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May 19, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1512

Visions Of The Post-Coronavirus World – Official Russia Sides With China Against US On Coronavirus Coverup Charges, Other Russians Voices Urge Neutrality Or Even Express Hostility Towards Chinese Government

May 19, 2020 | By Amiel Ungar, Anatoly Strandberg
Russia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1512

The tension between the United States (and to a lesser extent Western Europe[1]) and China over responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic and the demand for indemnification for damages, has triggered reactions in Russia. Official Russia has backed China unequivocally. Russia has staked a great deal on relations with China. Both countries are members of the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Council economically. Diplomatically, both countries share an interest in replacing a US dominated world order with a multilateral system presumably governed by the UN where both countries retain the veto power. Ideologically, both countries share authoritarian systems that deny the superiority of Western liberal values. During the coronavirus crisis, claims have been made that authoritarian systems enjoy superiority over liberal democracies and the latter will have to curb freedoms to survive.

A second school of thought believed that Russia should not mortgage its policy to support China, especially as China did not come to Russia's rescue after the US imposed sanctions. Russia's best course was to enjoy the respite from American hostility that was currently focused on China and play both sides to its advantage.

A third and definitely minority position voiced hostility to China. For Russian liberals this aversion to China was a mirror image of the first position. It is precisely because the current authoritarian system in Russia and the Chinese system share so many values that Russian liberals are naturally suspicious of a system that practices concealment and lies. However, one Russian oligarch, the billionaire Oleg Depraska, who is sanctioned by the US voiced his suspicions of China.  

A survey of Russian reactions to the tensions between the United States and China follows below:


Putin and Xi toast each other (Source: Gazeta.ru)

Official Russia Backs The Chinese Position

The Kremlin refused to endorse American charges that the coronavirus had been artificially created in China and that the Chinese had suppressed knowledge of the outbreak thus denying other countries the ability to take precautionary measures.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin's Press Secretary dismissed these charges as unsubstantiated.

"These days a representative or an expert of sorts appears who claims or hints about the artificial origin of the virus. But then, some other expert appears, who excludes the artificial origin of the virus. All of them have nothing to prove their allegations. We simply don’t have enough information to make any conclusions", said Peskov.[2]

Nor did the Kremlin agree that the Chinese hadn't punctually informed the world about the coronavirus' spread. Peskov said "we did not see any confirmations for similar declarations" [3]in response to the question whether the Kremlin agreed that China had not reacted on time to the threat of the coronavirus spread, Peskov answered:

"We consider that the coronavirus is a common challenge for all mankind, is a challenge to the global economy and each country separately. President Putin is convinced that for a joint victory over the coronavirus and the gradual extrication of the world economy from the crisis, what is needed are common coordinated efforts."

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also commented on the claims that China and WHO misrepresented COVID-19 data: "Today, in a very difficult situation, most inappropriate and unfounded politically oriented attacks on individual states, international organizations, and attempts to blame them for the current epidemiological crisis, are increasing in individual capitals Zakharova said. [4]

China took note of the Russian position and Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said, that China appreciates Russia's "objective, rational and scientific approach to the question of the COVID-19 origin"[5]

Pro-regime experts also backed the Chinese position. On the television program

Sunday Evening with Viktor Solovyev, whose presenter habitually slaps down critics of the Kremlin, Alexey Maslov, the director of the of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of the Far East defended China. He claimed that the Americans were the last people to assail China considering that the deadly

H1N1 virus originated in the United States in 2009, "and no one called it American".

"According to the results of 2009, H1N1 claimed the lives of 19 thousand people around the world. But three years later a report was published with the results of the final study. It turned out that 286 thousand people died in the United States and six million worldwide. And no one blamed the United States with concealing it, " Maslov believed that the attacks on China were in the context of the American policy of building a coalition against China to push back Chinese dominance in the world economy and global trade.

