China’s role in the covid-19 outbreak has elicited a growing backlash, including dueling campaign ads from Democrats and Republicans. How will the pandemic reshape China’s domestic and international standing? And what consequences, if any, will these new U.S. campaign strategies have? Here’s what you need to know.
1. The pandemic may help the Chinese Communist Party at home
To analysts who thought the coronavirus would prove the CCP’s downfall, that view is almost certainly premature. Some U.S. experts argue the coronavirus has revealed the fragility of the CCP and could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as Minxin Pei writes in Foreign Affairs. The government’s initial delays in confirming evidence of human-to-human transmission, and the silencing of local doctors who tried to inform their colleagues about a new SARS-like virus, elicited sharp critiques of Chinese-style authoritarianism and the restrictions on freedom of speech — and calls on Chinese social media for Xi Jinping to step down.
But the success of China’s effort to halt the spread of the virus beyond Wuhan and Hubei has also built domestic confidence — and emboldened CCP nationalists and propagandists. The CCP has effectively silenced outspoken critics like retired real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang and legal activist Xu Zhiyong, while nurturing nationalist pride that China was able to beat the coronavirus.
The CCP’s triumphalist message has resonated with at least some segments of the Chinese public, especially as the United States and other countries have fumbled their response — experiencing worse outbreaks despite longer lead times. Chinese media have not only celebrated the heroism of front line medical workers in the “people’s war” but also touted the superiority of Chinese efforts to combat the virus, including foreign admiration and efforts to borrow China’s “anti-epidemic model.”
Some local U.S. officials have declared hopes that the coronavirus will bring an end to the Chinese Communist Party, while other analysts have called for “a U.S. strategy of sustained pressure to induce political change” in China. But international efforts to subvert the CCP are more likely to backfire by increasing Chinese resolve and hostility to foreign interference than bring about a more friendly and democratic China. Given the landscape of nationalism and xenophobia that already exists in China, a successor regime to the CCP is likely to be as unfriendly — if not even more belligerent — than the present leadership.
2. Nationalism and xenophobia limit China’s international appeal
Internationally, praise for China’s efforts has focused on the specific measures China took after the outbreak was already underway. But the initial delays and obfuscations have elicited widespread calls around the world for accountability and even reparations.
And xenophobic nationalism inside China’s borders has further aggravated the situation. Beijing has taken a permissive attitude toward commentary and policies that discriminate against foreigners, particularly against Africans in Guangzhou. Vivid examples of harassment, surveillance and evictions based on foreign nationality within China have undercut Chinese diplomats’ efforts to emphasize the importance of Chinese “mask diplomacy” and assistance to countries hit hard by covid-19.
Facing domestic and international pushback, Beijing has tempered some — though not all — of its more excessive propaganda. A temporarily chastened Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian — who had retweeted a conspiracy theory about the U.S. military bringing the virus to Wuhan — recently denied any intent to export a Chinese coronavirus-fighting model to other countries.
3. How will this play out in the U.S. elections?
Although Trump and Xi reportedly agreed to a tacit detente in mutual recriminations, that truce may be crumbling. On Saturday, Trump told reporters that there should “should be consequences” if China was “knowingly responsible” for the coronavirus outbreak. This was a hint, perhaps, at persistent speculation that the coronavirus was connected to a research lab in Wuhan, even though scientists have concluded that the coronavirus was not genetically engineered.
As the 2020 race heats up, Republican campaign strategists reportedly have determined that focusing on China rather than the U.S. pandemic response will help Trump win in November. For the Democrats, a series of new ads and a DNC memo suggest Joe Biden plans to counter by arguing that “Trump rolled over for China,” trusting Beijing’s assurances on covid-19 and failing to insist on CDC access in China. It remains unclear whether Biden’s counterattacks will dissuade Republican strategists from doubling down on the strategy to scapegoat China — or merely increase the share of voters who seek a president whose most important quality is the ability to stand up to China (rather than tackling the coronavirus, restarting the economy, or making progress on climate change).
Some observers have countered that China-bashing on the campaign trail is unlikely to affect either the election or future U.S. policy. Yet scholars have also shown that campaign appeals can be an indicator of policy priorities. Indeed, after promising “an America that will not coddle tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing,” President Bill Clinton spent two years unsuccessfully trying to link progress on Chinese human rights to trade before abandoning that gambit.
In my research with Amber Wichowsky, we found that campaign ads on China — from both Democratic and Republican candidates during the 2010 congressional election — corresponded to an increase in co-sponsorship of China-related legislation after the election. Specifically, incumbents under fire for being “pro-China” during their bid for reelection co-sponsored more tough-on-China legislation after the election than their House colleagues who faced no such criticism. Likewise, anti-China ads sponsored by challengers provided a credible signal of how critical they would be of China as legislators, although not necessarily on trade or economic issues.
In 2020, anti-China campaign rhetoric could have even more devastating consequences than ads in previous election cycles, which tended to focus on trade, jobs, and currency manipulation. Even if there are opportunities to reset U.S.-China relations, political fears in the United States and Chinese retaliation could make it even more difficult to source needed medical supplies from China — or even a potential Chinese-made vaccine for covid-19.
Here in the United States, ads that criticize the “Chinese” and feature Americans of Asian descent will likely aggravate anti-Asian hate crimes and assaults in the United States. So even if sophisticated observers in Washington and Beijing know that what candidates say on the campaign trail is not actual policy, such rhetoric could still have serious consequences.