Across the Great Divide: Is Covid-19 driving China and the US further apart?

The pandemic has exacerbated tensions between the global superpowers.

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On 13 March Xi Jinping dusted off his Maoist vocabulary textbook and called on the Chinese people to wage a “People’s War” against Covid-19. China's leader appeared resolute for the television cameras despite confronting an unprecedented crisis coming immediately after a tumultuous year. 

“The trade war with America has hit everyone,” Xue Ye, a curator from Hebei province told me at a dinner party in December 2019, not long before the novel coronavirus outbreak became public. “The leadership don’t know what to do about it, nor the Hong Kong issue.” 

The massive protests in Hong Kong were a popular indictment on the Middle Kingdom’s lapse into authoritarianism under the newly crowned “Emperor for Life”. The Stars and Stripes flags and the Union Jacks waving amid a sea of Hongkongers sent a message to the world. “If Hong Kong fails, so goes the world’s first line of defence,” wrote democracy activist Joshua Wong, framing Hong Kong as a new West Berlin.

Though Donald Trump was hardly the embodiment of the protestor’s lofty ideals, this dissent was a symbolic coup for the US government. The subsequent Covid-19 outbreak came as another major PR blow for China, right when its international image had been damaged by headlines about Hong Kong. 

However, the current administration in Washington has been shamefully ignorant of East Asian concepts of face, and unversed in the diplomatic language that has characterised Sino-US relations since Henry Kissinger met Mao Zedong in 1973. 

Following the 2003 Sars epidemic, which emerged in a live animal market in China’s Guangdong province, as well as outbreaks of bird and swine flu in the interim years, the last thing Beijing wanted was to arm Trump with more “Yellow Peril” ammunition, but that’s exactly what has happened. “Wuhan virus” and “China virus” were promptly added to the US president’s arsenal of insults. 

Despite this untimely dent in its international standing, the Communist Party recognised Covid-19 first and foremost as an existential threat at home, a breach of an unwritten contract between people and party. Beijing-based historian Jeremiah Jenne explains: “The idea [of the unwritten contract] is that the party delivers modernity and modernity is tied to a narrative of increased public hygiene.” 

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, party propagandists have worked hard to forge compelling national myths to galvanise a sense of unity, particularly after an ideological vacuum emerged in the wake of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. One recurring theme is that of “liberation” from the colonialism triggered by defeat in the First Opium War, when, in 1842, British gunboats shamefully blew open a passage for competing powers to enter and start slicing up China. The various imperial interlopers used the language of hygiene as justification for their imperial foray. As Jenne explains: “China as a source of disease was something the colonial powers used to render it as backward, a place in need of their administration or salvation.”  

The issue of “hygienic modernity”, as the scholar Ruth Rogaski has dubbed it, became a cause célèbre for China’s turn-of-the-century reformers as well. Political philosopher Liang Qichao, “directly linked personal hygiene with national survival”, according to Rogaski. The revolutionary and first president of the republic Sun Yat-sen, as well as the father of modern Chinese literature Lu Xun both trained to be doctors and both “used a lot medicalisation in their writings”, says Jenne. Lu Xun famously took up the pen as tool for treating China’s malaise, its perceived “spiritual sickness”. 

China’s first revolutionary generation built the medical scaffolding for the present-day Communist Party to drape its flags over. Mao’s revolution ended a “century of humiliation” and the Chinese people could now march proudly away from feudalism towards science and modernity. So when a fifth of humanity was forced into indefinite hibernation only to learn that several medical professionals, including Doctor Li Wenliang, who tragically died on 7 February, had tried to warn officials of an emerging medical emergency, the scaffolding appeared shaky. Social media sites such as WeChat and Weibo were quickly transformed into mass online forums rallying against the party’s limits on free speech and the inefficiencies endemic to its top-down power structure. The promise of “liberation” appeared, once again, unmet.

As Guangzhou-based business consultant Peter Fenton says: “When [human rights activist] Liu Xiaobo passed away the [online] tributes were only oblique, like a photo of a candle. Dr Li’s tributes were explicit, with direct reference to the events, an outpouring of grief, frustration and anger. For 24 hours, the party lost control of the narrative.”   

