On January 24, a few days after the United States confirmed its first coronavirus case, President Donald Trump expressed his gratitude for China’s “efforts and transparency” in combatting a virus that the country’s leadership tried for weeks to cover up. On behalf of the American people, Trump wrote, “I want to thank President Xi!”
By then, the pandemic was on its way to wreaking havoc on the U.S. economy and its citizens’ way of life—not least because of the actions of Xi Jinping’s own government. Yet in February, Trump again praised for Xi on Twitter, writing that “he is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus … Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation.”
Since then, cases have skyrocketed across the United States, which now has the highest number of confirmed cases anywhere in the world, with more than 100,000 people infected. Yet Trump’s comments reflect a propaganda victory for Xi. And as the U.S. approaches the height of its outbreak, scrambling to spend trillions of dollars to save its economy, asking other countries to make up for its device shortages, soliciting doctors from overseas, and still struggling to bring stranded citizens home, it has no credible claim to be the responsible superpower leading everyone out of the crisis. Xi, the ascendant authoritarian with a massive surveillance state and a ruthless security apparatus at his disposal, wants to pick up the mantle.
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.”
Most immediately, it could mean that the coronavirus ground zero continues to generate and export more cases.
Desperate countries were happy to accept Chinese help. But it hasn’t always provided the lifesaving equipment expected. In Ukraine, for example, Andrey Stavnitser, who is helping coordinate the coronavirus response in the Odessa region, told the Atlantic Council that one center there ordered thousands of coronavirus tests from China at great expense—only to receive “ordinary flu tests” that had “nothing to do with coronavirus.”
The real short-term risk of China’s leadership exercise is that, should the country make the calculation to prize its economic health over public-safety concerns, other countries contending with the pandemic’s economic devastation may find themselves tempted to follow suit. Trump has already said he’d like to get the United States back to work by Easter, about three weeks from now—though China’s lockdown lasted months. As the crisis drags on, more and more leaders will find themselves facing gruesome calculations about the severe economic toll of keeping a low death toll. At that point, the China model may look even more tempting.