that its health care system isn’t equipped to treat the growing number of cases.

“This is exactly why there are few infection cases in the US. People there don’t even want to go have the test [because of the cost],” wrote one user, responding to an article about an American man returning from Wuhan who received a large bill after US health officials placed him in quarantine. In China, testing and treatment for coronavirus is free.

Some Chinese even found the apparent role reversal amusing, referring to US president Donald Trump as “F1” (link in Chinese) on social media. The term is a reference to “F4,” a four-person Taiwanese boy band popular in the 2000s that’s now being used as a stand-in for the four officials in Hubei province widely deemed responsible for failing to contain Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The slow US response—amid a backdrop of rapidly worsening tensions between the China and the US as they clash over trade, tech, and media—is also proving politically expedient for Chinese officials. Chinese newspapers have published opinion pieces criticizing the US for not doing enough to control the outbreak, including one in Shanghai’s Xinmin Evening News (link in Chinese) on March 2 that said, “As the only superpower in the world, which is more developed than China, the US is supposed to have better medical and disease-prevention conditions.”

State news outlet Xinhua (link in Chinese) went even further, re-publishing an analysis from an independent blogger’s WeChat account, which said, “The US owes China an apology, the world owes China thanks.” The article was re-produced in several other Chinese news outlets.

This alternative storyline follows what appears to be an attempt by the Chinese government to shift the global narrative over Covid-19, particularly as experts at the WHO praise China’s seemingly draconian containment efforts.

“The propaganda organs are certainly spinning up the narrative that China’s fight has helped save the world from much worse, and that they are willing to share their experiences and help other countries,” wrote Bill Bishop in his China-focused Sinocism newsletter. “There is also glee in some quarters with what so far has been a slow response by the US government.”

While there was much discussion inside China (where it hadn’t been snuffed out by censors) and abroad in the initial weeks of the outbreak about cover-ups and human rights violations, the falling number of reported cases in China and rapidly worsening situation in countries such as South Korea and Italy has bolstered Beijing’s propaganda campaign. The government has even begun to challenge the narrative that the virus originated in a seafood market in Wuhan. English-language newspaper China Daily stated that the market was “once believed” to be the source of the virus.

And now, back on social media, Chinese conspiracy theories that the US is in fact responsible for the coronavirus are proliferating.

Jane Li contributed reporting.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the first coronavirus cases were detected in China in early January, rather than December.