And control is what Xi Jinping prioritises. Three Wall Street Journal reporters were expelled from the country on 19 February. They had their visas revoked after the WSJ published an op-ed titled “China is the real sick man of Asia”, an unwise choice of language given its racist colonial-era connotations and the party’s historic public health obsession. The reporters were also barred from reporting from Hong Kong, the first time Beijing has issued such a restriction, another blow to the territory’s diminishing autonomy at a time when Covid-19 has forced protestors indoors.

Despite the criticisms (and the suppression of critics) China’s response has been largely viewed as impressive. The symbolic building of a 1,000-bed hospital in just ten days and the efficient movement of medical personnel en masse to hard-hit areas was a clear expression of what the world’s second largest economy can achieve when it needs to. As Jenne observes, “China was able to deploy massive resources to combat the epidemic. That’s the difference between China and the US, it would be harder to cover up an outbreak like this in America, but an open society requires a greater sense of responsibility among leaders and people… It requires strong executive leadership and obviously that’s been lacking in the US response.”

Fast forward two months and the global scene is very different. Wuhan has been cautiously opening up since 8 April after a record 76-day shutdown. On the same day the US registered another record daily death toll of 1,850. The US now leads the global tally for both infections and deaths despite a comparatively sparse population of 330 million, compared to China's 1.4 billion. Many are reasonably asking if Donald Trump might have done more than play the blame game while the virus epicentre moved via Europe to the US, as an article entitled "This is Trump’s Fault" published by the Atlantic asserts. It opens with a quote from the president: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” 

Donald Trump’s dangerously unpredictable character combined with his distrust of science and experts is going to cost thousands of American lives. Yet he is still furiously pointing the finger at journalists for asking pertinent questions, at the “China-centric” World Health Organisation, even Barack Obama. If ever there was a symbol of American decline, he is it. 

As the rising power, China could have seized the day. It did briefly look commanding, with its borders secured and its infection numbers in decline. Xi had taken responsibility. With the “Wuhan model” being replicated globally, China’s expertise and manufacturing capacity could help corona-ravaged countries like Italy by supplying experts and medical supplies. Was this the soft power coup Beijing badly needed?  

If it was, the opportunity has been lost. Just as the pandemic has Donald Trump doubling down on his signature style of erratic governance, so too has China continued to frame a global problem in purely nativist terms, with state media busy depicting guowai or the outside world as being in turmoil and guonei – the inside world (aka China) – as stable. The US in particular is taking a bashing, which just like Trump’s casual racist remarks, is inspiring hard-line nationalists to spread hate speech online. 

“American running dogs are calling it the Chinese virus, disgusting! But look now only China is safe,” wrote one angry person. 

“Comments like these are all over Weibo, you don’t need to look hard,” a Shanghai friend told me.

China-based Westerners, when asked if they feel safe knowing that state media is depicting them in such a way, will report the occasional stare or rude comment, but none of the racism people of Asian descent have suffered in Europe and the US since the outbreak. 

Yet the same cannot be said for members of the African community living in the southern city of Guangzhou. Viral videos showing Chinese police herding Africans of various nationalities down Guangzhou streets have prompted African envoys to lodge complaints with Beijing over “discrimination and stigmatisation against African nationals in China”. One website suggests some 6,000 Africans have been quarantined. 

What prompted the campaign? Even if the district of Xiaobei in Guangdong, where most Africans live, is a pathogen hotspot, the crackdown appears excessive, an expression of bottled up anxiety, what Fenton terms, “Operation fear taken out on one segment of the community”. But what it does illustrate, especially to small, developing countries searching for global leadership at a time of crisis, is that Zhongnanhai is no enlightened globalist alternative to the White House in the age of America First. The tough guy leaders of the world’s two superpowers will continue appealing to the base instincts of their respective publics in their handling of a vicious virus, one that, conversely, doesn’t discriminate.   

Thomas Bird writes for the South China Morning Post and is the author of the Rough Guide to China

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