As China celebrated victory over its own COVID-19 epidemic, provided medical aid to hard-hit European countries as a crisis conqueror, and took gradual steps to reopen its economy with gradual steps, Beijing may not have predicted that it would have to confront severe challenges from the outside world amid this world pandemic. As the rest of the world struggles with the pandemic, blame and hostility against China, which is considered to be the cause of the crisis, intensified. As a result, China has to confront severe political, diplomatic, and economic challenges.
First, China confronts a credibility challenge by facing accusations that it is accountable for the outbreak of COVID-19. The Chinese government is blamed of orchestrating a deliberate cover-up of the initial spread of the virus by barring local bureaucrats and medical professionals from sharing critical information with the public at the onset. The delayed response to the outbreak in Wuhan at the initial stage is hence held by the international community to be the cause of the pandemic now rampaging all over the world. The anger exacerbated both at home and abroad by the death of the “whistleblower” Dr. Li Wenliang. Chinese political repression is again exposed to public criticism through the COVID-19 crisis.
Second, China confronts a diplomatic challenge as the Sino-U.S. relationship is becoming increasingly strained and even hostile amid the pandemic. Triggered by a hawkish tweet from Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, referencing the conspiracy theory that the virus was released by the American military, President Donald Trump soon struck back. Trump began referring to the pandemic as the “Chinese virus,” blaming China as the source of the pandemic, despite his earlier praise of China’s “effort” and “transparency” and promised cooperation with China. Many have argued that China was targeted as a scapegoat by the American government as the United States became the world’s COVID-19 epicenter and suffered a partial economic shutdowns and mass unemployment. Fueling a Sinophobia trend both in the United States and the world, the term “Chinese virus” dragged the Sino-U.S. relationship almost to the freezing point.
Third, China confronts a PR challenge after it lashed out against being assigned blame for the pandemic. One prominent example was China’s threat to cut off all trade relations with Australia if the government in Canberra keeps pushing for an international inquiry into the coronavirus’ origins. Australia has responded robustly, pledging that it won’t give in to blackmail. Then there is China’s outrage at India’s restrictions on defective Chinese personal protective equipment (PPE) exports. There’s also the mistreatment of black migrant workers in Guangzhou, which caused a clash between China and African countries that had been close partners. Even China’s “mask diplomacy” in Europe backfired, with the EU sounding an alert that China’s aid was an attempt to “rise to the challenges of global leadership.” Rather than a gesture of goodwill, China’s “mask diplomacy” is being interpreted abroad more as a critical PR strategy to rehabilitate the image of the Chinese government after came under significant fire at the initial stage of the outbreak – not only from the international community, but also from many disillusioned voices within China itself.
Fourth, China confronts the threat of a financial challenge, with claims of financial compensation from multiple organizations, governments, and individuals across the world. Several lawsuits have been filed in the United States against the Chinese government over its mishandling of the outbreak, with individuals and even state governments seeking reparations from the Chinese government for their devastating economic losses. The Henry Jackson Society, a British conservative think tank, claimed the G-7 will lose at least $4 trillion because of ”the Chinese government’s negligence,” arguing that China is bound by international law to report crucial public health information in a timely, accurate, and detailed manner. Organizations and individuals from other countries such as Australia, India, and Egypt have filed lawsuits with compensation claims as well, which collectively are worth more than China’s GDP over the course of 20 years and 1,000 times more than the “Gengzi compensation” China was forced to pay after the Boxer Rebellion. Although the Chinese government rebuked such lawsuits as having “no factual and legal basis,” these claims doubled down on a harsh international environment for China.
Last but not least, China confronts an economic challenge stemming from the new trend toward “de-sinicization” of the world supply chain. Companies around the world are expected to alter their supply chains to be less dependent on China in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. In the United States, businesses are beginning to diversify their supply chain as much as possible to be closer to home, while in Europe officials have called for a reckoning with the continent’s dependency on China. If the prospect of “decoupling” the supply chain that binds the West to China seems premature, the virus is prompting a reappraisal of reliance on a single country. The breakup of the supply chain will be devastating for China’s economy, which relies heavily on mass production. In a post-COVID era, according to Zheng Yongnian, the world may return to a state last seen before the 1980s, an era of economic sovereignty, marked by a “finite globalization” where each country will have the production sectors crucial to its national security and basic livelihood very much in its own hands.
Facing all these challenges, the Chinese government is stepping up its own preparations. In April, at a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee (the CCP’s top decision-making body), President Xi Jinping declared a “bottom-line thinking,” calling on the country “to make mental and material preparations for changes in the external environment that will last a relatively long period of time.” Xi’s “bottom-line thinking” indicates that China will not step down; instead, it will fight fire with fire, and confront these severe challenges with retaliation. In the post-pandemic time, the world is likely to come to a new normal marked more by all-around clashes than cooperation.
Bao Huaying is the Chief of Division for International Exchange at Beijing Foreign Studies University, China. Currently she is a Visiting Fellow at East Asia National Resource Center, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University in Washington D.C. Her research interests include comparative cultural studies, cultural diplomacy, U.S.-China relations, and immigration.