In cities across the United States, anti-lockdown demonstrators gather in previously empty streets as Americans protest the federal, state, and local efforts to counter COVID-19. Rally participants chant they are fed up with staying home, eager to go back to work, and sick of the government telling them what to do. These demonstrations — and the occasional counter-protest — represent America’s foundational democratic rights to speak and assemble on full display. The problem, of course, is these gatherings are the perfect breeding ground for a virus spread by close contact and crowds.
Meanwhile in China, its authoritarianism is displayed by near-complete control of its COVID-19 narrative, strict enforcement of lockdowns and quarantines, and ability to quash any protest, dissent, or criticism of the government’s (mis)handling of the crisis — presenting a stark contrast in governance during a pandemic. Infectious disease outbreaks lend themselves particularly well to totalitarianism. People are encouraged to put their trust in government leaders to provide and care for them, to cloister themselves in their homes, and to inform on neighbors who fail to do the same. The COVID-19 pandemic, in other words, is a perfect opportunity for Beijing to advertise its authoritarian system as a superior model over Western-style democracy to manage such a global crisis.
Even before the outbreak, the United States was grappling with China’s attempts to position itself as an international leader and rival to the United States through economic and diplomatic statecraft. As the United States seeks to shape the geopolitical environment in the context of great power competition, it must contend with authoritarian adversaries who do not distinguish between war and peace and who battle the United States across all domains using (dis)information and influence. Under Chairman Xi, China has sought to use both the tools of soft power, such as economic aid and diplomatic partnerships, and hard power, such as using force to bully the fishing vessels of smaller powers, to influence other countries, challenge the United States, and strain and break US alliances and partnerships. Many of these soft power tools, to include assistance to partner countries ravaged by the coronavirus, have been on display throughout China’s response to COVID-19 — as has the repressive authoritarian model of governance it represents. In an era of great power competition, we must be aware of how China will seek to exploit the pandemic and manipulate the international political situation, and maintain our alliances and global leadership to ensure that there is no vacuum for China to fill.
As COVID-19 cases in China have apparently dropped, some experts have praised the effectiveness of the lockdowns and technological surveillance adopted in Wuhan and throughout China in mitigating the virus’s spread, and a number of Western analysts have begun to query whether the potential benefits of such measures might be worth the costs in civil liberties and human rights. China’s state-run media has capitalized on this, crowing about the “massive assistance” mobilized in Wuhan and praising the “strong execution” in comparison to other, unnamed countries. Many foreign news sources and leaders, too, have picked up on this message and commended the effectiveness of China’s lockdowns. Saudi broadcasters, for example, have remarked that “China is the only country that has performed well in dealing with this crisis,” and a former French prime minister professed that “the Chinese government has manifested extremely effective organization and mobilization ability, which is exactly the advantage of the Chinese system” — a comment widely circulated in Chinese media sources. Serbia has even brought in Chinese advisors to run its coronavirus response, which has led to a particularly heavy-handed series of control measures there.
So, is China’s attempt to sell its authoritarian system as a cure for the pandemic working? Yes… and no.
On the surface, China would appear to have a number of advantages in dealing with the present phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that the virus originated in its territory means that it is likely to recover first and its people can return to work while the rest of the world continues to struggle with new cases. Additionally, China is a major manufacturing hub for personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks and scrubs, as well as other critical medical supplies such as ventilators. Rumors have persisted that, as COVID-19 spread throughout the world, the Chinese government prohibited exports of masks and other supplies; and in the early days of the pandemic, it was able to acquire much of the worldwide supply through purchases and donations. As new cases have declined in China at the same time that the virus has spread throughout the rest of the world, Beijing has sought to redeploy medical supplies to European and other foreign countries, initially enhancing its international reputation (although much of the proffered equipment has proven defective).
China’s ability to control a narrative trumpeting the “effectiveness” of its response to both domestic and international audiences is also greatly aided by its authoritarianism. In February 2020, early in the outbreak, China saw rumblings of protests domestically after the death of a Wuhan doctor who spoke out about the true nature of the virus and was silenced by the Chinese government. In response to the dissent, China moved swiftly to a narrative of blame and denial, using three strategies. First, it initially downplayed the disease. Authorities were reluctant to acknowledge that the disease was transmitting from person to person and encouraged citizens to celebrate the Lunar New Year. There were, of course, global repercussions from this misdirection, as millions of people traveled throughout China and the world to celebrate the holiday. Tragically, this flawed information about the virus hindered the ability of other states to respond. Beijing’s second strategy was flat-out disinformation including conspiracy theories. China then shifted to its current approach: promotion of patriotism and the narrative of its benevolent assistance and leadership.
