A placard that reads 'We love China' is seen inside a drugstore in Tokyo, as Chinese visitors snap up masks and hand sanitizer. Photo: WeChat

China’s still-raging coronavirus outbreak may scupper plans for a long overdue trip to Tokyo by Chinese President Xi Jinping, originally slated for early April to mark the Sino-Japan détente.

Newspapers in Hong Kong and Japan reported on Monday that diplomacy has already taken a back seat, because Xi and members of the Communist Party’s upper echelon are struggling to come to grips with a growing public health crisis that has so far claimed more than 900 lives, surpassing the global death toll of the 2003 SARS pandemic.

More than 40,000 people in China have been taken ill by the highly infectious pneumonic pathogen, according to official figures released at noon on Monday.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Xinhua

It has been reported that Xi’s aides may have to juggle the leader’s schedule and make logistic and health protection plans for a possible visit to Wuhan – capital of the central province of Hubei, where the coronavirus originated – by the end of the month. All aspects of Xi’s upcoming inspection of hospitals and quarantine facilities in the city are being carefully choreographed to convince the people – as well as officials and intellectuals bemoaning the lack of effective leadership – that the president is commanding the nation’s all-out battle against the contagion.

Reuters has also reported that Beijing may consider moving the nation’s annual parliamentary session and a meeting of its top political advisory body (aka “the two sessions”) from March to April or even May. This is because local cadres who have been ordered to curb the spread of the deadly virus do not have time to spare to attend ceremonial meetings. Also, huge gatherings of deputies and representatives in one hall may pose an additional health threat to Beijing, which reported 337 confirmed coronavirus cases on Monday.

Postponing the two sessions may affect Xi’s other commitments and visits as the top leader has to preside over the meetings.

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily and Tokyo’s Mainichi Shimbun also say that China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi has canceled a trip to Tokyo. Yang was to meet Japan’s newly-installed foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, to finalize the arrangements for Xi’s summit with Abe, the signing of a rapprochement communique, as well as Xi’s meet-and-greet with the Chinese diaspora.

However, the Ming Pao, citing sources in Japan, noted that the Abe administration is still hoping Xi’s trip, the first state visit to the country by the Chinese leader since he took office in 2012, can still go ahead as planned.

Meanwhile, alarm over China’s health crisis has spread into the diplomatic arena, now that a growing number of foreign countries, including some of Beijing’s closest allies, such as North Korea and Pakistan, are scrambling to either halt direct flights or bar Chinese travelers. The xenophobia and stigmatization of China have also started to plague the West and the rest of Asia, prompting Beijing’s embassies in some countries to demand fair treatment of its nationals.

But it appears that the delicate ties between China and Japan have largely been immune to the impact, despite the latter’s tally of 306 confirmed cases, the highest number outside China. Notwithstanding the bitter historical enmity and several ongoing disputes, Tokyo has not lashed out on Beijing. However, China is facing an international backlash due to its belated response to the virus when it emerged in Wuhan in December.

Abe and senior Japanese officials, including Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koikem, have expressed solidarity and promised more donations of medical supplies, in particular masks and protective suits, which Chinese doctors are desperate to obtain.

Medical supplies donated by Japan arrive in Wuhan. Photos: Xinhua, WeChat

In busy precincts in Ginza in Tokyo and Osaka, there are also volunteers collecting donations from compassionate pedestrians to help China fight the disease.

Photos of quotes from ancient Chinese poems and classics that appear on the packages of Japanese donations, like ”Are you not battle-dressed? Let’s share the coat and vest” (岂曰无衣 与子同袍) and “Though we‘re oceans apart, a shared moon connects hearts” (山川异域 风月同天), have also gone viral among Chinese netizens.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying expressed her nation’s gratitude to Japan in recent press conferences, in stark contrast to remarks she made to debunk claims that the US government had also donated medical supplies and patented medicines.

It has been reported that when other countries, including Japan, sent masks and other gear to Wuhan by air before their diplomats and nationals boarded the planes to leave the virus-stricken city, Washington was the glaring exception as it dispatched “hollow planes” to Wuhan to pull its people out.

Hua denounced Washington’s “unconcern” in a previous news conference, but soon changed her tone after Xi had a phone call with President Donald Trump last Friday in which he thanked the US for its support.

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