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On March 29, President Donald Trump stood in the Rose Garden and offered a coronavirus forecast: “If we have between 100,000 and 200,000 [deaths],” he told a reporter, “we all, together, have done a very good job.”
The president meant it as self-congratulation; he’d been shown a projected American death toll as high as 2.2 million. But in China, the statement landed very differently. On Weibo, the country’s equivalent of Twitter, Trump’s declaration sounded like an astonishing statement of defeat by China’s major geopolitical rival.
“Trump says reducing death toll to 100,000 people is ‘not bad’” quickly became a top trending hashtag. Commenters on Weibo called the Rose Garden appearance “preparation for a funeral,” labeled Trump a “joker” and a “blowhard,” and sarcastically predicted, “I’m sure God will protect the United States.” If a similar death toll had been reported in China, one popular comment speculated, “how many people here would be saying that [we are] a dying country?” Another noted, bluntly: “[F]rom here onward, the world order will never be the same.”
As coronavirus has spread outward from its Wuhan origins, the Chinese government has worked hard to spin an initial embarrassment into a win for its international image, with mixed success. But to Chinese authorities, the audience at home is the one that really matters, and among that vast cohort, the verdict is unsparing: China has outperformed, while America has disastrously faltered. It’s a sentiment shared by even educated, internationalized Chinese observers — the very group once inclined to look to America as an exemplar.
Since Trump’s late March declaration, each day has brought a fresh batch of horrific news seemingly tailor-made to highlight American weakness. Thousands online marked the grim and growing U.S. infection and death tolls, billionaire Jack Ma’s pledged donation of 500,000 testing kits, the number of New York City police officers who have called in sick during the lockdown, and New York state’s purchase of over 1,000 ventilators from China. On April 28, after the number of confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases topped 1 million, the Weibo account of state-run China Central Television trumpeted the news with an eye-grabbing graphic.
One popular comment professed “astonishment” at seeing America as “narrow, self-interested, buck-passing; not the world’s number one.” Another declared the U.S. response “the disaster flick of 2020.” And those ventilators? “Jack up the price,” went one popular response. “Then make sure they pay before delivery.”
Chinese social media is a highly imperfect lens into widespread public sentiment, full of hot tempers, trolls, and the ever-present specter of censorship, particularly given the ruling Communist Party’s power and proclivity to punish dissenting voices. It is emphatically not real life; American visitors to China generally describe encountering warmth, or at least respect, even during times of high tension between the countries.
Yet Chinese social media is also a crucial indicator of sentiment among the ultra plugged-in young, as well as a battlefield on which Chinese citizens — within strict limits, and often in code — air out differing views of the Party and the world. As recently as February 7, Chinese social media heaved with resentment at Chinese authorities following the death of doctor Li Wenliang, who had endured police harassment for sharing early news of the new virus. That outcry, too broad and too deep to censor, appeared then to herald one of the most frontal challenges to Party legitimacy since the 1989 Tiananmen uprising.
Now, however, a scant two months later, a new narrative predominates inside China. Yingyi Ma, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University and author of a recent book on Chinese students in the United States, described an about-face among that relatively affluent group. Now, “Chinese international students in the U.S overwhelmingly consider China a safer place, with [their] government more competently handling the crisis than the American government. That is why so many Chinese students have returned home,” Ma told POLITICO, “despite the high risk of international travel and the enormous difficulty in buying airplane tickets.”
As with many things, the coronavirus crisis has accelerated trends and deepened fault lines that already existed. The soil has been seeded for a moment like this; Chinese citizens share a common grounding in a decades-old “patriotic education” curriculum combining love for the Chinese motherland with grievance at its historical mistreatment. That includes depredations, both real and imagined, at the hands of America and its military and intelligence services dating back to the 19th century.
Observers also see the swing of a pendulum that, for decades, had trended the other way. According to Taisu Zhang, a professor at Yale Law School, the 1980s and ’90s saw “an almost adoring view of the U.S.” among Chinese intellectuals, a time when China “was as enthusiastic a consumer of the ‘Washington Consensus’ as any country in the world.” But educated Chinese “have become much, much more nationalist over the past two decades.” Zhang’s conclusion here mirrors research by Jennifer Pan and Yiqing Xu, both political science professors at Stanford. Survey data they collected from 2012-14 showed generally centrist attitudes among Chinese respondents — by 2018, Pan told POLITICO, “most people [had become] nationalistic.”
