Beijing racks up the points in its great game against Washington

It is shaping up to be a good month for the Chinese Communist party and President Xi Jinping. If all goes to plan and a Chinese spacecraft safely delivers its 2kg cargo of moon rocks to Earth in about two weeks, some of the precious payload will be proudly displayed in the home province of Mao Zedong, the country’s revolutionary founder.

The ambition to display a small piece of the moon in Hunan, possibly in the rural county of Shaoshan where Mao was born, was highlighted in 2019 as Chinese engineers outlined the mission to retrieve lunar rocks — a feat that has not been accomplished since the former Soviet Union did so in 1976.

“Chairman Mao said we must reach for the moon,” Wu Weiren, a senior Chinese space engineer, told reporters at the time. “We will achieve this and comfort him.”

In addition to closing in on Mao’s lunar dream, last week Chinese researchers claimed they had built a quantum computer that could run trillions of times faster than the current generation of supercomputers. And on Wednesday the United Arab Emirates said a Covid-19 vaccine made by Chinese state-owned Sinopharm had proven 86 per cent effective — the first such official endorsement China has received.

The UAE announcement could pave the way for the use of Chinese vaccines across the developing world, in what would be a coup for the country where coronavirus first emerged.

Until the UAE’s announcement, Chinese pharmaceutical companies appeared to be slipping further and further behind western rivals that had completed phase 3 clinical trials, allowing the UK to begin the world’s first official widescale vaccination programme this week.

China’s accomplishments echo the cold war competition between the US and the Soviet Union, when the two superpowers attempted to better each other’s scientific accomplishments, most notably in space exploration.

Beijing’s successes have also coincided with a series of bitter propaganda barrages largely directed against members of the “Five Eyes” alliance, comprising the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. But the diplomatic salvos jeopardise a rare opportunity for China to stabilise its fraught relationship with Washington as Joe Biden prepares to take over the presidency.

Zhao Lijian, the most prominent member of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats, recently warned the US and its anglophone allies to be careful lest their “eyes be plucked out” — and also posted on Twitter a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.

The lunar rocks may be permanently displayed in Shaoshan, the home county of Mao Zedong © Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty

Such provocations elicited a stern response from Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s choice as national security adviser, who said the US would “stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Australia and rally fellow democracies to advance our shared security, prosperity and values”.

A week later, Mr Sullivan also criticised China’s crackdown on the Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which has been thrown into disarray by this year’s enactment of a tough national security law in the territory, and promised to “help those persecuted find safe haven”.

Ren Yi, a Chinese blogger and political commentator, recently angered fellow nationalists with an online post suggesting that Beijing should dial down its approach.

“It’s better for China to avoid direct confrontations with the US and the Five Eyes for the time being,” Mr Ren told the Financial Times. “If Beijing steps back a bit, it will give Biden more space to handle China issues.

“I’m just suggesting some different tactics. A more moderate approach might help de-escalate conflicts and provide a more benign environment for China-US relations.”

But Mr Zhao’s bosses appear to encourage his belligerence, which they argue is a proportionate response to US-led provocations.

“International anti-China hostile forces have suppressed China, deliberately attacked the Chinese Communist party and China’s political system, and coerced other countries to ‘contain’ and ‘confront’ China,” Le Yucheng, Beijing’s second-highest ranking foreign ministry official, said last weekend. “We cannot submit to humiliation and compromise, and have to carry out a tit-for-tat struggle.”

Lu Xiang, at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agrees with Mr Le that “the [Trump administration] has attacked China frantically since March”, when Covid-19 began surging across the US. “We merely spoke back occasionally when they went too far,” he said.

The Chinese government is especially sensitive to any suggestion that it mishandled the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. It now argues that the virus was probably introduced into the central Chinese city through imported food, despite a lack of any supporting evidence.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, argues that there is little Beijing can do to reverse the downward trajectory of China-US relations after Mr Biden is sworn into office next month. During the presidential campaign, Mr Biden said Mr Xi was “a thug”.

“The US and its allies, especially the UK, Australia and Canada, have reached a consensus that they need to treat China as a threat,” said Prof Shi.

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing

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