In parallel with the rapid implementation of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) over the last seven years and the maturation of the "Debt Trap" theses on Beijing's investments in Africa, "China-skepticism" has started to take root in the international community against its BRI investments.
Later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the China-skepticism began to deepen and gain ground due to accusations that Beijing deliberately delayed informing the international community about the virus and distorted local case data. Besides, due to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) perceived pro-Chinese statements and China-related disinformation attempts regarding the pandemic, this perception of skepticism towards Beijing continued to grow.
Despite significant investments made within the scope of the BRI strategy, such as railways, roads and strategic ports, and international interest shown in these, criticism against Beijing's questionable strategic approach has increased in recent years.
The high-profile cancellations of public works such as railways in Pakistan, Myanmar and Malaysia were caused by enormous borrowing concerns that these countries would not be able to pay the construction costs of major projects resulting in massive debt to Beijing that could last decades.
The United States and other Western countries have warned potential BRI partners that this "debt diplomacy" from Beijing will strengthen China's influence in the world and hinder democratic governments.
In this regard, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in particular, made visits to European Union countries to warn against information technology investments under China's "Digital Silk Road" strategy, specifically targeting Huawei's 5G project.
According to Bart Oosterveld, director of the Atlantic Council's Global Business and Economics Program, China does not understand or worry about debt diplomacy issues.
Although Beijing publicly commends the benefits of BRI projects for global trade and development in partner countries, he said he sees the projects as infrastructure investments for financiers, predominantly Chinese, that must earn money.
Looking at the issues that fuel skepticism in terms of the military, Washington has also expressed concerns over new agreements that would see China invest or even own strategic ports in Asia and Europe, such as Piraeus in Greece and Gwadar in Pakistan.
The U.S. has tried to dissuade European partners from joining the initiative, fears that it could weaken transatlantic unity and allow China access to critical infrastructure for European defense, such as ports and road networks.
Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Robert Dohner argued that "the success of the BRI and the challenges that it poses for the United States depend not just on the amount of resources that China brings to bear, but also how adroit China is in responding to the inevitable criticisms that it will face and in revising the BRI to make it more transparent and consistent with the developed standards and conditions of international and multilateral investment lending."
This new Chinese skepticism in internationally relevant environments continues to overshadow China's strategic investments under the BRI and its "Health Silk Road" initiatives through "Mask Diplomacy."
Following the revelation of secret concentration camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, skepticism toward the Chinese concerning COVID-19 came back to the international community's agenda on the grounds that Beijing was distorting local pandemic case data.
Some experts said China's coronavirus numbers should be examined with suspicion. Despite all the measures taken by implementing the "national health code system" at the local level, many Chinese have remained skeptical.
"Not even the generation of retirees who were once so loyal to the party don't believe this nonsense. China is trying to prove to the West that it currently has zero cases. But this is nothing more than a slogan," said a Wuhan blogger.
U.S.-based Chinese blogger and biochemist Fang Zhouzi heavily criticized official data from Beijing. "No one should believe the local officials who lie about statistics on behalf of the economy," he said on Twitter.
Professor Xu Zhangrun from Qinghua University, in his article titled "Angry People No Longer Fear," harshly criticized the Communist Party of China (CCP) and President Xi Jinping's administration for their digital authoritarianism, which caused him to be demoted by the institution and banned from teaching, writing and publishing.
In his article, Xu emphasized that the country and its citizens are governed by "big data totalitarianism" and its "WeChat Terrorism."
In the face of the pandemic, countless patients are wailing in the city of Jiangxia city and throughout Hubei province who have not been admitted to the hospital and have nowhere to seek medical treatment.
So, the number of people who died is still unknown. The exclusion of society and people, cutting off all sources of information and allowing only propaganda from the party media will leave China forever a lame giant, if it truly is one.
Due to President Donald Trump's frequent use of the term "Chinese Virus" during the 2020 U.S. presidential election, China-skepticism has now found macro ground at the global level.
In the new period, Beijing should abandon its lack of transparency towards the international community and learn to respect all constructive strategic criticisms against it, in order to prevent China-skepticism from turning into a real global "Sinophobia."
Otherwise, due to Beijing's lack of transparency, this new China-skepticism process, initiated with the expression "Chinese Virus," will evolve from "Sinopathy" to "anti-Sinopathy" primarily affecting Chinese citizens abroad. It will show its negative influence as it spreads in wave after wave, hitting the economy, culture, arts and more, until it finally reaches high-level diplomatic relations.
By "Sinopathy," I mean individual or institutional interest, praise and love for China or Chinese citizens and by "anti-Sinopathy," individual or institutional neglect, satire and hatred for China or Chinese citizens.
*Independent China expert, traveler and researcher, focuses on China's Belt and Road Initiative
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