China hit a grim landmark earlier this week when the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak surpassed 1,000 with over 40,000 recorded cases of infection—and those numbers are rising every day. The outbreak, which originated in Wuhan, China, has rattled global markets and catalyzed concern over a widespread epidemic beyond China’s borders. The suffering has been immense, and people in China and those with family or friends there are frightened about what’s next. Meanwhile, there are shortages of masks and supplies and hospitals are overrun, with rising anxiety due to travel restrictions and quarantine policies.

People wear face masks at the Central MTR station in Hong Kong on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)
People wear face masks at the Central MTR station in Hong Kong on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

There are many questions about what led to the outbreak and how it spread, but Chinese officials have been characteristically wary of sharing information. USIP’s Jacob Stokes, Rachel Vandenbrink and Paul Kyumin Lee discuss explain how the outbreak has impacted U.S.-China relations, how Beijing’s closest partners have responded and the impact on Hong Kong and its protest movement.

How has the coronavirus outbreak impacted U.S.-China relations?

Stokes: The emergence of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has provided an issue that Washington and Beijing can cooperate on, although not without some of the mutual suspicion that permeates U.S.-China relations overall. The United States has allocated up to $100 million to aid countries, including China, in fighting the spread of the virus and helped facilitate 17.8 tons of donated medical equipment. A number of U.S. companies and charities have contributed supplies and assistance as well. Washington and Beijing have coordinated evacuation flights for U.S. citizens from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the outbreak’s epicenter.

Exchanges surrounding the virus have not been totally cooperative, though. There has been friction over China’s apparent unwillingness to invite U.S. experts to join an advisory team from the World Health Organization going to China. Caustic comments from Chinese government spokespeople downplaying American assistance efforts and criticizing the U.S. government for issuing guidance to avoid travel to China have also rankled. Moreover, China’s decision this week to shift data reporting criteria, resulting in a sharp spike in the number of cases, further contributes to a latent skepticism about the accuracy of Chinese data on the virus’s spread. The coronavirus outbreak has exposed some of the weaknesses of China’s governance system—especially local government actions to silence physicians who identified the virus in its earliest stages. The central government has responded by replacing the Communist Party secretaries for Hubei province and Wuhan city.

As for how coronavirus might affect the larger bilateral relationship, the most immediate issue is whether China can fulfill the terms of the “phase one” trade agreement signed in January given the virus’s impact on its economy. Beijing cut tariffs earlier this month on $75 billion in American products in a move to comply with the deal. But China could be forced to invoke the agreement’s “force majeure,” or “acts of god,” clause if the economic fallout from the virus prevents China from holding up its end of the bargain.

How have China’s closest partners responded?

Vandenbrink: Chinese diplomats and state media have sought to mitigate the blow to China’s international reputation by insisting China’s response has been effective and urging other countries not to isolate China, lambasting them for evacuating their citizens or cutting off flights and travel. Some of China’s closest friends have heeded the call. 

Cambodia, which did not evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, has been particularly steadfast in its support for the Chinese leadership in its response to the crisis. Prime Minister Hun Sen traveled to China last week, and reportedly even asked to visit Wuhan. He did not make it that far but instead had a state visit in Beijing with Xi, who praised him as a “friend in need.”

Pakistan, known as China’s “all-weather friend,” similarly refused to evacuate citizens from Wuhan despite pleas from students in the city asking to go home, and resumed flights to and from China earlier this month. “We stand by China in full solidarity,” a top Pakistani health official said.   

North Korea, on the other hand, has taken swift steps to close the border with China, stopping flights and train travel across the border, even though it is heavily reliant on the bigger neighbor for much of its economic activity. North Korea’s public health infrastructure is ill equipped to handle an outbreak, so its best hope lies in preventing the spread of the virus to its population.  

Russia’s response to the Chinese leadership’s handling of the crisis has been mixed. Russia issued a BRICS Chairmanship Statement expressing support for China’s fight against the epidemic, which China’s foreign ministry warmly welcomed. But Russia has not held back from stemming the flow of people between the two countries, closing most of the entry points along the shared border and suspending some visas for Chinese nationals. 

What has the impact been on Hong Kong and the protest movement?

Lee: Hong Kong has seen the highest rates of coronavirus infection outside mainland China, with 50 confirmed cases in Hong Kong as of February 12 and one reported death. These figures are relatively small in comparison to the mainland with more than 40,000 cases and over 1,000 deaths. Yet the outbreak particularly resonates for residents of the Special Administrative Region, with the situation being reminiscent of the 2003 SARS epidemic, a traumatic event that remains a painful memory for residents of Hong Kong.

While there has been lower turnout at mass rallies due to the fear of infection, the epidemic has also had a transformative effect on the protest movement in Hong Kong, leading some members of the pro-establishment camp to join a coalition of pro-democracy "yellow ribbons” to voice their frustration against the local government’s incompetency in managing the public health crisis. Dissatisfaction with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, especially toward her refusal to completely close the border to visitors from the mainland and failure to distribute face masks to its citizens, is reflected in the plummeting level of trust in the local government. While these grievances are most acutely targeted at the Hong Kong government, deepening anti-mainland sentiment portends an even greater challenge for Beijing as it attempts to assuage discontent and strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s authority through a new head of its Liaison Office. 

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