As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, relations between the People's Republic of China, the West and Europe are undergoing a profound transformation, characterised by mistrust and, in some cases, open hostility.
The pandemic's origins in Wuhan, Chinese secrecy about its evolution, and what has been called China's newly aggressive "wolf warrior" diplomacy (after a patriotic, Chinese blockbuster film) have accelerated a chill in Sino-European relations that started before the crisis.
Early conspiracy theories that suggested coronavirus was a manmade product of biological warfare have been refuted by the scientific community. The hypotheses most widely circulated in the West now are that a scientist in a high-security biological laboratory in Wuhan was accidentally infected and spread the virus, or that one of several labs sloppily disposed of contaminated research materials. China has denounced these theories as “not science-based”.
Referring to China, French president Emmanuel Macron told the Financial Times last month: "There are clearly things that have happened that we don't know about." Clarifying later, the Élysée said Macron referred only to the Chinese government's lack of transparency.
Scarcely a day passes without damning reports on China in French media. 'The Great Chinese Lie' was the title of Le Figaro Magazine's recent cover story
Although US president Donald Trump is widely disliked in Europe, researchers and diplomats say European officials and the public agree with much of what he says about China.
Trump continues to be the most strident critic of China's role in the pandemic. On Monday, he responded to an editorial in the sensationalist German newspaper Bild that demanded China pay €150 billion in reparations to Germany for the death and economic destruction wreaked by the pandemic.
Trump said he would “hold China accountable”, though he hadn’t determined the amount yet. More than one million Americans have been infected with Covid-19 and more than 59,000 have died, a higher toll than the Vietnam War.
In late April, the US state of Missouri filed a lawsuit demanding that the Chinese government be “held accountable for their actions”.
And in the past week, the Australian government has asked for an international investigation by the World Health Organisation (WHO) into the origin of the virus. The Chinese ambassador to Canberra disagreed, and threatened a Chinese boycott of Australian universities and tourism sites.
China’s deputy ambassador to London, Chen Wen, told BBC radio in recent days that China could not agree to an international investigation. “While we are concentrating all our efforts on fighting against the virus, why talk about an investigation into this?” she asked. “This will divert our attention, our resources. No one can agree with this kind of politically motivated investigation.”
Also in April, China’s ambassador to Paris, Lu Shaye, was summoned to the French foreign ministry, a serious step just short of breaking diplomatic relations, for the first time in a quarter century.
Lu tweets several times a day regarding Covid-19 issues. He has repeated claims by the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman Zhao Lijian that the virus came from the US. He has alleged that French parliamentarians supported racist Taiwanese comments against the Ethiopian director of the WHO, and accused caregivers in French nursing homes of “abandoning their positions overnight, deserting collectively, and leaving their residents to die of hunger and disease”.
“We expect to be respected by China, as they wish to be respected by us,” foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says. In an interview with Le Monde, he described the pandemic as “the continuation of power struggles by other means”. Asked whether he feared that China would take the place of the US in world affairs, Le Drian replied: “My fear is that the world after will furiously resemble the world before, only worse.”
Scarcely a day passes without damning reports on China in French media. "The Great Chinese Lie," was the title of Le Figaro magazine's 10-page cover story on April 25th, illustrated by a photograph of Xi Jinping wearing a surgical mask and wagging his finger.
On the Chinese side, Lu boasted that “China has helped 140 countries and international organisations” in an interview with L’Opinion newspaper.
But as noted by the European Think-tank Network on China on April 29th: “It is important to note that commercial deliveries of medical supplies from China have far exceeded aid volumes.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Europe helped China. Then China helped Europe. In February, France sent 17 tonnes of medical supplies to Wuhan, including 560,000 face masks. A month later, China dispatched a "solidarity freight" of one million masks and 10,000 protection suits to Paris. The French health ministry said France subsequently ordered "close to two billion" masks from China.
French commentators initially praised the ability of China’s autocratic regime to impose such a draconian lockdown.
