The Chinese chameleon reimagined in the age of Covid-19


“In China, nuance could be everything,” Fox Butterfield, the well-known Chinese studies scholar, once wrote. It is in this light, at least in part, that the retort to Western calls for Chinese accountability and financial compensation in the wake of the devastation that Covid-19 caused throughout the world should be understood. These demands were rebuffed by what the Western media termed “an aggressive Chinese response”. In this piece, I aim to explore the nuanced, if informed, nature of the Chinese response. 

Apart from the nature of the Chinese pushback, the selective representations which the Western media’s reporting on China employ in the age of Covid-19, is also reminiscent of a metaphor that Raymond Dawson coined the “Chinese chameleon”. Dawson, who died in 2002, was a great Sinologist of his generation. 

In his book, The Chinese Chameleon: An Analysis of European Conceptions of Chinese Civilisation, which is well worth reading, Dawson convincingly develops the argument that European understandings of China (including those European diaspora traditions found in the United States and Australia) are multifaceted. These are as much shaped by objective issues in China as by the various “mirrors” that reflect Europeans’ own prejudice and obsessions (both conscious and unconscious), with the Chinese as an exotic outpost in an alien landscape. 

Consider, for example, that anti-China ads by Republican representatives in the run-up to the US presidential election in November 2020 are an attempt to deflect from shortcomings of the US response to Covid-19 — and this is working. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans now have a negative awareness of China. The virus has infected more than 1.28-million Americans and killed more than 75 000. Economically, at least 30-million jobs have been lost in the US alone. The most recent assessment claims that about 25 000 new cases are identified in the US every day. 

After months of equivocation, US President Donald Trump has finally settled on the “China blame-game” as the centrepiece on which the outcome of the 2020 election hinges. “We are not happy with China,” said Trump recently, adding that “tariffs were certainly an option”. 

But in the words of Laurie Garrett, America’s Cassandra and its prophetess of doom, the one thing she could not predict was “that the paragon of sloppiness and sluggishness would be the United States”. She did, however, foretell a coronavirus bent on devastation in her 1994 bestseller The Coming Plague. In laying the blame for the magnitude of the pandemic in the US squarely at the door of the White House, Garrett called Trump “the most incompetent, foolhardy buffoon imaginable”. 

Whatever blame can be laid at the door of the Chinese government’s failures in containing the virus at its Wuhan-incubation stage, the “sloppy” American response is certainly not one of them. The Chinese rejoinder to increasing global condemnation and demands for greater transparency on the claims to the origins of the coronavirus is nuanced, and our Western grasp of that comeback is multifaceted, as I indicated at the outset. 

While it is certainly true that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has traditionally been proactive in seizing the narrative, as it has done with this latest coronavirus, to manage its image for local consumption, it is also the case that the CCP has little or no interest in Western concerns about its culpability for the pandemic. 

John Fitzgerald, emeritus professor in the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University in Melbourne and a well-known historian of China’s diaspora, expresses the view that the Chinese Communist Party “couldn’t care less” about what non-Chinese Australians (and by extension non-Chinese anywhere in the world) think of China. This “no-care” attitude is informed by at least five considerations. It is worth pondering these notions as they feed into and reinforce one another. 

It’s all about the numbers

First, if China is showing no signs of backing down, it is because President Xi Jinping has seen in Covid-19 an opportunity to rewrite China’s history in the context of the virus outbreak. By punting China’s response to the virus as responsible and benevolent, Xi is shaping the sanitised narrative as evidence of the Communist Party’s superiority. 

China has, for example, appealed to history to lend legitimacy to its One Belt One Road international scheme, a gigantic investment and infrastructure project aimed at connecting China with Europe across the vast Eurasian continental landmass. Critics have suggested that its underpinning relies on mythologised history. 

The New York Times last month reported that: “The crux of China’s narrative is its numbers. Since late March, the country has consistently reported zero or single-digit new local infections, and on Wednesday, it lifted its lockdown in Wuhan, where the outbreak began. In all, the country has reported nearly 84 000 infections and about 3 300 deaths — a stark contrast to the United States, which has reported more than 399 000 infections, and Spain and Italy, each with more than 135 000.”

