In early February as the novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, was spreading in Wuhan, China, Western commentators speculated how the looming pandemic threatened the Chinese government. In one op-ed, Financial Times Asia editor Jamil Anderlini suggested China faced a “Chernobyl moment” that threatened to expose the Communist Party’s lies and absurdities if containment of the virus failed. He pointed to online criticisms of the Chinese government after COVID-19 killed Li Wenliang, a doctor who warned people about the new virus before police forced him to confess to spreading rumors. Anderlini concluded that, depending on what happened next, Li could be like Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose death sparked the Arab Spring.
Some in the West may hope or expect that COVID-19 exposes the Communist Party’s lies and human rights violations while sparking mass protests that force America’s adversary to change course. Meanwhile, though, the pandemic spreads in the West and complicates the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China.
Many Chinese people have a right to express anger toward their government. Reeducation camps brainwash over a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, while the government erases their culture, separates them from their children, and places tens of thousands into “conditions that strongly suggest forced labor.” Beijing also increased religious persecution against Christians in the last several years. Now an investigation shows that China destroyed early evidence of the coronavirus and suppressed the news, worsening the pandemic.
Yet other reports indicate many Chinese favor their government’s measures to halt the coronavirus’ spread, despite some states responding thuggishly to the crisis. One Reuters article that describes how the crisis revealed the state’s mass surveillance system helps illuminate this perspective. Many Westerners find China’s surveillance capabilities creepy and dangerous in the hands of an authoritarian state that violates inalienable rights like religious freedom. As the article describes, authorities can track drivers traveling across the country, have police instruct them to quarantine, use cameras with facial recognition technology to notice if they leave home early, and then contact their employers to threaten them to return home. Some Chinese who discovered their government used surveillance this way were surprised. But the Reuters journalists found that “although there has been some anonymous grumbling on social media, for now Chinese citizens seem to be accepting the extra intrusion, or even embracing it, as a means to combat the health emergency.”
So while the Financial Times op-ed suggests a popular uprising across the country is possible, Reuters finds a large number of Chinese approve of the authoritarian government’s policies. Some Westerners may still hope or expect that exposing the Communist Party’s crimes and human rights violations may change minds there. But evidence shows this hope is unrealistic for now. Last year in places like the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, rallies supported the Hong Kong protestors, but Chinese university students there responded angrily. Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch who came to study in the US in 2009, explains these students’ perspective in the Los Angeles Times. Though they have access to more information via a free press, many Chinese students still receive information from China’s censored media. More importantly, she writes the government taught these students to think uncritically. After encountering uncensored media, critical discussions in university, and accusations that their government brainwashed them, many Chinese students in the West often feel attacked and conclude the West is biased and hostile.
If Wang correctly analyzes how Chinese students in the West view their home country even after they have access to an uncensored free press, observers should be cautious with predictions about a looming Chinese Arab Spring. Even if Beijing responds horribly to COVID-19, the Communist Party will likely have enough power and sway to control the country and media, and many Chinese even prefer the state’s tactics when a pandemic threatens their lives.
Of course, COVID-19 is now a global pandemic as China appears to have controlled the virus domestically. Just as Westerners last month taunted China for its response, some Chinese do the same today. While discussing in National Review how Confucian societies in Asia responded to the pandemic better than the West for now, Hudson Institute senior fellow Bruno Maçães recounts a recent email from a Chinese university that claimed China would soon be safer than Europe or the United States. The email also claimed the pandemic proves the Chinese model is better than the Western model.
Maçães argues that the new clash of civilizations isn’t ultimately a war over ideas, but over who will master technology and better control natural forces like pandemics. According to him, China is currently winning that geopolitical game. So while the coronavirus pandemic is obviously a serious health crisis, more is at stake. In his Belt and Road, which I reviewed in these pages, he describes how China’s ultimate goal is to replace the US-led international system with one that favors China and its Tianxia philosophy. This worldview pursues a “community of shared destiny” and harmony while deemphasizing the rights of individuals. Through this lens, COVID-19 tests both the American and Chinese societies, and the world is watching to see which proves most adept to this modern challenge.
According to Maçães and others, the United States is responding to coronavirus more slowly than China did. America’s inability to conduct enough testing, especially as other democracies prove they can react quickly, angers and confuses many. (As of March 13, the US, population 327 million, had conducted about 14,000 tests total; South Korea, population 51 million, tests 20,000 daily.) Given how the disease overwhelmed a wealthy part of Italy with high-tech hospitals, many fear early missteps in the US could have dramatic consequences, even if the country reacts quickly now. Though models forecasting coronavirus’ spread are incomplete and imperfect, one suggests about 160,000 Americans could be infected by April 30 if there is a high degree of surveillance and intervention; around 1.4 million could be infected if there is a low degree. Assuming Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, correctly estimated COVID-19’s real mortality rate is around 1 percent, a botched response today could kill more Americans than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thankfully, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency last Friday afternoon. State governments, school districts, restaurants, gyms, and others across the country are also responding. Churches that asked members to stay home and watch a livestream of worship also contributed to the cause, thus protecting neighbors from avoidable deaths. The next couple months will determine if these efforts are enough or occurred too late.
On the global stage, America needs an effective COVID-19 response to demonstrate its democratic society can manage modern calamities better than communist China. An Italian-style disaster in the US would not only be a healthcare crisis but would also give China an opportunity to convince other countries to follow its system and align against US interests. So the US and China are currently in a global messaging battle over the coronavirus response, with a Chinese official promoting a conspiracy theory that the US Army brought the disease to Wuhan. In response, Donald Trump used the term “Chinese Virus” on Monday.
The hope an Arab Spring-like event could occur in China because of the pandemic and change the geopolitical game in America’s favor is unrealistic. Despite criticism of Beijing online, evidence shows many Chinese favor the government’s response that halted COVID-19’s spread. The world meanwhile watches how the US will respond to the crisis. As a new cold war between the US and China emerges, the coronavirus tests whether American democracy can outperform Chinese communism. Failure in the US could tempt other countries to follow China’s lead on other issues, hurting US interests.