As the coronavirus pandemic numbers increase daily by ever larger amounts, it may still be too early to tell what the political consequences of this outbreak will be. One question that already looms large, however, is the extent to which Europeans and Americans will turn their anger towards China, where the outbreak originated.
People across the world will find many reasons to blame the Chinese government for the current crisis. After the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, there was more than enough warning in the risk of keeping open wet markets, where live animals, likely to be carrying infectious viruses and diseases, are traded. The experience with SARS should have indicated the Chinese government the need for excess caution––instead, the Communist Party clamped down on initial warnings of the virus. Dr. Li Wenliang was the first to raise concerns about the new virus and was promptly taken to the local police, where he was forced to write a statement admitting to “illegal behaviour.” After the Chinese Government belatedly notified the WHO of a new coronavirus on the 31st of December, the government denied that the virus could be spread by human-to-human transmissions until the 20th of January. In the meantime, several million Chinese citizens had passed through Wuhan, a city with a larger population than London, and had travelled to other parts of China and to places around the world.
When China in late January shut down the entire province of Hubei, which has a population roughly equivalent in size to Italy, the Government continued to pressure other countries to maintain travel to and from China. Now, nearly all of Europe and the United States is in shutdown. And, most discordantly, China, having stemmed the outbreak internally, has this week closed its own border to the outside world. To add further salt in the wounds, the country even appears to be benefitting from the chaos elsewhere, distributing millions of masks, ventilators and testing kits––although it has even threatened to withhold some shipments while some shipments also turn out to be scams.
To get a sense of what members of the public thought about China’s culpability for this global pandemic, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked respondents to our recent polls in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France, to what extent they believed China was to blame for the present situation.
In all countries, strong majorities of respondents believed China was, at least, somewhat to blame. 12% of respondents in the UK, 16% in the US, 18% in Italy, 21% in France, and 30% in Spain found China “not to blame at all.” Some political leanings were critical in this perception. Past Trump voters in the US and Conservative voters in the UK were more likely to blame China, whereas those who voted otherwise in both countries were more likely to say China were not to blame at all. In France, Italy and Spain, however, a respondent’s past vote was not at all correlated to what they thought about China’s role in this pandemic.
Rather, in all five countries, it was those who thought that their government had overreacted so far who were least likely to blame China, whereas those who were most worried about contracting the virus and about its effect on the public health and the economy were most likely to place significant blame on China. Those who have paid close attention to the news and claim to consume the news on an hourly basis were also more likely to blame China.
As such, the extent to which China is ultimately blamed for this crisis will likely depend on the extent of the damage wrought by the crisis. The more the present situation continues and worsens, the greater the backlash will be.
Even so, given that there is already such a large majority in all five countries as to whether China is worthy of blame, there should be little doubt that relations between China and the rest of the world will be far more strained after this pandemic is over.