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The troubled relationship between the Bolsonaro family and China

. Mar 23, 2020
The troubled relationship between the Bolsonaro family and China Jair Bolsonaro (right) meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

Jair Bolsonaro is the first Brazilian president to be elected with a tough discourse on China, often criticizing 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 a successful trip to the Middle Kingdom.

The risk pervading this approach was his foreign policy of seeking full alignment with the U.S., while Donald Trump was waging a trade war against China. These latent tensions exploded in the controversy surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, with Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro—one of the president’s sons—engaging in a Twitter brawl with the Chinese ambassador in Brazil.

The blame game with China

Eduardo Bolsonaro

is the most-voted member of Congress in the history of Brazil, and something of an informal foreign policy spokesperson for his family. In 2019, his father tried unsuccessfully to nominate him as ambassador to Washington D.C.</p> <p>Congressman Bolsonaro is such a staunch admirer of Mr. Trump that he has been <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2019/07/12/ambassador-eduardo-bolsonaro-dc-brf-meat/">photographed with the U.S. president&#8217;s “Make America Great Again” caps</a>. His anti-China rants are a carbon copy of Mr. Trump&#8217;s statements, blaming the Asian country for the pandemic and calling it “the Chinese virus.” In both Brazil and the U.S., this is an attempt to deflect responsibility for the countries&#8217; failures in dealing with the outbreak.</p> <p>It is doubtful that this kind of blame game may 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 it is heavily dependent on the Chinese market, the <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2018/11/14/brazil-trade-china-commodities/">destination of about 30 percent of its exports</a>. Key sectors of the Brazilian economy, such as agribusiness, mining, and oil, have China as their main trade partner and leading investor.</p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet tw-align-center"><p lang="pt" dir="ltr">Quem assistiu Chernobyl vai entender o q ocorreu.Substitua a usina nuclear pelo coronavírus e a ditadura soviética pela chinesa<br><br>+1 vez uma ditadura preferiu esconder algo grave a expor tendo desgaste,mas q salvaria inúmeras vidas<br><br>A culpa é da China e liberdade seria a solução <a href="https://t.co/h3jyGlPymv">https://t.co/h3jyGlPymv</a></p>— Eduardo Bolsonaro🇧🇷 (@BolsonaroSP) <a href="https://twitter.com/BolsonaroSP/status/1240286560953815040?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">March 18, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async="" src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s tweets blaming China for the virus provoked a strong reaction from the Chinese ambassador in Brazil, who decided to publicly respond, criticizing the president&#8217;s son on social media. Ambassador Yang Wangming arrived in Brasília during the first month of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s administration. In the space of six months, he already spoke Portuguese well enough to give speeches and interviews. He has been very active in public diplomacy and is the first Chinese diplomat in Brazil to develop a big following on Twitter—largely due to his criticism of President Bolsonaro&#8217;s son, and his posts on how China is fighting the coronavirus.</p> <p>Brazilian political establishment reacted quickly and sided with the Chinese ambassador. The speakers of the House of Representatives and the Senate, business leaders, and major media outlets all expressed their rejection of Eduardo Bolsonaro&#8217;s statements, highlighting the folly of picking a fight with Brazil&#8217;s biggest trade partner while the country is on the verge of a return to economic depression due to the Covid-19 pandemic.</p> <p>Even the vice-president, General Hamilton Mourão, said Eduardo Bolsonaro did not speak for the government and was only getting attention because he is the president&#8217;s son—claiming China would pay no notice if his name was &#8220;Eduardo Banana.&#8221;</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1078940"></div> <script src="https://www.buzzsprout.com/299876/1078940-57-how-should-brazil-deal-with-china.js?container_id=buzzsprout-player-1078940&amp;player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>A history of mistrust</h2> <p>This was not the first time the Bolsonaro clan has had a diplomatic row with the Chinese ambassador. In 2018, during his election campaign, <a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/mundo/2019/10/depois-de-visitar-taiwan-na-campanha-bolsonaro-defende-integridade-territorial-da-china.shtml">Jair Bolsonaro visited Taiwan</a> and recognized it as a country, though Brazil does not acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign state.</p> <p>China&#8217;s diplomats in Brazil then sent a letter to all members of Congress criticizing the trip and stating the importance of the “One China policy” that Brasília follows since 1974—which only considers Beijing as representative of the Chinese people.</p> <p>Despite the <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2019/04/08/china-vp-hamilton-mourao-closer-ties-brazil/">pragmatic Brazil-China relations</a> of the first year of the Jair Bolsonaro administration, the government&#8217;s suspicions of Beijing have never totally gone away. The main reason is China&#8217;s fear that the president&#8217;s rapprochement with Donald Trump may lead to problems for their companies, such as the possibility of Brazil vetoing Huawei from taking part in the country&#8217;s future 5G spectrum auction.</p> <p>Beijing supported its ambassador in the row with Eduardo Bolsonaro, and continue to demand an apology from the congressman. The Brazilian press reported that Xi Jinping refused to take a telephone call from President Bolsonaro. These are signs that China knows what it is at stake for Brazil in the coming crisis, and that it will put more pressure on the country in relation to the complex Brazil-China-US diplomatic triangle. The coronavirus pandemic is a challenge for Donald Trump&#8217;s reelection later this year. While in Brazil, the crisis is creating a political storm for Jair Bolsonaro, to the point that there are uncertainties around whether he will finish his term.&nbsp;</p> <p>Besides that, the attacks on China due to the coronavirus outbreak touches some deep wounds in the country&#8217;s history. During the period that the Chinese call “The Century of Humiliations” (1839-1949), Western powers held many negative views of China&#8217;s sanitary and hygiene habits, with stereotypes that the Chinese would be &#8220;sick and weak.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>Some of these old scars are still present in the debate on the current pandemic, which is also becoming part of a larger trend of Sino-American disputes for global leadership. Beijing is trying to deflect the blame for the outbreak, and to present its response as a model for other countries, supporting them with international cooperation—including doctors and medical supplies. With the threat of serious shortages in its health system, Brazil would be wise to leave the door open to this kind of help.

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Mauricio Santoro

Santoro holds a Ph.D. in Political Science. He is currently Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of International Relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro

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