Of course, democracies too desire to present their activities in a positive light. But aided by its Great Firewall of China and total media control, China efficiently proliferates propaganda and disinformation in order to shut down internal dissent. China’s global health diplomacy, coupled with its public relations campaign to present its social control measures as an effective counter-virus strategy, could have a beguiling effect on countries in the throes of COVID-19 outbreaks who are looking for global leadership to counter the pandemic.
So, is China’s attempt to sell its authoritarian system as a cure for the pandemic working? Yes… and no. On the one hand, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted some of the weaknesses inherent in the Chinese political system. The early suppression of potentially damaging information — including, crucially, the likelihood of human-to-human transmission — made it much more difficult for medical and public health professionals to identify and isolate cases, which worsened the spread of the disease. In an effort to promote societal and economic stability, state media remained mum about the outbreak, Chinese public health officials resisted the involvement of the World Health Organization, and local authorities silenced doctors and others seeking to spread the word. The over-centralized control of politics and society in China, the incentives for local politicians to distort and conceal data, and the absence of a free press created a perfect storm. Some citizens of China are now responding to the CCP’s narrative of its efficient coronavirus response with anger, to say nothing of the international backlash.
On the other hand, some countries appear to be learning lessons from China, using the pandemic as an excuse to curtail freedoms and centralize power. In Hungary, the Parliament passed a coronavirus bill suspending elections and giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered police and military officials to shoot anyone violating the lockdown orders, leading some to fear that a declaration of martial law is on the horizon. Uzbekistan is requiring quarantined patients to hand over their cell phones and bank cards, ostensibly because those items can carry the virus. Countries such as Turkey, Singapore, and Cambodia have arrested or silenced critics, dissidents, and opposition politicians in the name of combating disinformation about the coronavirus. And we haven’t even mentioned the ever-more-consolidated power in Russia (where the pandemic is being used as an opportunity to test new facial-recognition surveillance systems) and Iran (where regime officials have been accused of attempting to profit off the distribution of COVID-19 testing kits). Furthermore, Russia and Iran are joining together with China to amplify disinformation in a messaging campaign against the United States.
This trend is worrying, to say the least. Autocratic regimes typically fail to invest sufficiently in public health infrastructure and protections, and are often led by dictators who are more concerned with reaping possible political and financial benefits of an infectious disease outbreak than with the health or economic stability of their population. Autocracies are inherently problematic for global public health, which depends on trust. If we cannot trust officials or the media in partner countries to accurately report the number of cases of coronavirus or any other disease, it will be nigh impossible for us to have an accurate picture of worldwide health and the extent of any outbreak.
So what is a democracy to do? There are several steps the United States might take to counter China’s influence. The first is tending to our alliances and partnerships. Maintaining the trust of our allies will make it harder for China to coerce them in the future. Next, the United States should pursue further dialogue with China, perhaps building on previous academic and scientific collaborations. Dialogues enable us to, as Sun Tzu said, “know thy enemy” and to create opportunities for messaging during a crisis. Additionally, continued support for a free press and independent media around the world will be critical in ensuring that future abuses of authority or power grabs resulting from the pandemic are documented and reported. Good journalism can be a crucial tool in combating propaganda, suppression of the truth, and other methods of information control on which China and its autocratic emulators rely. Finally, if the United States can minimize and control the spread of COVID-19 in its own territory, that will go a long way toward demonstrating that democracies can cope with the effects of a pandemic without resorting to harsh repressive measures.
The 2017 National Security Strategy lays bare the possible consequences if we fail to act: “China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests.” Losing the great power competition will allow China the opportunity to dismantle the existing international order and construct a new one, one that favors states like China and rewards authoritarianism, surveillance, and violent repression.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides Beijing an opportunity to control the narrative in its favor, coerce and persuade America’s partners and allies, and trumpet the success of its authoritarian approach to the pandemic. Beijing’s international reputation is at stake as countries grapple with the consequence of China’s concealment and delay, and the resulting anger may well provide the United States with an opportunity to deepen our engagement in the developing world. In the ongoing struggle for global leadership, the current international crisis might be a tipping point in the great power competition. The United States must seize the opportunity to retain its global leadership role and continue to promote an international system that reflects and advances our values.
Sarah Jacobs Gamberini and Amanda Moodie are Policy Fellows at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US government.