But the French mood changed in late March, says Marc Julienne, China researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). The French found Trump’s allegations of Chinese influence over the WHO convincing, says Julienne. They were skeptical of the low fatality figures reported by China, suspicious of Beijing’s “mask diplomacy”, and outraged by Ambassador Lu’s outbursts.
Chinese officials routinely accuse the West of attacking China to hide their own ineptitude in fighting the pandemic. “It wouldn’t have come to this if westerners had been more successful in stopping the epidemic,” Lu told L’Opinion.
“If there’s a problem, it’s the fault of certain media,” Lu continued. “They align themselves with American media. Every time the US press makes an allegation, almost immediately French media howl with the wolves.”
The origin of the virus is particularly sensitive in Paris, because France built one of the Wuhan biological labs whose security practices have been questioned.
Wuhan is the most French of Chinese cities, the investigative journalist Antoine Izambard writes in France-China, Dangerous Liaisons, published just before the pandemic. About 100 French companies, including PSA, Eurocopter, L’Oréal and Pernod-Ricard have plants there.
When Izambard visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology to interview its director, microbiologist Yuan Zhiming, in February 2019, the walls of the stairs were lined with photographs of French officials.
France built the highest security biological laboratory in China there, under a 2004 agreement. An outbreak of Sars had just killed 800 people in Asia. “It was logical for France to give China a tool to help it detect viruses and develop vaccines,” Izambard says.
Not everyone was comfortable with this. France had recently lost track of four mobile P3 biological labs it gave China. (P4 stands for pathogen level 4, meaning the most deadly viruses for which no cure has been discovered. P3 and P2 indicate lower levels of lethality and safety precautions.)
Military intelligence and the foreign ministry opposed the P4 lab project on the grounds it could be hijacked for biological warfare. (There is no evidence it ever was.) The US also opposed construction of the lab. A French researcher, quoted by Izambard, was upbraided by the US scientific attaché in Beijing. "No P4, no P4. It's forbidden. You can't do that!"
It went ahead, and has been the subject of rumours and debate for some weeks now.
US intelligence says the Covid-19 virus definitely came from China, was not manmade or genetically modified, and that it is still investigating whether it came from a laboratory in Wuhan. On Thursday evening, Donald Trump said he had seen evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source.
Yuan and his deputy, Shi Zhengli, have figured prominently in French coverage of the pandemic. Shi wrote her thesis at the University of Montpellier and was later one of a half dozen scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology who trained in biological security in Lyon. In 2016, the French ambassador to Beijing decorated Yuan and Shi with the National Order of Merit and the Legion of Honour for their work in preventing infectious diseases.
In 2004, Shi and her team began roaming the caves of southern China, identifying hundreds of bat-borne coronaviruses, as recounted in Scientific American magazine. The magazine published the article this week "to address rumours that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from Shi Zhengli's lab in China".
The team hung nets at the mouths of caves before dark, then waited for the bats to come out to feed. They took samples of the bats’ blood, saliva, urine and faeces.
On the night of December 30th, 2019, Shi received a telephone call from the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, a biosafety level 2 lab located less than 300 metres from the seafood market where Chinese authorities claimed the epidemic started. They had found a new coronavirus in two hospital patients and wanted Shi to investigate. “Could they have come from our lab?” Shi asked herself.
Questions around the lab had persisted. The Washington Post revealed on April 14th that US diplomats who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in January 2018 warned Washington the laboratory was not secure. A cable dated January 19th, 2018 said the new lab "has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory." The cable warned that the lab's work on bat coronaviruses risked creating an epidemic similar to the 2003 Sars outbreak.
Shi went through years of lab records, checking for any mishandling of research materials. When it emerged that none of the genome sequences in the Covid-19 virus matched those she had taken from bat caves, it “really took a load off my mind,” Shi told Scientific American.
Researchers have now published 4,500 genomic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Shi says the fact that none exactly matches the viruses she has studied proves that Covid-19 could not have come from her lab.
Yuan Zhiming, director of the lab, has said: “It is impossible that the virus came from here. We have very precise and rigorous rules for avoiding leaks and we are certain of that.”
