Amid an intensifying effort to show its governance structure as superior to the West’s, China is touting its strict coronavirus quarantine as a model response to the pandemic.
But a different kind of quarantine — of the truth — belies Beijing’s geopolitical push, even if Washington’s haphazard, if not hapless, response keeps it from reasserting democratic governance as the most effective model.
China’s lies began early with the silencing of witnesses to Wuhan’s initial cases of COVID-19. What Beijing tried to cauterize as an internal matter quickly became an international one, sickening citizens worldwide while triggering a global recession that threatens to turn into a depression that could kill many more through starvation.
The opacity endures. Beijing is blocking an independent, international investigation into the outbreak’s origin, and in March expelled 13 Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times reporters in response to the U.S. limiting the number of U.S.-based reporters working at Chinese state-run media outlets whose product is widely considered propaganda.
Word of the initial outbreak “didn’t get out in time and it cost lives,” said Dokhi Fassihian, the U.S. executive director of Reporters Without Borders, which released its annual World Press Freedom Index on Tuesday.
Out of 180 nations, China placed 177th, just three spots ahead of North Korea.
“By relying on the extensive use of new technology, President Xi Jinping has succeeded in imposing a social model in China based on control of news and information and online surveillance of its citizens,” the report stated. “At the same time, he has been trying to export this oppressive model by promoting a ‘new world media order’ under China’s influence.”
The index reflects 2019 data. The 2020 pandemic is “exacerbating existing problems,” said Fassihian, whose colleague Christophe Deloire, Reporters Without Borders’ secretary-general, wrote in the report: “The public health crisis provides authoritarian governments with an opportunity to implement the notorious ‘shock doctrine’ — to take advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question, in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times.”
And in fact, amid the COVID-19 chaos, 15 prominent pro-democracy activists and former lawmakers in Hong Kong were arrested last Saturday, and China continues its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, where the U.S. upped the stakes by sailing two ships into contested waters off Malaysia. And according to a New York Times report, U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Chinese operatives have amped up COVID-19 disinformation campaigns spread virally, and virulently, on social media.
Beijing’s offensive does not mean China wasn’t forced to initially play defense. Some even thought that the lethal malfeasance would be a “Chernobyl moment” that laid bare the barren conscience and competence of the Communist Party.
But because China was in lockdown, an already suppressed press and people did not demonstrate, and in fact a nationalist backlash against internal dissent, let alone the West, was whipped-up within the country.
But internationally it doesn’t appear that this is “the great moment where China surges forward because they handled the virus very effectively in four to six weeks as America flailed and stumbled,” said Evan Medeiros, the chair of Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Medeiros, along with his Georgetown colleague Michael Green, are co-authors of an influential Foreign Affairs article “The Pandemic Won’t Make China the World’s Leader: Few Countries are Buying the Model or the Message from Beijing.” In an interview Medeiros said that “the global pandemic has created an opportunity where the Chinese are trying to promote their governance choices, their value system, as superior to a Western democratic system. The fact that they were able to get control over the virus pretty quickly, flatten the curve, they’re saying proves the strength of their system.
“So in many ways they’re creating an almost values-based competition with the United States. And as America fails to manage this while at the same time not embracing the values at home or abroad that America has traditionally stood for is like making a fight with one hand tied behind our back.”
America needs all hands on deck to fight COVID-19, let alone covert Chinese social media campaigns and other forms of propaganda it’s propagating about the pandemic and its paradigm of governance. But what’s needed in response isn’t a reinvention, but a rediscovery of our model’s embedded advantages.
“The current geopolitical situation is tailor-made for American leadership,” said Medeiros. However, he continued, “when America looks like it’s struggling it just creates opportunities for China to step forward.”
As China has stepped forward internationally it’s leapt into America’s consciousness and campaign. Two-thirds of Americans now have an unfavorable opinion of China, a sharp spike of 20 percentage points since the start of the Trump administration and the highest since the Pew Research Center began to ask the question in 2005. Accordingly, Sino-American relations and the pandemic are endemic in this year’s election, with President Donald Trump — who has repeatedly replaced references to coronavirus with “Chinese virus” — and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden already trading jabs on China ties. China, Medeiros said, “is going to be as heated an issue in our election as at any time since Tiananmen.”
But beyond politics, governance — of the country and the COVID-19 crisis — is where America could geopolitically counter China.
“An essential component of combating this disease and hopefully eradicating it at some point is American governance,” Medeiros said. “We have all these incumbent strengths that should position America to be able to come out of this better and stronger both at home and also geopolitically.”
Among the necessary elements to do that, Medeiros noted, is that “The government needs to hear from a free and open media, the government needs to be open to criticism from the press. … One of the saddest things I’ve seen from the Trump administration is how they’ve sought to marginalize media that is critical to them and empower media that just applaud them, which is shades of the kind of political system operated in China.” (The U.S. ranked a disappointing, if not dismal, 45th on the World Press Freedom Index, well behind four top-ranked Scandinavian nations.)
“American values,” Medeiros stressed, still endure. “What America represents, First Amendment freedoms, has always been one of America’s greatest strengths geopolitically.”
It’s always the right time to protect and project those values. But amid a great internal and international challenge, they’re needed more than ever.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.