Beijing perceives the current global economic chaos caused by coronavirus as an opportunity to restore trade linkages, rebuild international influence.

Founders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) aspired to make China great and this ambition is being carried forward by their successors led by Chinese President Xi Jinping, son of Long March veteran and late Chinese Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun. By presenting the “China Dream” at the 18th and 19th Party Congresses, Xi Jinping risked directly linking himself with its success.
His declaration was a trigger for the US-China trade war, which, from the outset, unerringly targeted China’s hi-technology sector as central to containing China’s rise. The coronavirus that struck China in mid-November and particularly Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, has severely disrupted production, supply chains, rendered millions jobless and damaged China’s economy. Aware, however, that his authority and personal prestige and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) legitimacy depend on the success of his vision, Xi Jinping persisted in advancing his economic and international agenda.
Having just emerged from the crisis, Beijing perceives the current global economic chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to restore trade linkages and rebuild international influence. Other important factors are the public criticism by Chinese citizens of Xi Jinping and the CCP for mishandling the epidemic, Hong Kong questioning the CCP’s legitimacy and Beijing’s sovereignty over it, and Taiwan rejecting “reunification” by electing the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Together, these could jeopardise the “China Dream”.
The “China Dream” promises that by the CCP’s centenary in 2021: the Chinese people will have doubled incomes by 2020, the Chinese nation will be prosperous and strong, and “rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation” will be achieved. The last includes “recovery of sovereignty over Chinese territories lost through the imposition of unequal treaties by hostile foreign powers”, a recurrent narrative of Chinese leaders. Separately commenting on the limits of China’s territorial ambitions, retired Chinese Army Colonel Liu Mingfu, who co-authored the book China Dream, said in May 2019 that the map used by “the current Chinese government is the clear standard for national sovereignty and territory”!
At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi Jinping laid out a bold, ambitious time-table. He reiterated that by 2021 the “China Dream” would be achieved. By 2025, his “Made in China” programme would level it with the world’s most advanced technology powers and, by the hundredth year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2049, China would become “a world power with pioneering global influence”, implying it would be able to create or influence world organisations, thus rivalling if not surpassing the US! He also advanced the idea of a “community of common destiny” with its own set of values as an alternative to the democracy of the US and West.
Despite the economic losses and disruption caused by the coronavirus epidemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping kept the focus on China’s economy and the “Two Centenary” goals, which include the “China Dream”. Speaking to over 170,000 officials across the country on 23 February, he said “Macro policies…should prevent the economy from slipping out of a reasonable range”. He also emphasised the “need to secure the smooth operation of foreign trade supply chains and stabilize [China’s] share in the international market”. Claiming at a subsequent Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) meeting on 4 March, that the epidemic situation across China had improved and economic activities resumed, Xi Jinping urged deepening international cooperation and giving full play to China’s role as a “responsible great power”.
On 2 March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted the Chinese government’s strengths in combating the coronavirus epidemic and referred to China’s “Two Centenary Goals” and vision of “a community with a shared future for mankind”. Virtually simultaneously a think-tank of the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) disclosed it was exploring the possibility of a Beijing-led global health organisation to rival the World Health Organization!
Beijing has been prompt in extending medical assistance to other countries for fighting the coronavirus, expecting undoubtedly to regain international influence damaged also by its having concealed the epidemic’s outbreak for nearly two months. China has despatched medical equipment and supplies to Greece, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Norway, Iran, Pakistan and all the countries in Africa. It gifted Ukraine, a “strategic partner” medical equipment and supplies valued at US$80 million.
Beijing also began countering reports suggesting that the coronavirus originated from one of two biological laboratories in Wuhan. Chinese Foreign Ministry official Zhao Lijian, on 12 March, insinuated that US military personnel participating in the Military Games in Wuhan in October had brought the virus. This accusation was picked up by China’s official media including the Global Times. Geng Shuang, another spokesman the following day said “international society, including the U.S., has different opinions about the source of the virus” and “this requires professional and scientific assessment”. Ten days, later China’s Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai sought to distance China from Zhao Lijian’s remark, describing speculative reports about the origin of the coronavirus as harmful and as the job of scientists not diplomats. He declined to clarify Zhao Lijian’s comments and said “Maybe you could go and ask him. I’m here representing my head of the state and my government.” The allegations were rejected by the US, but reveal the escalating rivalry between China and the US, coinciding with a time of mounting domestic pressure on Xi Jinping.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.