Meanwhile, on the Chinese Internet, conspiracy theories proliferate about the origin of the disease, including some pinning it all on the dastardly Americans. As my colleague Gerry Shih reported last week, “the sudden surge and overwhelming prevalence of anti-U.S. rhetoric this week has been conspicuous and significant in the context of China, where censors typically scrub speech that strays out of bounds and police quickly detain those deemed to be spreading rumors.”
“It’s more than just some disinformation or an official narrative,” Xiao Qiang, the founder of China Digital Times, a website that regularly publishes leaked directives from the Communist Party’s propaganda department, told Shih. “It’s an orchestrated, all-out campaign by the Chinese government through every channel at a level you rarely see. It’s a counteroffensive.”
The ill will is all the more pronounced in Washington. The major disruptions to trade already wrought by the virus may make it impossible for China to meet its commitments under the first phase of a trade deal it clinched with the United States less than two months ago. Sensing opportunity, some U.S. politicians are banging the drum for more-aggressive moves toward “decoupling” the world’s two biggest economies.
“Communist China just does not want to join the community of nations, so much as it wants to rule it,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said at an event on Feb. 28 in Washington. He suggested the coronavirus could help further drive a wedge between the two countries as supply chains break down. “The result, whether we want to admit it or not, is there is a new Cold War.”
Despite the angry rhetoric in both capitals, neither President Trump nor Chinese President Xi Jinping embrace the language of a new Cold War. And as tensions continue to mount between their countries, the two leaders find themselves in awkward positions. Their governments are under deep scrutiny for their handling of the epidemic. The world has turned its attention to the drawbacks of China’s opaque, authoritarian political system, which seems to incentivize obfuscation over transparency. In the United States, the spotlight has fallen on a president who appears to prioritize short-term political gain over the challenge of dealing with a public health crisis many experts now warn can’t be fully contained.
Both Xi and Trump have made deputies the leading face of their official response. But, as China reports a diminishing rate of new infections, Xi has come to the fore. My colleague Anna Fifield detailed his “choreographed victory lap” this week, which saw him tour hospitals and videoconference with patients in Wuhan, the center of the outbreak.
Chinese state media has sought to illustrate the effectiveness of Beijing’s response to the virus — a mass mobilization of people and resources, as well as a draconian lockdown of parts of the country, in stark contrasts to less-sweeping measures in the West. And China is trying to emerge from the crisis magnanimous and redeemed. On Tuesday, officials in Italy, the second-worst-hit country, confirmed agreeing to a Chinese aid package including 1,000 ventilators, 100,000 respirators and 2 million face masks.
“Now things are getting better and he wants to show that his leadership has been successful,” Minxin Pei, a professor specializing in Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, told Fifield. “The messaging is that we should see the West’s response as bumbling and incompetent.”
“China’s battle against the epidemic showed that the CPC, as China’s ruling party, is by far the political party with the strongest governance capability in human history that truly cares about the national interests of the country and the Chinese people,” proclaimed an editorial last week in the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official mouthpiece.
This week, after repeatedly playing down the scale of the coronavirus threat, Trump largely abandoned his previous assurances that the virus has been successfully contained. Instead, he went on a social media offensive, accusing the mainstream media and Democrats of damaging the country’s image and hurting its stock market. He sought to link the coronavirus to illegal immigration in a bid to gin up support for his border wall. And, as part of a package of coronavirus-related economic stimulus, he laid out plans to push federal funds to producers of oil and natural gas.
Allies in right-wing media have abetted Trump’s approach, casting coronavirus concerns as attempts once more to “impeach” the president and “a hoax” to undermine him.
“The ‘conservative’ media have long shown their contempt for facts and science — for instance, by playing down the danger of climate change or Russian election attacks,” wrote conservative Post columnist Max Boot. “Never has their contempt for the truth been more dangerous than it is today. To defeat coronavirus, we must first combat the mental afflictions — irrationality, conspiracy-mongering and Dear Leader-like devotion to Trump — spread by exposure to right-wing media.”