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In Coronavirus War Of Words With The U.S., China Pulls No Punches


China says it was able to contain its coronavirus outbreak thanks to its top-down political system. As NPR's Emily Feng reports, that notion and an increasingly antagonistic foreign policy are creating friction with other countries.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The video from China's state news agency showed Lego character versions of China and the U.S. yelling at each other.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Stay at home.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That's violating human rights.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Building temporary hospitals...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's a concentration camp.

FENG: It's an animated dig at the U.S. and an example of China's aggressive, often gloating defense of its role in the coronavirus pandemic.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The virus is killing doctors.

FENG: At first, China's secretive bureaucracy exacerbated a local cover-up of the coronavirus when it emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Now China says it was able to contain the epidemic there because its centralized governance allowed it to put extreme lockdown measures in place. Here's Wang Huiyao, president of CCG, a Chinese policy think tank.

WANG HUIYAO: When you look back, you will see the system, the way of Chinese handling this coupled with technology, coupled with the culture, coupled with the very effective government coordination. You know, that's something unthinkable in Western countries.

FENG: But China is also encountering rising international blowback. Faulty Chinese medical products have led some European countries to reject medical donations from China. Others, notably President Trump, want to hold China accountable for what they allege with no proof was a virus that leaked accidentally from a Chinese laboratory and which was initially covered up. China has matched with its own tough words, and it's put forth its own theory - also unsubstantiated.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We think Americans came to the Wuhan seafood market in October, when there were military sports games being held in the city.

FENG: The theory that the U.S. started the virus is mainstream in China. Even seafood vendors like this one at the Wuhan market where the first cluster of human coronavirus cases was reported told NPR that they now thought the virus had actually first come from the U.S. One of the most colorful provocateurs who supports China's more aggressive diplomacy is Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor-in-chief of state tabloid The Global Times. Hu, who has a quarter of a million followers on Twitter, went viral after criticizing Australia for following the U.S. lead and calling for an investigation into the origins of the virus in China.


HU XIJIN: (Through interpreter) Australia is like gum stuck on the bottom of your shoe. You do not know how aggressive, how unreasonable the West can be.

FENG: He says if anything, China has been generous considering how it can use its growing economic clout to punish countries.


HU: (Through interpreter) A lot of Chinese were angry and said, cut off the Americans. Don't sell them any face masks. And yet the state did not stop selling face masks abroad.

FENG: This kind of aggressive rhetoric has only escalated hostility towards China.

ELIZABETH ECONOMY: One of the most striking elements of Chinese diplomacy at this particular time is just how undiplomatic it's been.

FENG: Elizabeth Economy is Asia director at the Council on Foreign Relations.

ECONOMY: Either the Chinese diplomats are delusional or they are simply doing their very best to prevent the international narrative from seeping into domestic Chinese discourse.

FENG: Economy wagers it's the second. The bellicose language is to reassure its own citizens that China is standing up to American criticism. But while throwing around blame might score points with populist elements in both countries, it comes at the cost of an important geopolitical relationship. Here's Wang Huiyao, think tank director, again.

WANG: We already have a lot of misunderstanding given that there is a trade war going on for two or three years. A lot of things have been building up - the mistrust.

FENG: Mistrust that is now driving the U.S. and China farther apart as each arm themselves with a different version of how we ended up where we are now.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON SONG, "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 10, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Zi Zhongyun as a "he." Zi is a woman.