He advised China to avoid a fight and concentrate on rebuilding the economy. Russia, he claimed had adopted to right policy of support for the Chinese One Belt One Road economic project but refrained from participating in it and developed its own independent projects. For Maslov this was a very "competent way out." [6]

National News Service carried an article titled "The Coronavirus Hit Trump's Ratings – At the Russian Academy of Sciences They Explain The Reasons For The Aggression Against China", and featuring an interview with Andrei Ostrovsky, head of the Center for Economic and Social Research of China at the Institute of the Far East. The academic noted that the USA is losing its global leadership in the world to China.

"America feels it is losing its leadership. The main competitor is China. This is evidenced by the gross domestic product growth indicators, China is assuming the lead position in terms of foreign trade, it has overtaken America in terms of export volumes. If at this pace everything continues to continue, the United States will lose its world leadership… This year, the US elections take place. Trump was in a good position before the coronavirus. Today, his position has weakened. Unemployment has begun in America, and this is very bad for the ratings of any president. This is the number one indicator that all voters are looking at. And now there are already about 20 million unemployed, as during the Great Depression. Therefore, Trump's chances are steadily reduced. Did you notice that the Americans almost forgot about Russia?"[7]

Kortunov: It Is Better To Survive In Authoritarian Wuhan Than To Die In A Free New York

Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) wrote in the council's website that the American attack on China was a futile attempt to rationalize the failure of liberal democracies in the coronavirus crisis in contrast to the marked success of authoritarian regimes:

"But, as the Russian saying goes, “the winners are not judged.” The statistics are on China’s side, not the United States’. As of April 22, 2020, China had registered a total of 88,423 coronavirus cases and 4632 deaths, compared to 790,480 cases in the United States and 42,214 deaths. China is the most populous country in the world, yet only eighth in terms of the number of infected, far behind the United States and several other Western countries (Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom). As a side note, it is worth mentioning that the spread of coronavirus in the West has forced many to abandon the previously held propagandist theory that the course of the pandemic in Iran was indisputable proof of the complete failure of the country's illiberal system to deal with the epidemiological crisis. Today Iran, just like China, compares favorably with most leading countries in the West in terms of both the number of infected and the number of deaths.

...

"None of this necessarily means that authoritarianism will always triumph over liberalism. Even the most effective forms of authoritarianism (as displayed by the Chinese model) have their obvious flaws and imperfections. But if China scores a resounding victory in the battle of 'coronavirus narratives,' then much will surely change in terms of what we consider the most desirable future for humankind.

"After all, COVID-19 is not the last pandemic that the world will have to face. And let us not forget about climate change, the increasingly frequent natural disasters, possible resource shortages and other emergency situations which, unfortunately, are becoming part of the “new normality.” People across the world want to be free. Freedom is still valued highly. But what if we put the question rather coldly: Would you prefer to survive in an authoritarian Wuhan or die in a free New York?"[8]


Andrey Kortunov (Source: Russiancouncil.ru)

Petr Akopov Advises America: Don't Try To Beat China, Emulate It

Petr Akopov who has become a lead columnist for RIA Novosti believes that the crisis has sharply accelerated America's sunset and the US is futilely building an anti-Chinese coalition hoping to stave off the inevitable. But the US will only be able to recover if it abandoned globalization and emulated China. He wrote:

“It is often said that the world order will depend on whether the United States will be able to build an anti-Chinese coalition…

"America will be unable to contain China, the East will prevail over the West, as Mao promised; but not because of the coronavirus, but because the European, Western era has come to its logical end, being crushed under the burden of globalization. The new era of Asia is coming (or the era of Eurasia, or of the Pacific region [whatever you want to call it], but the Atlantic era is passing. The coronavirus crisis will merely accelerate this process…

Without the dollar serving as the world reserve currency, the United States will be unable to maintain its current standard of living, which means that it will to try to prolong the dominance at all costs. The United States still has military, intelligence, organizational, propaganda and other resources [to uphold their status], therefore, it is possible for them to slog on as a global hegemon, while continuing to place spokes in China’s wheels, play on the fear of them [the Chinese] on various continents and hope for the magical self-liquidation of the People's Republic of China as occurred in the case of the USSR."

