Welcome back to Axios China. Today we've got medical diplomacy in Europe, a crack in D.C.'s China consensus and a whole lot more.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
The Chinese government has embarked on a highly publicized campaign to provide vital medical supplies to European countries as they fight coronavirus outbreaks within their borders.
Why it matters: Those efforts — and the perception that the European Union has done little to help — are providing fodder for politicians who are eager to hail China and criticize the EU. Leaders in the EU may now have to worry about both Chinese and Russian overtures that weaken European unity.
What's happening: Chinese companies and charitable organizations are providing supplies and donations to Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Hungary, France and elsewhere.
Some politicians have used the opportunity to criticize the EU for a perceived lack of similar support.
Reality check: Germany and France have sent approximately equivalent shipments of medical supplies to Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and the EU provides significant support to Serbia's hospitals and has included it in its emergency stockpile of medical equipment.
What they're saying: "Euroskeptic populist leaders are very happy to play along with Chinese propaganda, to say only China is helping us, to promote the idea of the lack of EU solidarity," said Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.
Between the lines: China's bid for influence in Europe only works when it can play to existing vulnerabilities, said Janka Oertel, the director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
What to watch: Even very pro-EU countries might see a rise in pro-China euroskeptics if the coronavirus crisis continues to spiral out of control.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
For more than two years, Republicans and Democrats have more or less agreed the U.S. needs a China policy that acknowledges Beijing's hard authoritarian turn and the serious challenge China's growing power presents to U.S. interests.
But the coronavirus crisis is threatening that consensus. The wedge driving Democrats and Republicans apart is concern about racism.
What's happening: Furor over a bipartisan resolution in the House last week demonstrated the growing divide.
What they're saying:
The big picture: That Democrats strongly opposed a resolution condemning well-known Chinese government missteps and human rights violations suggests that China is swiftly becoming a partisan issue.
Official statistics out of China suggest it is bouncing back from the coronavirus outbreak that shuttered the country for much of the first quarter, but there is growing speculation that data is being massaged to paper over a bevy of nagging issues, writes Axios' Dion Rabouin.
Driving the news: China said manufacturing activity returned to expansion in March, with its official metric rising to 52.0. Economists had expected a reading of 45.0 after hitting a record low of 35.7 in February.
What we're hearing: The services sector numbers, in particular, are worth watching, says Matthew P. Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Others were less kind. "The China COVID numbers are fake and the China PMI number is also fake," Alan Cole, senior economist at the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, said on Twitter.
On the other side: Unofficial numbers tell a different story. "Overdue credit-card debt swelled last month by about 50% from a year earlier," Bloomberg reported, citing unnamed executives at two banks.
Why it matters: "These issues in China are a preview of what we should expect throughout the world," Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told Bloomberg.
A passenger boards a bus with a message supporting Italy in their efforts against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Hangzhou, China, March 24. Photo: STR /AFP/China OUT via Getty Images
Between March 11 and 23, as China was delivering much-needed medical supplies to Italy, bots pushed two pro-China, Italian-language hashtags, according to a March 30 investigation published by Italian news outlet Formiche.
Why it matters: China's medical donations to countries fighting the coronavirus have been accompanied by a massive propaganda campaign aimed at improving China's image in recipient countries.
What they're saying: "Maybe the public opinion is not really aware in Italy that these kinds of operations are directed and have people behind them," Francesco Bechis, one of the journalists who worked on the Formiche story, told Axios.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
A growing number of countries are rejecting coronavirus test kits they had sourced from China, claiming the tests don't work properly.
The Chinese government has announced it is investigating Shenzhen Bioeasy, the company that sold tests to Spain.
Taipei to the rescue: Taiwan to donate 10 million masks to Europe and the US (Financial Times)
Dangers of decoupling: Trump’s break with China has deadly consequences (The Atlantic)
Fallout in the U.K.: China will face 'a reckoning' over virus, Britain warns (Sydney Morning Herald)
Screenshot: Shanghai Fire Department Weibo video
As millions of people faced lockdown in China during the coronavirus, a growing number of housebound gamers turned to Animal Crossing: New Horizons to pass the time, according to China-based news outlet Sixth Tone.
It's so popular that the Shanghai fire department's official account on Weibo, a platform similar to Twitter, posted a video from the game in a public service announcement reminding people to stay out of fire lanes, Sixth Tone reports.