Written by: Dr. Islam Ayadi – Professor of International Relations – Researcher on China Affairs – Arab American University / Palestine
- Arab Democratic Center
China and the Middle East have enjoyed long-standing historical ties that have grown closely and dramatically in recent years, driven by high levels of trade and investment, as well as thriving political ties. However, the outbreak of the Coronavirus, which has spread from China to the region and the rest of the world, has led to a complex new dynamic in the relations between the two sides. It created an opportunity for solidarity and assistance, while at the same time exacerbating the existing challenges, chief among them the issue of trust in China among the governments and peoples of the Middle East.
The growing popularity of learning the Chinese language and history is another indication of its positive perception in the region, as is the great attention paid to visits by Chinese officials in the local media. Above all, for some countries in the Middle East, the emerging Asian giant is seen as a more attractive and convenient economic and political model, and an alternative to the United States, which has led the international system since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
- The question arises, how has the Corona pandemic changed China’s image in the Middle East?
As the Coronavirus journey began in December 2019 from China, and this virus has globalized without any doubt. The virus is a broad group of viruses that includes viruses that can cause a group of ailments in humans, ranging from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome, and some experts and analysts have begun to talk about the image of China and the shape of the world after the Corona pandemic, and compared The current crisis with major events such as the attacks of September 11th in the year 2001, and the financial crisis of the year 2008, all of which represented defining moments and left a great impact on what followed.
It was not in the minds of economists and financial analysts the size of what happened in the first quarter of 2020, when most of them expected a more severe economic crisis than the one that was in 2008. Everyone believed that there was a cycle of economic recession that repeats itself every ten years And it may be more severe this time after the arrival of US President Donald Trump to the authority of the United States of America and the adoption of a new policy based on strengthening the value of the US dollar against the currencies of emerging economies to push investors to withdraw capital from them and re-inject them into the American market. This is in addition to the trade war he declared against China and all those who stand with it in a desperate attempt to stop the industrial giant, whose economic rise to the first rank has become a final issue that no one denies.
But fate surprised everyone at the end of the year 2019 with another scenario that the most pessimistic analysts did not expect, as the Corona virus appeared, which appeared to be the pandemic of the new century, just as some believe that there is an economic cycle that repeats itself every ten years, there are those who assert that a new pandemic threatens humanity with The beginning of every new century.
The image of China after the spread of the Corona pandemic in the Middle East
However, since the outbreak of the pandemic, things have gone for the worse when it comes to China’s image in the region. Even in Iran, its main regional ally, China has come under heavy criticism. Kianush Jahanpour, a spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Health, criticized the way the Chinese authorities dealt with the outbreak and the data they provided about it to the world, describing the latter as a “joke” after being subjected to pressure from both Beijing and Tehran, Jahanpour was quick to back down, and he tweeted the next day He said, “China’s support for the Iranian nation in difficult days is unforgettable.”
Criticism of China has spread across the region among the public as well, particularly on social media. In Morocco, police arrested a woman in early February after she posted a viral video in which she accused a local Chinese restaurant of spreading the virus. In early March, a Cairo taxi driver forced a Chinese man out of his car after he coughed. At the end of March, a New Cairo resident called the police to report a Chinese family grilling snakes – a rumor that later spread on Egyptian social media, leading to widespread speculation and anti-Chinese comments.
Several countries across the region, including Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey, have imposed restrictions on travel from China. Iran has even suspended issuing visas to Chinese citizens, which has drawn criticism from Beijing for this. But as a rule, the official line between the governments of the MENA region was the continuation of cooperation and dialogue with the Chinese. The desire to maintain good relations with China appears to negate other considerations. Undoubtedly, this was partly driven by the medical aid that China provided to many countries, as well as the fear that Beijing will remember the countries that have criticized or cut ties with them during this difficult period.
Chinese measures to improve its image in the Middle East
After the spread of the Coronavirus and the resulting change in perception of China in the Middle East, Beijing has used new tools to influence. The Middle East is increasingly important to China, given its rich natural resources and strategic location on major trade routes. China has become highly dependent on Middle Eastern oil, with nearly half of its 44% imports from the region last year 2019. The Middle East is also key to Beijing’s future economic plans, including the Belt and Road Initiative, as a crossroads for trade routes and sea lanes connecting China. Africa and Europe.
China was an early partner in tackling the Corona pandemic in the Middle East. Initially, China was seen as the source of the virus, providing materials and equipment, as well as advice. China’s actions in the Middle East are similar to those of it in other parts of the world. Instead of being seen as the source of the virus, it wants to present itself as a leader in containing the spread of the virus. In addition, its response to the pandemic in the Middle East enables it to expand and deepen its relations with states across the region, including those with which contact has previously been minimal.