There is a better course. The US should emulate a China that "does not strive for world hegemony and restructuring the entire world in its own image, China seeks exclusively economic benefits for itself." This contrasted with US globalization that pushed forward the concepts of "democracy, the free market, human rights, LGBT rights, tolerance and multiculturalism… [concepts] designed to build a united world. A world in which all other civilizations and nations are equated as inferior and backward. The Anglo-Saxon countries (with their fanatical conviction in their superiority over all other civilizations) were the vanguard of this globalization process. (…) Anglo-Saxon globalism survived the struggle against communism and even for some time, after the death of the USSR, felt the scent of victory. (As it seemed to those who sang about an "end of history." This belief proved illusory and now the United States should put self-interest over globalism.

 "…By focusing on its own interests, the States will be able to keep its world primacy in the intermediate term. The US needs to become at least a little bit like China (that is, it should try not to pit countries against each other, place its right above international, not to bomb and not to impose sanctions, nor to dictate rules of conduct."[9]

Mikhail Rostovsky: Russia Should Be Equidistant And Not Tilt To China

A second school of thought advocated taking a neutral position between the United States and China in the expectation that such a policy would be the most advantageous for Russia.

Mikhail Rostovsky, Mk.ru's senior columnist, believes that Russia could gain from the conflict between Washington and Beijing. He shares the opinion that crisis of relations was precipitated by Trump's desire to find a culprit for the epidemic and thereby shift discussion of the problem from domestic politics to the international sphere. But then he shifts gears:

"You undoubtedly sympathize with China, that has become the victim of unfair accusations and even smears on the part of Trump? I have till now restrained myself from expressing similar sentiments. The guiding principle is: treat the other the way he treats you. In this conflict We are much more sympathetic to Beijing than to Washington. But how well do we know our 'friend, brother and strategic ally' in terms of the coronavirus… If Trumps heaps upon China a mass of grotesque and unfair sounding accusation that still doesn't mean that Beijing is not hiding something. Secrecy, a desire to save face at any cost and to 'sweep [issues] under the rug' are very important features of both traditional and modern Chinese political culture.”

The author believes that Russia cannot trust either the "Chinese authorities' official information about the origin of the coronavirus," or "Washington’s rhetoric about the Beijing’s hidden influence on the World Health Organization..."

Therefore, Mikhail Rostovsky advises the Kremlin to follow the principle formulated by Henry Kissinger: "in the Moscow-Beijing-Washington triangle, the most favorable party is the one, that has the least conflict with two others."[10]

Kommersant columnist Maxim Yusin took a similar position. He noted the buildup of attacks against China in both the US and Europe that also accused China of profiteering in the sale of protective gear. Vladimir Putin in contrast believed that blaming Beijing for concealing information on a pandemic is unacceptable. According to Yusin: "It makes no sense for Russia to participate in the impending confrontation between the West and China. For once, Russia is not the main irritant for European and American politicians - this respite must be competently exploited. Build relationships with both sides, while not losing sight of the fact that at some point, a cooling with the West could push Beijing toward closer interaction with its northwestern neighbor."[11]


Maxim Yusin (Source: Ukraina.ru)

Vladislav Inozemtsev: China's Government Has Turned The Country Into A 21st Century Leper Economist Vladislav Inozemtsev the founder and scientific director of Moscow's Center for Post-Industrial Society Studies, and chairman of Moscow State University's department of world economy believes that the Chinese government had brought the opprobrium down on itself.  In an opinion piece for the popular outlet Gazeta.ru, "A Time to Embrace and a Time to Slip Out of the Embrace"[12], Inozemtsev wrote:


Vladislav Inozemtsev (Source: Kpradio.ru)

"…Coronavirus, apparently, was neither the creation of the military, nor a tool for subjugating the peoples to the mythical “world government”. The most probable reason for its occurrence was the careless human interaction with wildlife…It is therefore quite obvious that territorially, the epidemic spread from China (as did the similar pandemics of 1957, 1968 and 2013).

