The bungled U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic is giving China ample ammunition for anti-democratic propaganda and further eroding American leadership in the world.
That’s the view of the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist magazine, who was last posted in Washington and spoke in Atlanta three years ago after President Trump’s election.
Outside the U.S., the world is seeing that year’s hyper-partisanship play out again in the COVID-19 response, allowing China to paint a portrait of democracy as dysfunctional and undesirable, David Rennie told more than 140 people tuned into the World Affairs Council of Atlanta’s Zoom interview.
“To an amazing extent it’s still 2016” in the eyes of much of the world, Mr. Rennie said in conversation with CNN anchor Robyn Curnow in Atlanta.
“America looks terrible seen from the outside world. The Chinese propaganda machine, which here in China covers up and censors bad news, takes absolute advantage of the fact the America has a free press.”
News reports holding the U.S. government accountable for failing to prepare hospitals or highlighting gun-toting protesters demonstrating against lockdown measures are being repackaged and served up to the Chinese public as proof that its system delivers superior results.
“The message from the Chinese propaganda machine to the Chinese public is, ‘You see, didn’t we always tell you that Western democracy as exemplified by America is messy and corrupt and it enables the powerful to get what they want? It doesn’t work and is inefficient. How much safer do you feel in a one-party, authoritarian, top-down China?’”
Mr. Rennie said it’s clear that the leadership vacuum created by the “America First” policies of the Trump administration has grown post-coronavirus.
The virus may have originated in China, and while an early coverup is well documented and the current numbers are questionable, it it is clear that the draconian closure of the country successfully stamped out the first wave of infections, Mr. Rennie said. That has allowed the Communist Party to claim that its quick, decisive action gave the world time that some countries squandered in favor of partisan squabbling.
Chinese nationalists see evidence that this is taking root, as some of the 360,000 Chinese students in America try to return home, seeing China as a safer alternative.
What’s not clear as the pandemic plays out is whether China will “win” in the battle for global leadership — or how much it wants to be the guardian of multilateral institutions in the way the U.S. once was at the height of its post-Cold War idealism, Mr. Rennie said.
China may not want to scrap the international order, but it does seek to bend what remains to its own will.
“China wants something a bit more selfish, a bit more opportunistic. China wants to be so powerful and so strong that no other country in the world gets to say no to anything that China wants. China does not want to be thwarted. China wants to be enabled. It wants to have clients,” Mr. Rennie said. “Rather than saying that China has a plan to construct an entirely new rules-based order from scratch, I think that what China is doing now is pushing hard on the rotten, wobbly timbers of that American-designed, post-1945 world order so that it’s no longer capable of constraining what China wants to do in the immediate future.”
Whatever happens in the U.S. elections this year, Mr. Rennie believes that outbreak has continued to undermine already deteriorating trust between the world’s two largest economies, re-shaping globalization if not halting it.
Even before COVID-19, the U.S. and China were sparring over issues like Hong Kong protests and the fate of the Muslim Uighur minorities, as well as leadership in the products that will underpin the world’s connected future.
China’s plan to use high-tech products to embed itself into global value chains is finding that the trust deficit is strengthening walls erected along ideological lines.
“When you’re offering to build a 5G network or a medical devices or Internet-enabled autonomous car, what you’re really doing is selling someone a service that requires a lifetime commitment of really deep trust, “ Mr. Rennie said. “And that is a global economic trend that is colliding with total collapse in geopolitical trust between the sides now being turbo changed by the finger-pointing and blame game over where this COVID came from.”
Companies will be caught in the middle; American firms won’t abandon China on a wholesale basis, as many of them sell into the Chinese market, but the conversation about national resilience and lessening dependence on China will grow louder. Companies will no longer be able to ignore whether a factory is in Nebraska or China.
“I think that we’re realizing it does actually matter. Geography is back. Political geography is back, and that is going to have unforeseeable consequences.”
A Checkup on China
Beyond discussing geopolitics, Mr. Rennie also recounted his experiences reporting from Chinese villages on lockdown measures that had 750 million people or so trapped at home for weeks to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“I’m kind of a time traveler from your future.”
In the countryside, the government sought to show a strong presence, the response evoking memories of China’s past blended with jarring reminders of present surveillance technologies earlier regimes could have only dreamed about.
“You really sense a country that was in almost like a wartime mobilization, and some of the techniques that the saw there were absolutely reminscent of the Mao era,” Mr. Rennie said.
Red banners hung from trees and walls. Loudspeakers previously only used for important announcements were put to work blasting party propaganda for 10 hours a day. Elderly men and women in red armbands blocked entrances to villages with mounds of dirt and debris.
All this in a country that has been using smartphone location data, face scans, digital temperature checks and QR codes to manage mobility as it relaxes travel restrictions.
“It’s this kind of 1960s crossed with a dystopian science fiction kind of mood. It’s a very, very strange experience,” said Mr. Rennie, who feels isolated in a city of 20 million people, where virtually no foreigners are being allowed to fly in or out.
How quickly China is able to extinguish new flareups of the disease will provide the world a glimpse at how long the crisis may go on and whether it can be managed with technology, without the kind of lockdowns that have devastated the U.S. economy.
“The answer to that will be your answer in two months. I’m kind of a time traveler from your future.”