As Trump demonstrates catastrophic levels of narcissism and denial (threatening to reopen the US as the virus continues to throttle up exponentially) China is taking advantage of its success in halting COVID-19 on the mainland. President Xi Jinping underlined the stark difference in the state of pandemic between China and western nations by donating a massive amount of medical equipment to Canada and Europe. Nothing says “We got this” quite like shipping a ton of medical supplies barely a few weeks after a pandemic ravaged your country.
Which begs us to ask: is this China’s moment?
Pundits have been predicting the primacy of China for decades now: the question has never been “if,” but “when?” COVID-19 may prove to be the moment China crystallizes its leadership position globally, and may give Xi an opportunity to flaunt the putative superiority of a political system that stopped the virus in its tracks.
Denial: more than a river in Africa
The irony is that China bears a large part of the responsibility for the spread of the virus, through its clumsy efforts at cover-up and denial at the outset. The counter-irony is that countries from Italy to the U.S. have show themselves equally unwilling to confront the crisis: the simple fact they were able to watch the disaster unfold in China should have provided ample warning.
In spite of clumsy efforts to brand it the “China virus,” China’s initial disastrous handling seems to have taken a backseat to its impressive ability to tamp down the virus once it fully focused on the task.
With a steadfast refusal to confront the gravity of the situation, America’s response looks farcical in comparison. Though their response involved draconian police-state tactics, China can confidently assert they brought the virus to heel, something only South Korea has been able to claim among western-style democracies.
Sticking its head in the sand is just the latest abdication of leadership by the U.S. In everything from confronting Russia to balancing its budget, the U.S. has behaved more like an impulsive two-year-old on the world stage than the child of Jefferson and Madison. The Chinese government looks positively leaderly in contrast, and it’s not hard to see how this will play out for them. As China continues to fold nations into its Belt and Road Initiative, people around the world will pause and reflect on the reaction of both nations to the crisis: one which continues to engage in oblivious denial and the other which got over its initital clumsy response and flattened the curve in record time. It isn’t difficult to see which system appears to have done better.
This is unfortunate, because China isn’t a benign force on the world stage. They’re still the country that keeps a million Uyghurs in internment camps. They still use a repressive social credit system to stifle dissent. They’re still the regime that tried to walk back basic freedoms in Hong Kong.
Looking beneath the surface
To any regime looking to emulate the response to the crisis, China clearly demonstrates greater success, in spite of the severity of the measures it took. Xi Jinping is far too politically astute not to make hay of this success, and he will only amplify that through efforts that are both magnanimous and propagandistic, such as by sending supplies to beleaguered countries.
In the end, China will make a moment out of this crisis. The only question is whether the world will take that success at face value, or put it in context of China’s record on freedom and basic human rights.