"Therefore, the idea of the Chinese authorities' responsibility for the pandemic was not based on a provocation against the great “CPC” [Communist Party of China] and personally against its brilliant chairman Xi [Xi Jinping], but was a consequence of banal logical conclusions. Characteristically, when these deductions were first made, no one reproached China for what had transpired and even more did not demand any 'amends'.

"However, once it became clear that the PRC authorities covered up the beginning of the epidemic and its scope, tried to misinform international organizations (and possibly even bribe them) and criminally ignored the threat of the epidemic's spread due to massive tourist travel abroad during the lunar New Year celebration), a serious case arose in many countries for accusing the Chinese government of negligence. These accusations were soon followed by demands for an investigation.

"The [Chinese] response was an unprecedentedly arrogant defamation campaign against politicians and experts who advocated such demands, and accompanied by an outrageous series of attempts to shift responsibility to others. Chinese diplomats in Russia, Kazakhstan, and many other countries began, in impermissible language, to lecture the citizens of these countries, representatives of Chinese ministries and agencies denied the 'Wuhanesque' origins of the virus, and Russian Sinophiles were busy popularizing the most delusional fabrications of our southeastern 'partners'.

"Recently, the propaganda efforts of Beijing have reached a new level where 'justification' is made that the virus was introduced to China from without and the one ultimately responsible for its global spread turns out to be the United States that has most suffered from the epidemic's consequences…

"A world that has lost nearly 200,000 lives and trillions of dollars will not be strengthened by [by Chinese billionaire] Jack Ma's [donation of] cloth masks nor by the healing remedies of traditional Beijing practitioners, whom the Russian authorities are running around with.

"Openness and honesty in this case would undoubtedly be the best way out of a difficult situation, but these tools are not encountered in the arsenal of authoritarian states…

"For many years, Russian and foreign geopolitical geniuses talked about China's rise as well as its sort of a 'return of history' that did not follow [Francis] Fukuyama's prescriptions [about the ultimate triumph of Western Liberalism].[13] They evaluated diverse scenarios of conflict between the “Celestial Empire” [PRC] and the West –from a military clash to competition for control of global finances. However, the unexpected happened: an epidemic from China arrived in the world, against which both weapons and money turned out to be useless, the epidemic to which people have only one answer: self-isolation and social distancing…

"The Chinese have made an unprecedented breakthrough in the economic, technological and social spheres [a breakthrough] that no nation on the planet has equaled in such short time). True, they had and still have their share of problems - and one of them is the epidemic. But it is not the epidemic, nor even people, who perhaps ate a not fully cooked bat, or who possibly got infected carelessly in the laboratory [who are the real problem], but the government, crazed with unlimited powers and lies, who turns China into a “leper” of the 21st century."

"I sincerely wish the Chinese physical and spiritual good health, and for China ideological and political wellbeing. I am convinced that the fate of the contemporary world will depend much more on the latter than on the former."

Dmitry Drize: The Virus Has Infected World Politics

Dmitry Drize, Kommesant's lead political commentator sides with the American version in a column titled "The Virus Has Gradually Infected World Politics" but is fearful of the reverberations if the Trump Administration takes on China.

"… China categorically denies the version of the artificial origin of the virus. Nevertheless, a high-level biological center is located in Wuhan... But it is too big of a coincidence that the disease started there. And now American news channel Fox News presented a version [about the artificial origins of the virus]:

"It so happened that one of the laboratory employees was infected by a bat, then went out into the city and infected the entire globe… The authorities’ fault may be in an incorrect reaction and an attempt to hide the magnitude of the consequences or the real number of sick and dead. A deliberate distortion of information could have also occurred… Beijing, of course, denies everything and refers to WHO, which has not officially confirmed the version about the artificial origin of coronavirus.

