The pandemic was both a crisis and an opportunity for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beijing had the chance to make the best of a bad situation.
The initial attempt to cover up the severity of the outbreak damaged China’s international reputation, but thereafter the Chinese government relatively quickly flattened the curve of infections as the disease exploded in the United States and Western Europe.
The Chinese also made a show of international leadership by providing medical supplies to other countries, drawing expressions of gratitude. The poor response to the pandemic by the US seemingly gave China an opening to gain strategic ground.
On balance, however, China’s pandemic diplomacy in the first half of 2020 has clearly failed. Despite China’s appeals for calm and cooperation, its relationship with the United States has hit perhaps its lowest point since the two countries established normal relations.
International opprobrium toward China has spiked, reminiscent of the fallout from the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. Economic decoupling, which Beijing strongly wants to avoid, is proceeding with new momentum.
The reason for its failure is that China’s international pandemic outreach was an extension of Chinese domestic politics, specifically the insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the regime’s emphasis on promoting the image of paramount leader Xi Jinping.
As state and regime are fused together in China, the political system mandates that the CCP is the only party allowed to rule the country. The system does not provide for the possibility of the CCP gaining legitimacy by earning the vote of the Chinese public in competitive, multiparty elections.
Rather, the CCP’s legitimacy rests on its claims of competence, rectitude and performance – specifically, delivering on the promises of increased living standards; protection of Chinese lives, property and territory; and restoring China to its expected level of glory, honor and global influence.
Xi is also embroiled in an extraordinarily difficult campaign to break through the resistance mounted by multiple powerful interest groups so he can make the economic reforms and restructuring necessary for China to continue its relatively rapid development and achieve the rare success of progressing from middle-income to high-income country.
As part of this campaign Xi has dramatically re-centralized political power and promoted a personality cult. He has the twin burdens of sole personal responsibility for all major policies and a veneer of super-human managerial ability to live up to.
A characteristic of the PRC’s foreign relations is hypersensitivity to perceived slights. When the Wall Street Journal published an article highlighting structural weaknesses in the Chinese economy with the headline “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” the Chinese government reacted by calling the headline “racist” and “malicious” and expelling three Wall Street Journal reporters from China.
Media around the world routinely publish articles saying hurtful things about the United States and other major countries without these governments reacting so strongly. The reason for the difference is that the CCP government has cultivated a sense of national victimization as a domestic political tactic to bolster its own legitimacy.
The Party looks for instances of humiliation because these provide opportunities to rally the Chinese people behind their government and to demonstrate the regime’s valor in defending China’s honor.
“Wolf warrior diplomacy,” as exemplified by Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian, makes sense as a tactic for advancing one’s career in a political system where sycophancy toward Xi and prioritization of ideology over expertise are in the ascendancy, but does little if anything to advance China’s interests abroad.
Perhaps Zhao’s support of the conspiracy theory that US Army soldiers brought the virus to China impressed Xi. But that theory only embarrassed China internationally, and Zhao’s colleagues did not back him up.
US President Trump publicly said it was China blaming the US military that moved him to use the term “Chinese virus” for the two weeks that followed Zhao’s tweet – not an outcome the Chinese wanted.
Instead of relying on deeds such as the delivery of medical equipment to earn international goodwill, Chinese officials tried – and tried too hard – to manufacture a positive global image of China, apparently to please their bosses and the Chinese audience.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was caught altering a video to make it appear people in Italy were effusively expressing gratitude to China.
When diplomats pressured foreign governments to praise China, inevitably these efforts came to light, producing the opposite of the intended effect. In other cases, Chinese diplomats brought discredit to the PRC by trying to suppress negative views of China in other countries.
The world looked on as Australia exposed some of the worst characteristics of Chinese diplomacy. In April the Australian government called for the World Health Organization to conduct an investigation into the origins and spread of the virus.
Beijing chose to interpret Australia’s action within the framework typically used inside China to discuss foreign affairs: a US-aligned country with “political motivations” was seeking to “smear” China.
(And this despite Australia declining to support the Trump Administration’s assertion that a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan created the virus.) The Chinese ambassador to Australia threatened economic reprisal.
In May, Beijing imposed a Chinese ban on imports of Australian beef. Questioned about this by an Australian journalist, a Chinese official employed a common PRC tactic: he explicitly denied that the ban was punishment for the call for an investigation, while making clear that actually the two issues were linked.
Despite its willingness to reveal the iron fist under the velvet glove in this instance, China still lost in the end, as overwhelming international support for Australia’s proposal forced Beijing to agree to an investigation.
The phenomenon of domestic politics influencing foreign policy is certainly not unique to China. But the peculiarities of the PRC political system, especially in the Xi era, create additional baggage that may keep China from punching its weight as a potential global leader.
Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, is the author of Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security.