OPINION: The Bolsonaros' troubled relationship with China

Twitter spat between Bolsonaro's son and Chinese ambassador over coronavirus errs from official line and exposes prejudices

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Bolsonaro China coronavirus

Presidents Xi and Bolsonaro during happier times at the 11th BRICS Summit in Brasilia, before a tweet from the Brazilian leader's son about coronavirus caused a diplomatic row (image: Isac Nóbrega/PR)

Jair Bolsonaro is the first Brazilian president to adopt a harsh rhetoric towards China, often criticising Chinese investments in Brazil as a threat to national security and economic sovereignty. Despite that, in his first year in office he established a pragmatic relationship with Beijing, including meetings with Xi Jinping and successful trip to China.

The risk in this approach was to his foreign policy priority of seeking an alignment with the US as Donald Trump waged a trade war against China. These latent tensions exploded in the controversies around the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, with Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the president´s sons, engaging in a Twitter brawl with the Chinese ambassador in Brazil.

Bolsonaro Jr.'s coronavirus blame game

Eduardo is the most voted Congressman in the history of Brazil and the foreign policy spokesperson for his family. In 2019 his father tried, unsuccessfully, to nominate him as Brazil’s ambassador to Washington. Eduardo admires Trump so much that he was even photographed with his campaign cap “Make America Great Again”. His recent anti-China rant echoes Trump´s statements blaming the country for the pandemic and calling it “the Chinese virus”. In both Brazil and the US, it is an attempt to deflect responsibility for the failures in dealing with the outbreak.

The Brazilian press reported that Xi Jinping refused to take a telephone call from President Bolsonaro

It's is doubtful that this kind of blame game will work anywhere when the pandemic is killing hundreds daily. But it is an even worse strategy in Brazil, as Eduardo Bolsonaro quickly learned. Brazil is not a superpower and is heavily dependent on the Chinese market, the destination of about 30% of its exports. Key sectors of the Brazilian economy, such as agribusiness, mining and oil, have China as their main trade partner and increasingly as a top investor.

Bolsonaro Jr.’s tweets blaming China for the virus provoked a strong reaction by the Chinese ambassador in Brazil, who publicly criticised him on the same social media platform. Yang Wangming had arrived in Brasília in the first month of Bolsonaro´s administration. Within six months he already spoke Portuguese well enough to give speeches. He has been very active in public diplomacy and is the first Chinese diplomat in Brazil to develop a big following on Twitter, mostly due to his criticism of Bolsonaro´s son and his posts on how China is fighting the coronavirus.

Brazil’s political establishment reacted fast and sided with the ambassador. The presidents of the country’s house of representatives and the senate, business leaders and major media outlets rejected Eduardo Bolsonaro´s statements, highlighting the folly of picking a fight with Brazil´s biggest trade partner as the country sits on the verge of a return to economic depression because of the pandemic. Even the vice-president, general Hamilton Mourão said Eduardo did not speak for the government and was only getting attention because he is the president´s son.

The Bolsonaros and China: a history of mistrust

This was not the first time that the Bolsonaro clan has had a diplomatic row with the Chinese ambassador. In 2018 prior to official campaigning for the presidency, Jair Bolsonaro went to Taiwan, where he gave a speech calling the island a “country”, although Brazil does not recognise it as a sovereign state. Chinese diplomats in Brazil sent a letter to all members of congress criticising the trip and stating the importance of the “One China policy” that Brasília has followed since 1974, and which considers Beijing’s the sole representative government of the Chinese people.

1974

the year China and Brazil established formal diplomatic relations

Despite a pragmatic stance towards Brazil-China relations in the first year of Bolsonaro’s administration, Beijing’s suspicions have never totally gone away. The main reason is the fear that the president’s rapprochement with Trump may lead to problems with their companies, such as the possibility of a Brazilian veto against Huawei bidding for 5G Internet infrastructure or barring State Grid from buying state electricity company Eletrobras in any eventual privatisation of the firm.

Beijing supported its ambassador in the row with Eduardo Bolsonaro, and kept demanding an apology from the congressman. The Brazilian press reported that Xi Jinping initially refused to take a telephone call from President Bolsonaro. But on Tuesday, the two leaders spoke, according to Brazilian national O Globo - although it is not known whether an apology from Bolsonaro's was accepted.

These are signs that China knows what is at stake for Brazil in the coming crisis, and that it will put more pressure on the country in the complex Brazil-China-US triangular relationship. The coronavirus is challenging Trump´s reelection and creating such a political storm for Bolsonaro that it’s unclear whether he’ll finish his mandate.

Besides that, attacks such as Bolsonaro's on China because of the coronavirus outbreak reopen deep wounds from the country´s history. During the period the Chinese call “the century of humiliations” (1839-1949), imperial Western powers espoused negative views of health and hygiene among the Chinese, often considering them sick and weak.

Some of these old scars are still visible in the debate on the current pandemic, which is also becoming part of a larger pattern of Sino-US disputes over global leadership. Beijing is trying to deflect the blame for the outbreak and to present its response as the model for other countries, supporting them with international cooperation, doctors and medical supplies. With the threat of serious shortages in its health system, Brazil would be wise to open the door.

This article was originally published by The Brazilian Report and is reposted here with permission