Thus, China wants to maintain its positive image among people across the Middle East, not only as a goal in itself, but also because Beijing needs to ensure its survival as an economic and political power. This is especially important during the crisis, which has already severely damaged China’s economic growth and affected its image globally. Without stable energy supplies and safe use of trade routes in the Middle East, China’s economic and political position could be further undermined. A severe outbreak of the pandemic across the Middle East would cripple China’s economic activity in the region, and its consequences may be less devastating for it than the pandemic itself.
Therefore, the Chinese government has invested significant time and resources in directing public discourse in an attempt to establish a narrative that the virus is not a “Chinese virus,” as US President Donald Trump and others have claimed. The Chinese leadership realizes that the level of confidence in it has been severely damaged by the pandemic. It is working hard to promote the narrative that the Coronavirus could have exploded anywhere and that the Chinese system is not taking responsibility for the way it has spread. As part of this effort, Beijing quickly published a book highlighting China’s war on the Coronavirus and the assistance it has provided other affected countries. The plan is to translate this book into many languages, including some Middle Eastern languages, and distribute it to policymakers as well as the general public. This book was issued by the Information Office of the State Council in China regarding the battle the country fought against the emerging corona virus disease under the title “Combating Covid-19 … China is Moving”.
On the other hand, to support the government’s narrative, China has also intensified its efforts to provide assistance to countries across the region, sending medical teams and aircraft with the necessary equipment and supplies to combat the virus. At the beginning of March, it sent thousands of test kits and other medical equipment to Egypt. It provided Turkey with a “special medicine” that, according to Turkish Health Minister Fakhruddin Kuja, allegedly reduced recovery times among intensive care patients. In early April, China helped Israel obtain and ship essential medical supplies as part of an airlift organized by the Israeli Ministry of Defense. In mid-April, China donated fifty boxes of medical supplies along with 100,000 surgical face masks to the Omani Ministry of Health. China also provided the Palestinian National Authority with medical aid from the Chinese government to the Palestinian people, including tens of thousands of corona virus examination strips, medical supplies and devices, protective clothing, masks, masks, and temperature checks. Also, China provided Yemen with a package of medical aid consisting of 25,000 masks, 600 protective uniforms and 600 glasses, in addition to medical supplies for health sector workers.
This comes within the framework of the efforts made by China to confront the Corona pandemic in the countries of the world, as Beijing provided medical aid to 130 countries, and held 120 conferences via “video conference” with more than 160 countries and organizations on how to confront the spread of the virus, in addition to increasing Chinese financial support. To the World Health Organization. These are just a few of China’s efforts to provide assistance to the region, although in some cases the equipment in question has proven defective.
Since these efforts are aimed directly at improving China’s image and bolstering its soft power during the crisis, they have all been widely promoted and promoted on Chinese government news sites and social media. By mid-March, the main Chinese news agency, Xinhua, had already released a report on Beijing’s response to the pandemic in the Middle East. This report, and others like it, affirm China’s solidarity with the people of the region. Other reports spread disinformation in an effort to deflect blame from China. The Chinese state television presenter claimed to the Arabic-speaking audience that “it is clear that the virus in China was transmitted from abroad,” pointing the finger of accusation at the United States as the source.
It can be said that the spread of the Coronavirus represents an unprecedented global challenge, as well as a unique political and diplomatic challenge for China. As the country of origin of the virus and a rising power with an increasing stature in the Middle East, China must work to restore confidence in its “branding”. Beijing’s provision of emergency medical assistance and an intense media campaign across the region is driven by the need to protect its major interests in the Middle East and to avoid damaging its image in the long term. Without stable energy supplies and the use of regional trade routes, China’s economic and political position could be further undermined.
To improve its image, China expressed its arrival in this current month, August 2020, days after Russia announced the arrival of a vaccine against the new Corona virus, and based on media reports that China had granted a patent for a new anti-virus vaccine that infected more than 21 million and caused the death of more than Another 775 thousand, and the “Cansino Biology” company obtained approval from Beijing for a patent for the ” AD5-NCOV ” vaccine against Covid-19 .
Therefore, in the future, the Chinese are likely to continue providing medical assistance to the countries of the Middle East, and to continue documenting and strengthening that assistance on a large scale, in an effort to improve their image in the region. Meanwhile, regional governments will likely continue to walk a fine line between blaming China for the pandemic and maintaining good relations with the Asian giant.