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Covid complicates China’s efforts to reintegrate into the world

IN his annual report In his speech on New Year’s Eve, President Xi Jinping struck an unusually measured tone. Unlike the previous year, there was no call for the unification of Taiwan, nor was there a dark warning to outside powers that he issued at the Communist Party Congress in October. “We value peace and development, and value friends and partners,” he said on Dec. 31. He added that in the country “it is natural that different people have different concerns or hold different views on the same issue”.

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Some have found a similar timbre in China’s recent diplomacy, including countries that have long held Mr. Xi’s bad debts. Sweet talk even extends to America.in a Washington post On Jan. 4, Qin Gang, the outgoing Chinese ambassador to Washington and new foreign minister, expressed his admiration for the “friendly and hardworking” people of the United States in comments, recalling his exploits there, including in Iowa Ride a tractor and throw a first pitch at a baseball game in Missouri.

The shift signaled to many observers that, as the country reopens, Xi Jinping is eager to repair some of the damage done to China’s foreign relations over the past three years, when the country was largely cut off from the outside world and attitudes towards China became increasingly tough. United States and many other democracies. But if Mr Xi’s aim is to undercut foreign criticism of him and empower those who advocate re-engagement with China, the plan has a flaw: His reluctance to share more complete data on the covid-19 wave sweeping the country .

Repeatedly requested by the World Health Organization (WHO), China has begun sharing more genetic sequences of the virus from recent cases.according to GISAIDAs an international repository of virus genetic information, China submitted 15 sequences from two regions within 17 days of lifting the “zero new coronavirus” restrictions on December 7. As of January 9, 880 have been provided, covering 11 of the 31 provinces (and provincial cities and regions). There is no evidence of a new variant.

Still, public health experts say the number of sequences submitted by China is insufficient to track the evolution of the virus, relative to its population size and COVID-19 outbreak. In addition, China still does not provide enough data on intensive care units (ICU) of hospital admissions and deaths so that experts can quickly assess how the virus is behaving there and how dangerous any new mutations are. Most absurdly, Chinese authorities reported only 37 COVID-19 deaths between Dec. 7 and Jan. 8, the latest date for which official data is available. Scientists’ models, satellite imagery of the crematorium and other independent sources suggest the true total could be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.

even though WHO, usually reluctant to criticize China, has been cursing. Its emergencies chief, Dr Michael Ryan, said on Jan. 11 that China had “grossly” undercounted covid deaths, blaming it for narrowing its definition in December to include only deaths from covid-induced pneumonia or respiratory failure.He also praised the transparency of the US XBBThe .1.5 variant spread rapidly there. Liang Wannian, a senior Chinese health official, said China’s priority was treatment, not determining the cause of death.

Several foreign governments have also been critical, with at least 32 countries imposing restrictions on travelers from China as of January 10, most requiring a negative covid test result (see map).With apparent audacity, China denounces such measures as politically motivated and threatens retaliation – while insisting on its own requirement that those entering the country present negative information polymerase chain reaction Test Results. Strikingly, though, it’s not just the West that has imposed such restrictions on China: India, Ghana, Qatar and Costa Rica have done the same.While these may not do much to contain the virus, WHO Saying China lacks transparency makes them understandable.

The debate over travel restrictions may soon die down, not least because many countries are desperate to welcome back Chinese tourists. But the dispute could get worse, especially if China singles out the United States or European countries for new restrictions. On January 9, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed concern XBB.1.5 variant, urging the U.S. to do more to contain it. The next day, the Chinese government stopped issuing some visas to South Korea and Japan in retaliation for new restrictions they imposed on travelers from China.

China’s confusion over covid data is reminiscent of how it failed to share relevant information early in the pandemic and how it still withholds data that might help trace the origin of the virus. Nor have many democratic governments forgotten that Mr. Xi is motivated by a desire to continue painting his common strategy as a success — and demonstrating the superiority of his political model.

That could get trickier for those who want the United States and its allies to take a less confrontational approach to China. Few see Mr. Xi’s shift in tone as a substantive rethinking of policy, especially on core issues such as Taiwan. But it did signal to many a willingness to limit confrontation and perhaps seek progress in less sensitive areas.

Ryan Hass of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, said Xi may be emulating Mao Zedong’s “fight, talk” strategy to buy time to regroup and study his opponents. Still, Haas urged the Biden administration to seize the opportunity to make progress in areas of mutual concern such as climate change and disease monitoring.

But with the 2024 U.S. presidential election looming, any such move could be harder to sell to the American public, given new controversies over COVID-19 data and travel restrictions. China hawks on both sides of the aisle in Congress will no doubt also be encouraged, including Kevin McCarthy, the new House Republican speaker. On Jan. 10, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved his proposal to create a new special committee on China that could conduct investigations and hold public hearings. Another Republican-led committee could investigate the origins of covid.

European governments may not openly criticize China’s response to the coronavirus as they did in 2020. But that could change if new variants do emerge in China and spread to Europe, or if the Chinese government imposes new travel restrictions on European countries, said Noah Barkin of the Rhodium Group, a consultancy. “I would not underestimate China’s ability to undermine its own rapprochement with Europe by overreacting.”

Xi’s concealment of covid figures also did little to reverse the deterioration in public attitudes toward China in Europe, where many were upset by its failure to criticize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This has sparked a bitter debate within the EU over how to balance commercial interests with national security and democratic values ​​in dealing with Mr Xi. Any new tensions sparked by the coronavirus pandemic could further efforts to reengage with China by German Chancellor Olaf Schulz, who visited Beijing last November, and French President Emmanuel Macron, who is due to visit early this year. complication.

China’s potential impact on the global South is much smaller, especially among recipients of Chinese vaccines. At a Jan. 6 briefing for foreign diplomats in Beijing, ambassadors from Ecuador, Madagascar, Mongolia and Algeria praised China’s response. Mr Qin, the new foreign minister, is unlikely to hear much criticism from his hosts during his first trip abroad in the post, which began on January 9 and passed through Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin and Egypt.

The risk, though, is that Mr. Xi, determined to preserve his public image, will lose a rare opportunity to reconnect with the West and make progress on issues of global concern. The biggest casualty will be preparing for the next potential pandemic. China is critical to such efforts because of its large population, wildlife trade and large numbers of bats that carry the coronavirus.but as the world is SARS Transparency was also critical during the 2002-03 pandemic, and over the past three years.

Subscribers can sign up to our new weekly newsletter, The Drum Tower, to learn how the world shapes China — and how China shapes the world. All of our stories related to the pandemic can be found in our Coronavirus Hub.

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