Read: Why America is uniquely unsuited to dealing with the coronavirus
With combatting the virus the most immediate concern, the U.S. has not figured out how to compel China to own up to its shortcomings in managing this crisis—ham-handed attempts to brand the disease the “Chinese virus” notwithstanding. Xi is now maneuvering for a propaganda and diplomatic victory, offering aid and advice around the world.
The U.S., meanwhile, is entering what’s perhaps the darkest phase of its own crisis—its domestic problems hobbling it from providing significant international aid or coordinating a comprehensive response. (The U.S. announced on Thursday that it had made available $274 million in emergency aid to 64 countries.)
“On the global stage, [China is] hoping to fill the void of U.S. leadership,” Rush Doshi, the director of the China Strategy Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told me. “They have a long way to go, but they’re trying."
Never mind that China put the world in this predicament in the first place. Two months into a massive societal lockdown in China, with new cases of the disease slowing down—at least by official statistics—Xi is ready to declare victory at home.
He made a valedictory visit to Wuhan, the epicenter of the country’s outbreak, in mid-March. The lockdown on the surrounding province has lifted; public transit is running in Wuhan again. Xi has also sent millions of masks and thousands of ventilators to Europe, getting praise from the Italian foreign minister for helping “save lives in the first stages of the emergency.” As recently as yesterday, Xi offered Chinese support to the U.S. in a phone call with Trump.
“This is happening all around the world now,” says David Shullman, a China expert at the International Republican Institute. “[There] is a really long list of places where China is offering this equipment and assistance … It also comes with a message that, ‘Look what’s happening in the established democracies.’” Chinese-backed accounts have flooded Twitter with praise for the country’s response; a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has pushed the false claim that the U.S. Army brought the disease to China; and Xi has encouraged Chinese media to push positive stories about China’s response.
But both China’s purported success against the virus, and its help to others in similar circumstances, may prove less than meets the eye. For one thing, the Chinese model of mass roundups of citizens and extensive surveillance with no real public-health purpose is not, or shouldn’t be, exportable to democracies—and democracies like South Korea and Taiwan have, through their own successes against the virus, proved that authoritarianism is not the required ingredient. The crackdown may not even have succeeded as well as China wants to advertise. Nurses in Wuhan have told the Financial Times of “hidden infections” going unreported in China’s official statistics. “If China prematurely declares victory and they’re wrong, that could lead to a second wave of infections,” Doshi said. “It’s quite sobering to think what that would mean for the world’s pandemic response and the global economy.”