"However, we know that it is not difficult to negotiate with any organization, especially if you are big and powerful like China. Actually, this is what Donald Trump claims, by accusing WHO of unprofessionalism, and even worse - of bias. Now we should wait for the end of the American investigation on the subject of coronavirus pandemic.

"Then the situation will go into the sphere of grand politics. First of all, this is an excellent reason to contain China, which is eager for world leadership. In theory, we can talk even about compromising Beijing’s authority in the eyes of the international community and, for example, about the imposition of sanctions. This is also a good reason to get various rebates from China, for example, in trade and in other areas…

"Does Trump have enough political will to go for it? Or will all of these investigations be purely formal? - Quite possibly, the latter. But in that case the well-known thesis 'if you are big and strong, you can do anything” will be confirmed. America employs this thesis very well… but with very controversial results. Let’s recall the example of Iraq and the chaos which arose in this country. But China is not Iraq. Chaos in China could make the entire world tremble. On the other hand, one must be answerable for own's words: If they have already decided to punish China, then they must go all the way. So serious international escalation is very much a possibility."[14]  

Oligarch Deripaska: A Wuhan Chernobyl That Must Be Investigated

While it was not surprising to see Inozemtsev and Drize take an anti-Chinese position, the virulent position taken by Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who is on the US sanctions list, is striking. On his telegram channel Deripaska called the coronavirus pandemic a "Wuhan Chernobyl"– a disaster equivalent to the meltdown of the Soviet reactor in Chernobyl in 1986:

"Millions of people affected by the virus all over the world want an answer to the question: how was this possible and where did this virus come from? And they have the right to demand an investigation…

"Even Fox reporters are wondering - how could it happen that with so many victims in Wuhan, the number of cases in Beijing is minor compared to New York or Milan.

"…The UN, under its auspices, should initiate a thorough investigation of this “Wuhan Chernobyl".[15]

In a subsequent Telegram post Deripaska advocated investigating China not with regards to the coronavirus but also with regards to China's crimes against the environment.

"Floods, [forest] fires (that began earlier this year in Siberia than usual), weird winters (for many years in a row), drought (which, most likely, will lead to serious crop failure in the European part of Russia) - all these unpleasant surprises are the result of a barbaric attitude towards the environment, demonstrated by many Asian countries: China, Korea, Indonesia. India and South Africa are also following their lead.

"The Chinese continue to actively develop coal-based energy (burning more than 4 billion tons of coal annually and emitting more than 13 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere), not only in their own country, but also in developing countries under the auspices of the New Silk Road program, by sponsoring the construction of coal power stations.

"I would like to recall, that back in 2015, China, just like us [Russia], signed and ratified the Paris Agreement, and declared its commitment to combating pollution and climate change. So far, these were only assurances.

"Therefore, it is advisable to investigate not only the causes of the Wuhan virus, but also to create a UN commission, which would investigate the systematic violation of the environmental protection obligations. [And to investigate] not only China and India, but also other countries of Southeast Asia. Countries guilty of environmental damage, according to the findings of this commission, should be punished in the form of sanctions and embargoes. We no longer have time to conserve our ecosystem."[16]


Oleg Deripaska (Source: Rbc.ru)

Petr Tverdov, a journalist for Ng.ru, claimed that Deripaska's attitude towards China was gradually hardening, but Chinese behavior during the crisis had served as the tipping point and illustrated the danger for China of betraying trust:

"In Russia, over the past 20 years there has probably not been a person more convinced and persistent than Oleg Deripaska, who defended the need to develop relations between Moscow and Beijing. At many international forums, from Davos to APEC, he argued for China's priority as Russia's main partner in Asia. Although, as you know, many influential domestic liberals insisted on choosing in favor of other countries in the region - South Korea, Japan or even India.

