China's whole-nation mobilisation to fight the coronavirus outbreak is unprecedented. To Chinese mainlanders, it is epic. But there is a tidal wave of China bashing even harder to contain than the virus, for how do you fight against those who derive a twisted pleasure from seeing China's pain?
Among the first to gloat was US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who gleefully declared that he saw in the epidemic an opportunity to help accelerate the return of jobs to North America. As if these words were not insensitive enough, out came The Wall Street Journal with an op-ed piece titled: "China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia".
This poke in the eye recalls the time when the Middle Kingdom was almost dismembered by foreign powers, including America. This low blow is unworthy of any global newspaper with a sliver of journalistic conscience.
Some British pundits, too, can barely conceal their delight at China's misfortune, with the Financial Times editorialising that the outbreak challenges the basis of China's social contract, that is, its legitimacy to govern. A Guardian op-ed casts doubt on the Chinese government's ability to deal with the crisis. China bashers are having a field day indulging in their favourite sport.
But this gloating hides another side to the unfolding story that China bashers refuse to see: China's whole-nation, whole-people resolve to contain the virus. Never before in human history has an entire country been put on a war footing just to fight a contagious disease.
World Health Organisation officials could hardly believe the boldness and power of China's national mobilisation, locking down entire cities with populations of tens of millions, and building purpose-specific 1,000-bed hospitals complete with negative-pressure isolation wards in 10 days.
This could only happen in China. Compare this to the US handling of the 2009 swine flu outbreak that infected 60 million Americans and claimed the lives of at least 18,000 people.
And what about Australia, where New Year's Eve firework celebrations went ahead in Sydney despite the hundreds of bush fires raging across the country? Where were the huffing critics and screaming headlines? And why the double standards when it comes to China?
To be sure, no country is perfect, and neither is China. Mistakes were made at the provincial level and two senior health officials were sacked.
A handful of overzealous public security officers putting pressure on a doctor to stop the spread of what they naively thought was alarmist talk cannot be equated with a totalitarian regime.
How does this match up with the US government-backed campaign to mislead the world on Iraq's so-called weapons of mass destruction? No doubt, China is learning a bitter and expensive lesson it will not soon forget.
In stark contrast to the biased Western reporting, among Chinese people, the viral outbreak will be remembered as an epic fight, another Long March where heroism is in evidence everywhere. They will remember the tens of thousands of health care professionals from all over China who voluntarily rushed to where the virus lurks.
They bade tearful farewells to their loved ones and landed by the planeload at the epicentre of the epidemic. The men and women had their heads shaved to minimise the health risks and to symbolise their resolve: they will keep their heads shaved as long as the virus lingers.
The outbreak bears distant echoes of the late Qing dynasty when the Chinese were indeed the sick men of the East. Chinese people toughed it out then, and will tough it out now - except they are no "sick men".
The internet chat rooms are flooded with noble and upbeat messages of hope, love, solidarity, kindness and a spirit of sacrifice. Despite the disruptions to their daily lives, they soldier on in lockstep with the rest of the nation. Far from being a country falling apart, it is a people united to defeat a common enemy.
Does China have an image problem? Yes, it certainly does. It carries an ideological label the West disapproves of. But China has never been an aggressor. Foreigners who live and work in China are surprised at how pleasant life is. The streets are safe, the buses and undergrounds are dependable and cheap to use, and people are warm and friendly.
Sadly, China is woefully lacking in the soft power of persuasive communication. It keeps telling the world that its rise is peaceful, but few in the West are listening.
They do not buy into the message that China's mission is to give its people a better life. Its Belt and Road Initiative and the defensive postures in the South China Sea, through which much of its commerce flows, are all part of the equation.
China has no soldiers in other countries to fight a foreign war nor does it export its ideology. Like all countries in the world, China wants to be strong and prosperous, for it does not want history to repeat itself, to be trampled on again as "the sick man of Asia".
Why is it so hard to accept that there can be respect between competitors, that the world is big enough for more than one dominant ideology and economy?
C.K. Yeung is an associate vice-president of the Hong Kong Baptist University and former professor of practice at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any affiliated associations
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