The question of which country will benefit or lose most in prestige and power as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been answered in various ways. In the first weeks, analysts stressed the impact on China and predicted that economic disaster there might well destabilize and weaken the Communist grip on its people.
Then analysts and the World Health Organization rushed to the rescue, praising Beijing’s handling of the outbreak in Wuhan. In February, one American financial analyst went so far as to describe the Communist regime’s “efficiency and transparency” predicting an “increased confidence in China and her leadership model.”
Beijing used this opening to continue to sell its alternative to the West’s liberal democracy and economic freedom model for developing nations. The Chinese model of guided authoritarianism sans individual freedom has always had some emotional appeal to authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian rulers wanting development without risking their hold on power or their ability to quash internal critics, but the positive press on her handling of the virus, Beijing was also able to argue that along with everything else, the Chinese model works better than the West’s liberal model.
Beijing moved quickly to exploit this perception by aiding countries in the underdeveloped world as well as some in Europe to improve relations by sending coronavirus test kits, masks and the like. China made good use of the humanitarian gesture, to make its case and urging countries receiving its help to congratulate Beijing publicly for what it was doing.
The effort to orchestrate an international show of support for China’s battle against the coronavirus extended even to requests that state legislative leaders in the United States introduce and win passage of resolutions praising Beijing.
At the same time, the Chinese military used the pandemic as cover to round up hundreds of Hong Kong’s dissidents and tighten Beijing’s control of the city. China ramped up criticism of Taiwan even as Taiwan had more success in tamping down the virus than others, and doubled down on the ongoing campaign to dominate the South China Sea.
China condemned anyone who referred to the virus as “The Wuhan Virus” or referenced its origins in China. The U.S. press ganged up on the U.S. president to join China in these efforts. Then things began to break down. Far from being efficient and transparent, Beijing had lied about the new virus, destroyed evidence as to its origins and persuaded the World Health Organization to pass on her lies to the rest of the world. At the same time, countries receiving ventilators, test kits and masks found them to be of inferior quality and virtually worthless.
Beijing responded by attempting unsuccessfully to change the narrative, claiming the virus came not from Wuhan, but from the United States and was probably unleashed in China by the U.S. military. This came not from a half-demented blogger, but from Zhao Lijian, the official spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. It came to represent the Chinese Communist Party’s official position which, one suspects, Chinese officials convinced themselves would sell if they just repeated it often enough.
When that far-fetched claim stretched and popped, country after country began demanding an investigation of Beijing’s culpability and cover-up. The Communists retaliated by threatening to cut off aid to countries that called for an inquiry. When Australia went ahead anyway, the Chinese ambassador there suggested that Chinese consumers might lose their appetite for Australian imports. And a broadcaster on Beijing’s state media, according to a New York Times report, dismissed Australia as “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe.”
This aggressive push-back works against dissidents internally. Serious and deadly consequences extend to retaliation against family and friends should anyone dare to disagree with Beijing’s official line on just about everything. But this time it backfired. Regard for President Xi Jinping and his regime has reached new lows among China’s neighbors and in Africa and Europe. It was Mr. Xi who ordered the delay in warning the world of the coming pandemic and directed the take-no-prisoners approach to dealing with critics at home and abroad.
Mr. Xi almost single-handedly mismanaged China’s response to the virus and is making his country a pariah rather than a respected and near-dominant power. He had assured his fellow Communists that China would soon displace the United States as the world’s most important country, but because of his leadership that day is further off now than when the coronavirus claimed its first victim in Wuhan.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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