"Apparently, Deripaska was very surprised when the Chinese partners, on the urgent recommendation of their authorities, began to break off business ties with his Russian structures ahead of schedule the day after the introduction of American sanctions in 2018. By the way, not a single Russian company, not a single Russian bank was able to access credit lines in China. Ostensibly due to fear of secondary sanctions by Washington.

"Chinese counterparts transparently hinted to their Russian counterparts that the country's leadership general policy prioritized access to the American market. The PRC's social and economic strategy associates prosperity primarily with the promotion of goods and services to the American market, access to the US financial and technological market, and the option of annually sending 300-400 thousand students, graduate students and researchers to American universities. Russia in these aspects is not competitive in comparison with the United States. Well, the policy is quite rational, pragmatic, but not that of a partner."

Deripaska, who like other Russian oligarchs sought to compensate for the government's inadequacies by paying for needed supplies and hospitals out of their own pocket was surprised to discover that American charges of Chinese hoarding of supplies and profiteering were substantiated.

"Peter Navarro, who recently advised Donald Trump on trade and industry announced that Beijing, already aware of the pandemic scale of the disaster, bought 2 billion packages of medical masks at 50-60 cents worldwide in January-February. Not only did it create a shortage of masks in many countries, he also sells them today in these countries, but at a price of $ 6-7. Let us leave such accusations on Navarro’s conscience, we only note that this narrative is supported by an increasing number of politicians, governments and media around the world.

"And in these realities, the question of whether the test of preserving Beijing's friendship and partnership with businessmen from other countries was successfully passed is particularly acute. In Russia they say: Hard times show who your friends are!

"So, if you return to the experience of Oleg Deripaska, then it is worth talking about his new experience of 'partnership' with the Chinese. When a Russian industrialist ordered from China medical masks, glasses, gloves, gowns and other equipment for the workers of his enterprises and their families in order to implement the delivery of such vital equipment to regional medical centers, he was surprised to learn that now it would cost him three times as much than indicated in the price lists upon ordering. Well these are such times, and they [the Russians] themselves must understand that. And when the purchased protective equipment was ready to be loaded onto the plane for dispatch to Russia, it turned out that the flight would not be allowed to take off until additional fees for the export of goods from the country were paid. Allegedly this was introduced precisely to prevent the export of what the Chinese themselves need. But this was not going to America! [But] To Russia! Brothers forever!

"Arguments in response are weak and cold: they say, at such a time, many brothers do not feel that great...

"Hard times show who your friends are! I repeat once again: the Russian mentality, the epitome of our national identity, is based on this truth. This is part of our cultural code."

"I would like the Chinese 'comrades' to hear such a simple, but most important truth that should be known about the Russians. In order that they should not err in future calculations."[17]

*Amiel Ungar is an analyst and the editor of the Russian Media Project at MEMRI, Anatoly Strandberg is a MEMRI research fellow.            

 

[1] Politico.eu, May 11, 2020.

[2] Vz.ru, April 22, 2020.

[3] Vz.ru, April 23, 2020.

[4] Ria.ru, April 23, 2020.

[5] Vz.ru, April 23, 2020.

[6] Vesti.ru, April 27, 2020.

[7] Nsn.fm, April 30, 2020.

[8] Russiancouncil.ru, April 29, 2020.

[9] Ria.ru, April 25, 2020.

[10] Mk.ru, April 25, 2020.

[11] Kommersant.ru, April 21, 2020.

[12] Gazeta.ru, April 25, 2020.

[14] Kommersant.ru, April 20, 2020.

[15] T.me/olegderipaska/62, April 20, 2020.

[16] T.me/olegderipaska/66), April 26, 2020.

[17] Ng.ru, April 28, 2020.

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