A group of frontline medical workers await impatiently in front of a giant screen for the most powerful man in China. On February 11th 2020, Xi Jinping, absent from the public view for weeks, finally resurfaced and organized a video conference. He checked in with the medical staff, most likely exhausted, at Beijing Ditan Hospital, as a novel unnamed virus continued to spread. Xi expressed his condolences over the camera at a very safe distance from the epicentre and urged greater public communication. Meanwhile, around the world, panic had begun to mount as the threat from this new disease was becoming more and more imminent.
A series of failures throughout 2020, specifically related to the handling of the COVID-19 crisis, have strained relationships between China and the West. Xi Jinping has been accused of mishandling the crisis egregiously, with terrible repercussions for the rest of the world. China’s slow-footed response gained momentum only after a group of epidemiologists told Xi’s office that a new unknown virus was completely out of control in Wuhan.
Many government officials blame China for their failure to report this unknown virus during several critical weeks, allowing it to take root. This is partly due to their blind loyalty to an unaccountable secretive one-party system, which has posed similar problems in the past.
In fact, in November 2002, another unknown virus started causing a different type of pneumonia. SARS, as it would later be called, was left to roam free, unimpeded, until mid-March, when the WHO finally issued a global alert warning for this virus. Thankfully, SARS disappeared on its own by early 2004. Nevertheless, China was heavily disparaged for their belated response and lack of transparency.
Although China acted faster this time around, and their efforts to prevent the past from repeating itself were applauded at first, their overall management of the crisis has received much criticism. As foreign governments botched their response to COVID-19 one after the other, China’s political gulf with the rest of the world was doomed to grow; Xi’s cabinet refuses to take any of the blame and has instead imposed sanctions on countries inquiring about the origins of the outbreak.
Xi’s Christmas Miracle
After many painstaking months of lockdowns and probably multiple secret civil rights violations, China’s economy is undoubtedly starting to recover. Meanwhile, countries to the west are still struggling as they face deadly second waves of infection, widespread economic bankruptcies and crippling public deficits. Incumbents are losing elections, Trump being the first of a wave of more inevitable electoral losses.
Amidst that global misery, China is rising from the ashes. Chinese leaders, Xi among them, are using this miraculous comeback to showcase the advantages of Communist party rule, a unique combination of scientific prowess, organizational dexterity and their secret ingredient, a cup of Chinese morality. Chinese citizens had their fair share of suffering, staying confined indoors for months, many without pay. Nevertheless, China’s story is not one of the millions of oppressed people craving freedom.
Instead, China’s pandemic response is one of national pride where its majoritarian project garners widespread public support. State media is there to ensure that each Chinese donation, from masks to ventilators, no matter how small, is glorified. Foreign governments’ headache with China worsens as they struggle to respond to a country whose system crushes all opponents, whether political, religious or social. Furthermore, this renewed battle for the paramount political system has only served to trigger Western insecurities as democracy is degraded, pegged as selfish and disorderly.
Xi has openly defended his nation’s response, as is expected, always claiming that they have acted responsibly. Their soft power has inevitably grown as certain countries have emulated its response model. Yet, the real heroes, those that have conquered the virus most efficiently (and humbly), are South Korea and Taiwan.
China’s main policy actions have been focused on guiding businesses to help them resume production, implementing measures to promote international trade, providing tax and fee exemptions and reductions, financial aid, social security benefits, and energy cost cuts, as well as incentivizing the donation of medical supplies.
Xi’s account of the virus has centred around international cooperation. At a virtual United Nations General Assembly, he claimed COVID-19 was an opportunity to “join hands and be prepared to meet even more global challenges.” According to him, “COVID-19 reminds us that economic globalization is an indisputable reality and a historical trend. Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalization or trying to fight it with Don Quixote’s lance goes against the trend of history. Let this be clear: The world will never turn to isolation.”
COVID-19 has demonstrated the interconnectedness of today’s globalized world and backtracking is no longer possible. Yet, this comment was not only stating an undeniable reality, it was also a very clear jab to Trump’s “America First” policy. This, plus Trump’s continuous not-so-subtle political attack of calling COVID-19, the “China virus”, have only served to elevate tensions between the two giant economies ever since. But Trump’s absenteeism from the global stage has only served to strengthen Xi’s leadership and his fustian narrative of China as the world’s saviour.
Xi has also taken the opportunity to remind the world that China is not deviating from its communist ideals into imperialism. “We will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence,” he said. “We have no intention of fighting either a Cold War or a hot one with any country.” This comment also holds interesting undertones. In the wake of Hong Kong’s brutal protests, mentioning “sphere of influence” surely revives unpleasant feelings for some.
One thing has become clear. Even if the vaccine comes, Xi’s boasting is likely to continue in the near future, especially if China releases a vaccine and successfully leads a national vaccine campaign; this will only serve to aggravate the already damaged ties that it holds with the rest of the world. The power dynamics will inevitably shift as American and European vaccines continue to flow within the West.
Many countries have pre-ordered stockpiles to guarantee doses for their citizens. Xi, amid the frenzy, pledged to prioritize African vaccinations. Africa has undoubtedly become a vital bloc for China as Western allies have distanced themselves. Yet, these vaccines are nowhere to be seen.
Xi’s leadership, based on unopposed Chinese nationalism, will not receive the praise he so desperately seeks. Currently, as America stumbles, Xi appears as a hesitant leader at best. China’s diffidence was displayed in the UN where it was the country’s turn to act as the president of the Security Council. Yet, not a single session about the pandemic was convened.
Envoys to the UN claim China did not want to give the USA an opportunity to assign blame to China for the pandemic. In the end, the world is left to suffer as two fanatic rivals refuse to lead. One is almost in denial. The other, hiding behind a façade of inflated accomplishments, is uncertain whether it wants to take on global responsibility.