On Sunday, Andrew Adonis, a member of Britain’s House of Lords and onetime cabinet minister, took aim at the idea that the coronavirus pandemic was causing a crisis of capitalism.
“Lots of instant commentary on ‘how Covid-19 will change the world’ calls it a ‘crisis of capitalism’. Wrong,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s a ‘crisis of communism’. It became a global pandemic through Xi’s communist regime China.”
While it’s debatable how communist modern China actually is, Adonis is not alone in his complaint. Numerous Western politicians, particularly on the right, have blamed China’s government and political system for causing the current global crisis. Many have continued to hammer phrases such as “China flu” or “Wuhan virus,” despite warnings that such terms could lead to increased hostility against Asians. Even those critics who try to avoid ethnically-tinged labels often speak of a “CPC virus” or “Xi flu,” named after country’s ruling party, the Communist Party of China and its leader, President Xi Jinping, respectively.
It’s safe to say that China’s brand has taken a hit due to the virus. According to Pew Research, Americans’ opinion of China is at its lowest point in 15 years, and 62% of those surveyed said they viewed China’s power and influence as a “major threat.”
But for some, the Beijing model is not necessarily looking so bad. China, despite being where the virus first emerged, has coped with the ensuing pandemic far better than many other countries, even though those countries had a longer warning time and greater chance to prepare.
The crisis has also highlighted the benefits of a strong government and centralized planning, while – despite Adonis’s claims to the contrary – exposing the limitations of private industry to respond quickly, particularly in the healthcare sector.
In the United States, which is often held up – for better or worse – as the example par excellence of a Western democracy, the alternative to the Chinese model appears to be somewhat chaotic. Far from a strong government, Washington has found itself fighting with state officials, facing accusations of pilfering medical supplies and growing calls for greater state power. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has been accused of spreading disinformation and encouraging protests.
Speaking to Der Spiegel earlier this month, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the virus had exposed the problems at the heart of both the Chinese and US models. Asked which was being proven superior, Maas said “neither.”
“China has taken some very authoritarian measures, while in the US, the virus was played down for a long time,” he told the magazine. “There are two extremes, neither of which can be a model for Europe.”
While Germany may be able to afford to strike out its own path – and has seen success in dealing with the coronavirus – other countries, forever pulled between the competing poles of Beijing and Washington, may be swayed by how the current crisis is playing out.
Certainly, China’s leaders, and their vast propaganda apparatus, have not been blind to the opportunity this presents. For weeks state media has been playing up the disorder around the world as it praises Beijing’s own handling of the crisis, shoring up power and support at home – but it has also taken aim at those already sympathetic to China who could be pulled further into the fold.
As the US has increasingly looked inward – both due to the requirements of the crisis and Trump’s own “America first” instincts – China has been playing up the importance of “multilateralism,” calling for the shoring up of global institutions and offering assistance to anyone that needs it. In particular, China has emerged as the strongest defendant of the World Health Organization (WHO) as it faces pressure from Washington.
“The United Nations will be 75 this year, Covid-19 is reminding countries of the continuous, and increasing value of multilateralism in a closely connected world. We will only halt Covid-19 through solidarity. No country can do it alone,” the Communist Party-controlled state owned mouthpiece China Daily said in an editorial this month.
This advocacy of international cooperation might once have been put forward by the US. But just as China stepped into the role of free-trade defender as Trump pulled back, so too is it attempting to occupy Washington’s traditional space at the UN and other multinational bodies.
Since March, Xi has had at least two dozen phone calls with other world leaders. Speaking to Trump last month, he said that “the international community must respond together if it is to win this battle,” according to a readout from Beijing.
Writing last month, the European Union’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, said there is an ongoing “global battle of narratives,” in which “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner.” In part, Borrell said, this was through highlighting its assistance to other countries, such as by sending medical supplies and experts to aid with the coronavirus response.
This coronavirus diplomacy is paying off. In a tweet (written in Chinese) this month, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif praised Beijing for coming to his country’s aid, saying the coronavirus was “deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries.” Serbian President Aleksander Vucic was shown on Chinese state broadcaster CGTN kissing the country’s flag as he greeted a support team sent from Beijing. “Serbian people will never forget this kindness, China is an old friend and will continue to be for generations to come,” he said later.
Nor is it only Beijing’s traditional allies expressing their gratitude. Speaking to Italian media late last month, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Luigi Di Maio, said the coronavirus response proved his government’s wisdom in signing up to Xi’s Belt and Road trade and infrastructure scheme. “Those that mocked us for (that) must now admit that investing in this friendship has allowed us to save lives in Italy,” Di Maio said, according to La Stampa.
China has been gradually increasing its influence among EU member states, particularly those from Eastern Europe. Now, as the bloc faces the fallout of what appears to be a bungled coronavirus response, Beijing will not want to miss another opportunity to win friends and favors.
Discussion of China’s influence usually focuses on the country’s vast economy, and certainly trade ties have been useful in the past for gaining new allies. But this isn’t the only selling point for Beijing’s new fans.
Just as crises around fake news and online disinformation have made it easier for China to push its model of internet sovereignty – one that has been happily embraced by those governments already keen to censor online dissent – so too has the current pandemic provided an opportunity and an excuse to pursue the type of authoritarian power exercised by Beijing.
Last month, the Council of Europe warned that Hungary – long the EU’s least democratically inclined member – risked jeopardizing “democracy, rule of law and human rights” in its coronavirus response. States across the Middle East have used the virus as an opportunity to ramp up surveillance and controls on their populations, while in the Philippines, a group of lawyers has warned that emergency powers granted to President Rodrigo Duterte are “tantamount to autocracy.”
But for those pushing these changes, China could be perceived to be a strong argument that an empowered state is what is needed to respond to the pandemic. Regardless of the many valid criticisms of how Beijing initially handled the crisis, it appears to have been able to get its domestic epidemic under control and the economy back on track better than many other countries.
The US government, meanwhile, presents something of an uneasy contrast: with a President musing about whether ingesting disinfectants could be used to treat the virus and encouraging protesters to demand an end to quarantine measures.
Of course, the US is not the only model of a democracy, and the American system is actually something of an outlier compared to much of the developed world. Nor have other democracies struggled to cope with the virus in the same way: many of the governments praised for their handling of the virus – Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and Germany – are democracies. It is how a government uses power, not how it has it in the first place, which appears to be the overriding factor in an effective epidemic response.
But just as “communist” China has always been a convenient specter for those railing against left-wing policies or a strong government in the West, so too is “democratic” US a handy foil for opponents of liberalism in China and elsewhere.
Brand China may be suffering as a result of the pandemic, but it is not the only one. Beijing also appears to have a greater appreciation than most of its rivals of the potential opportunities presented by the current crisis to emerge stronger and more influential than ever before.