The coronavirus response — now playing out on Weibo, within the private discussion rooms on mobile social behemoth WeChat, and in private conversations — telegraphs a wound to America’s image even deeper and wider than the one sustained after the 2008 financial crisis, which convinced many Beijing policymakers that the United States was more paper than tiger. China’s intellectuals have respected power and wealth for more than a century, says Zhang; they favored the American model because “they naturally gravitated to the most economically and militarily powerful state.” As China rises and America fumbles, that dynamic is changing.
Chinese nationalism has never lurked terribly far below the surface, rearing its head repeatedly during times of heightened bilateral tension, particularly in the wake of the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet in 2001. But resentment toward the United States has long commingled with admiration, or at least the grudging recognition of an American hegemony that looked set to continue indefinitely. At the turn of this century, many Chinese felt certain their country would not catch up with the United States until the next one.
Since then, China has become almost 12 times as wealthy; megacities far from showcases Beijing and Shanghai sport new subway systems leading to air-conditioned shopping malls offering Cartier necklaces and Gucci suits to the growing mass of nouveau riche. The country’s People’s Liberation Army is more professional and far better funded than it was then, and many U.S. military advantages in China’s neighborhood have eroded or disappeared, according to a comparative tool published by the RAND Corp.
Amid China’s dynamic rise, America has nonetheless held out the distinct promise of clean air and clean water, first-rate universities, competent governance, and a best-in-class public health system.
Now, Chinese propagandists and nationalists can state, truthfully, that U.S. representatives, governors and hospitals have purchased ventilators, gloves and masks from China in a time of desperate need, often without any help from Washington. The fact that U.S. institutions are buying the supplies at market prices, not begging for alms, or the reality that some of the Chinese-made goods have proven defective, have not diluted domestic perceptions of a fundamental rebalancing. “The current crisis highlights the importance of international bench-marking in the formation of Chinese public opinion,” Haifeng Huang, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Merced, told POLITICO. Insulated within an information bubble, many “may not be aware that the crisis has actually worsened international opinion toward China.”
The shift in grassroots sentiment is far more profound than mere dislike of President Donald Trump, a figure whom many Chinese commenters and policymakers originally considered a refreshing outsider and no-nonsense businessman with whom Beijing could deal. George W. Bush was labeled “little Bush” and subject to widespread derision. Barack Obama, while more popular, was subjected to a series of subtle, but unmistakable, diplomatic snubs. Whoever eventually succeeds Trump will confront a changed landscape in which intellectuals and reformists — erstwhile advocates for U.S.-style governance within China — are far more skeptical of American capabilities than they were a generation ago.
The loss of U.S. cachet within China has lasting global and strategic consequences. Only the United States governs a territory equaling China’s vastness while mustering the wealth and power to which Beijing aspires. For hard-liners and reformists alike, that has meant the American example lurks behind many discussions of China’s future, fostering an unstated desire to win U.S. respect — what some call soft power.
The world is now seeing a preview of what life looks like with that check removed: aggressive Chinese diplomats from Brussels to Chicago browbeating their hosts, global institutions adopting de facto Chinese leadership, and an increasingly exportable surveillance state.
It’s true that major challenges lie in the way of China’s continued growth — and doubly so that Chinese citizens aren’t told about, or at least allowed to openly talk about, their own country’s failures in timely addressing the coronavirus outbreak. But from within China, that dynamic only sharpens the apparent contrast between its own smooth competence and the fumbling West.
The Communist Party’s mouthpieces depict President Xi Jinping lecturing Trump and the G-20 on coronavirus prevention, evincing a confident, technocratic, well-oiled Chinese state. The gritty, uncensored reality of a fractious and angry America whose flaws and debates play out in painful public view can scarcely compete.
If many Chinese are susceptible to triumphal propaganda, it’s partly because, for an increasingly large share of the population, nothing in their lived experience contradicts it. For all the doubt about the veracity of Chinese GDP growth numbers, the improvement in the quality of life for countless millions of Chinese citizens in recent decades is real, palpable and impressive. Younger Chinese “are accustomed to the Olympics, high-speed rail and mobile payments, and have no direct personal memories of poverty, hunger, or turmoil,” Huang says. They have been raised to believe their government can deliver the goods; now, they are being taught that America’s government cannot.
“One month ago they told me the U.S. had developed testing,” began a popular comment on Weibo, posted in early April. “One month ago, they told me the U.S. could take care of its own health; one month ago they told me the U.S. would stabilize as soon as it mobilized; one month ago they said U.S. industry was developed enough to produce the needed ventilators. Now I finally understand; it was all just talk.”