Chinese officials have specifically contrasted their response — primed to be quick, decisive and effective — with that of the Americans. The Chinese insist that the numbers demonstrate that its response was responsible and timeous and hence, unlike the US catastrophe, a model for the whole world to emulate. 

Long memories

Second, if the Chinese pushback is seen as unapologetic, it is because that is exactly what it is. The refrain of a “hundred years of humiliation” — from 1843, when China was forced to cede Hong Kong to Great Britain as partial compensation after the conclusion of the First Opium War, to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 — is never far from the Chinese mind. Recriminations from abroad, including noise to make China pay for the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, have touched a raw nerve with many Chinese. Whipping up national pride is a time-honoured tool to strengthen the party’s hold on power. 

By way of example, a banner on display in a restaurant in the northeastern city of Shenyang revelled in the havoc of the virus’s spread in the US. It reads: “Celebrating the epidemic in the United States and wishing coronavirus a nice trip to Japan.” A cartoon, extensively circulated on social media, illustrates foreigners dumped in rubbish bins. Similarly, and unbeknown to most Americans, a wave of jubilation swept the country when news of 9/11 hit China. 

The Chinese, brought up with an emphasis on history, have not forgotten how the Western nations, including Japan, ravaged China during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The simmering Chinese resentment towards the West (and Japan) is more often than not underestimated, or worse, lost in oblivion. 

Third, in the same way, the Chinese response is informed by the knowledge that Western recriminations are based on both fear and opportunity. Irrespective of how many people eventually die of Covid-19 and the resultant economic ruin in its wake, the Chinese know that in the final analysis, it’s the money that counts. China is the biggest trading partner of Turkey, Brazil and Africa and imports at least a third of all Australia’s produce, to mention but a few examples. Risking China’s displeasure is not a serious long-term prospect for most countries. 

Patriotism and nationalism

Fourth, the Chinese response is as much determined by a face-saving exercise [ganhua] as by such peculiarly Chinese preoccupations as Xi’s visionary goal of the “Chinese Dream” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. The former is the emergence of a strong, wealthy and respected China on the global stage (note the show of conspicuous consumption by Chinese tourists in recent times) and the latter taps into the May Fourth movement of a century ago when foreigners were made to leave Beijing amid popular discontent. 

Both these visions are fed by a deep reservoir of national pride and growing xenophobia. As one commentator rightly suggests: “As China tames the coronavirus epidemic now ravaging other countries, its success is giving rise to an increasingly strident blend of patriotism, nationalism and xenophobia, at a pitch many say has not been seen in decades.”

Ever since Deng Xiaopeng, reputedly the architect of modern China, coined the phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in 1984, China has been waiting patiently for an opportunity to demonstrate that she is a fitting and responsible regional, if not global, leader.

Jostling for global leadership

Finally, by the same token, China is unable to admit criticism of its management of the outbreak when its great rival, the US, is fighting a losing battle with the virus, mass unemployment and political infighting. Richard McGregor, a China specialist with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia argues that the row between China and the West (as well as India) is an indication that China’s Communist Party appreciates the opportunity presented by the pandemic to promote itself as a global leader, certainly at the expense of the US, which appears weak and grappling with finding its way. 

As we struggle to make sense of China’s nuanced, if informed, response to foreign reprimands, let us not forget that part of our understanding will invariably be shaped by our own obsessions and prejudice (both conscious and unconscious) toward “exotic” China. At a time when both the US and China have latched on to their own versions of the coronavirus narrative to further their divergent agendas, the CCP is being challenged to balance its objective of absolute political control with maintaining economic growth and social stability. 

In the age of the Red Dragon, as the 21st century surely is, the metaphor of the Chinese chameleon will act as a mirror of many shades to reflect and blur our thinking on, and judgement, of China.  

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Casper Lӧtter
Dr Casper Lӧtter is a conflict criminologist affiliated with North-West University’s School of Philosophy (Potchefstroom), South Africa as research fellow.

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