In the absence of a full investigation, the truth of this remains unknown and the hypothesis remains just that. Yet unease persists about labs in China.
France has no connection with the lower biosafety level Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention lab. According to a report on the ResearchGate website in February, it houses 600 bats captured 1,000km away, in the subtropical Yunnan and Zhejiang provinces.
A video posted on YouTube in December showed lab technician Tian Junhua telling how he self-quarantined after coming into contact with bat blood and urine. Such reports, widely covered by French media, prompt a question: could lab personnel have inadvertently been exposed to the Covid-19 virus and brought it into the local population?
This speculation, combined with a Chinese attempt to control the narrative of the pandemic, are inflaming French opinion.
“Until now, in France, only a few disappointed businesses, a small group of diplomats and high-ranking officials at the ministry of defence objected to the ultra-nationalist and fundamentally opaque behaviour of this country,” Le Monde said in a two-page investigative report into the Wuhan laboratories.
Izambard interviewed 140 diplomats, officials and scientists for his book. “France rarely wins,” he says. “In nuclear energy, high-speed railways, aeronautics and biology, China wants the technology, but it doesn’t want co-operation.” Fifty French researchers were supposed to have worked in the P4 lab. There is only one.
Crude and clumsy
These days, it is not uncommon to hear criticism of Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the unabashedly pro-Chinese former prime minister, and Alain Mérieux, the Lyon industrialist who lobbied for the P4 lab.
“What did the French think they were doing when they gave China that lab?” a European diplomat ask a few days ago in Paris.
“Xi Jinping wants to impose his narrative of how victorious, glorious, heroic China defeated the virus,” says Françoise Nicolas, director of the Asia Centre at IFRI. “I don’t think he can win this one. It’s too crude, blatant and clumsy. It’s over-confident and aggressive.”
Before the pandemic, there was already a widespread belief that China wanted to rule the world, Nicolas says.
President Macron has called Beijing’s trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative to build Chinese roads, ports and industrial centres around the world “hegemonic”.
The crisis has amplified divisions in the EU between countries desperate for Chinese aid and those who see Chinese behaviour as provocative and aggressive
Xi’s Made in China 2025 plan to make China the world leader in fields such as aeronautics and robotics is also viewed with suspicion. A Chinese attempt to take control of Toulouse airport was thwarted. But Greece and Italy allowed China to invest in the ports of Piraeus and Trieste.
Reliance on trade with China makes some EU countries skittish. In the third week of April, Beijing put heavy pressure on the EU to water down a report about Covid-19 disinformation, the New York Times reported.
For example, the sentence, “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image,” was removed, as was an account of China’s dispute with France. Monika Richter, an analyst involved in the report, denounced the changes as “appeasement” and accused the EU of “self-censoring to appease the Chinese Communist Party”.
The think tank network report on Europe-China relations says the pandemic has “simultaneously brought Europe and China into closer cooperation and pushed them further apart”.
The crisis has amplified divisions between countries desperate for Chinese aid, such as Italy and Spain, and those like France, Germany and Sweden, who see Chinese behaviour as provocative and aggressive.
In March, the European Commission repeated past advice to member states to shelter strategic industries from China. Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner, says EU governments should buy stakes in companies rather than allow Chinese incursions while prices are low because of the pandemic. France and others have vowed to repatriate strategic industries they outsourced to China.
Over four months of the pandemic, “China has lost Europe,” Reinhard Buetikofer, a German Green who heads the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, told Bloomberg News.
Macron often says that Europe must not become a casualty of rivalry between the US and China.
In March 2019, the EU publicly labelled China a “strategic rival” for the first time. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell, the representative for foreign affairs, have made repeated statements about the need for greater transparency on the part of China, and for the EU to protect itself from China.
With €700 billion in annual trade pre-pandemic, mutual dependence between China and Europe will not disappear. But interaction will be more difficult after the crisis.
“Until now, we let the Chinese walk all over us,” says Françoise Nicolas. “Now the Chinese are more assertive, and we are more wary. This has laid the basis for a tense and complex relationship, on both sides.”