Worrying signs for China: Heightened hubris amid pandemic

April 16, 2020 06:00
Photo: Reuters

In recent weeks, China’s state media has been packed with reports of Beijing’s humanitarian spirit, its willingness to share its experience in dealing with the coronavirus epidemic and its dispatch of medical experts and supplies to those less fortunate, including the rich countries of Europe and the United States, which are dependent on Chinese medical equipment, ranging from basic test kits to life-saving ventilators.

China, the first victim of the pandemic, has largely brought the deadly virus under control and, in the process, gained credibility as a global leader, especially when the United States squandered precious months during which it did little to prepare for the virus’s onslaught.

But while China portrays itself as a beneficent global leader, its behavior projects a different image: one of intolerance and haughtiness, unwilling to accept the slightest hint of criticism.

At a time when China is providing medical supplies, primarily purchased but occasionally donated, it isn’t surprising that there should be complaints about quality.

But such complaints, it seems, are intolerable. China’s reputation cannot be tarnished, even by possibly justifiable complaints.

Recently, Chinese state media has been full of articles fulminating against “politicization of Chinese aid” and “smearing China’s goodwill.” Complaints about quality are brushed aside as “misunderstanding caused by different criteria.”

When quality is questioned, state media steps in to defend manufacturers. For example, the nationalistic Global Times on April 2 said that “unfriendly Western media outlets have chosen to smear and discredit made-in-China products.” However, Chinese test kit providers have “shown their resolution to continue helping the world fight against the virus.” Global Times approvingly quoted an employee of Beijing Beier Bioengineering as saying, “I think the quality issue reported by some media has been politicized.”

The tendency to treat complaints as “smears” is common.

The Spanish daily El Pais reported in late March that Madrid’s city government had decided to stop using Covid-19 test kits ordered from China because of high error rates. The following day, Yao Fei, chargé d’affaires of the Chinese embassy, told China Global Television Network that the embassy “will not allow any foreign media to smear the image of China and Chinese products at will.”

Yet, when the embassy issued its account of what had occurred, arguably it did little to improve China’s image.

The embassy explained that the Chinese government wasn’t involved in the transaction and that Spain had purchased the items from a company called Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology. But, it turns out, Shenzhen Bioeasy “has not yet been licensed by the Chinese National Medical Products Administration to sell its products.”

So a company not licensed to sell its products in China was permitted to export and the Chinese government was not responsible. And although the products aren’t allowed to be sold in China, their quality cannot be questioned.

Faced with complaints from Spain and other countries of poor quality, China announced that beginning April 1 companies needed certification from the Chinese National Medical Products Administration before they could export medical products.

A happy ending, it seems. However, state media wasn’t happy. On April 1, when the new regulation came into effect, Global Times published an article headlined “Political attacks on Chinese medical supplies take toll on exports.” Complaints about quality, it seems, constituted political attacks and now Chinese exports were falling.

The article quoted “insiders” as saying that because of “exaggerated and politicized ‘quality concerns’,” global supplies of desperately needed medical supplies were coming under further pressure.

And, Global Times reported separately, because of the new certification requirement, it isn’t clear when Spain would receive its entire order of 640,000 test kits since Shenzhen Bioeasy was no longer allowed to export them.

Foreign countries, it seems, are caught in a catch-22 situation. Because of insistence on quality, they may not get the equipment they desperately need.

But China, too, is in a quandary. Medical equipment exports earned it US$10.4 billion between March 3 and April 4 but the certification requirement is resulting in lower exports than previously expected for such products as face masks and ventilators.

Actually China, as a responsible global power, should see to it that Spain and other countries receive the medical equipment that they need and for which they are willing to pay, perhaps by helping to shift the contracts to companies certified to sell such products. Merely distancing itself from entities such as Shenzhen Bioeasy doesn’t help the companies involved, the nation’s exports, or foreign countries in dire straits that need medical supplies that are within China’s ability to provide.

Spain certainly shouldn’t be made to feel that it is being punished for making a complaint that is construed as a “smear” against China.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.