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Remember when the coronavirus was China’s “Chernobyl” moment? That was the metaphor trotted out by a range of U.S. experts and anti-Beijing hawks in the early stages of the pandemic, when it seemed the Chinese regime’s initial coverup of the virus’s spread would have deep consequences for its opaque, autocratic political system. Eight months later, China appears to have curtailed the crisis. By the end of the summer in the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, life seemed back to normal. Thousands gathered in massive pool parties in water parks. Seniors waltzed, sans masks, by the Yangtze riverfront.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has been more of a disaster for Western democracies, especially the United States. America leads the world in coronavirus-related deaths and infections. Its battle with the virus exposed grim co-morbidities, a country riven by deepening socio-economic divides, and an increasingly dysfunctional and polarized political system. Fears over the virus and mounting conspiracy theories over the credibility of mail-in ballots have led numerous experts to fret over the integrity of the upcoming November election, warning of an unprecedented constitutional crisis. Whose “Chernobyl” was this now?

Even before the pandemic hit, there was a view in China that the United States was an inexorably waning power. “When they look at America, they see a rather stagnant economy and an opportunity to move fast,” Bruno Maçães, author of “Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order,” told Today’s WorldView when speaking of his conversations with people in Beijing. Now, party officials and influential academics see what’s unfolding in America as part of an acceleration of American decline.

President Trump is viewed as a key catalyst of that acceleration, according to a number of recent readings of Chinese scholarship and party speeches by U.S.-based China scholars. That belies the White House’s insistence that a victory for Trump’s rival, Joe Biden, would play into China’s hands after four years of tough-minded confrontation from the Trump administration. Instead, because of Trump’s wrecking-ball approach to diplomacy, “America is moving from ‘declining’ to ‘declining faster,’ ” observed state-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao earlier this year.

“This belief has become a central premise of China’s evolving strategy toward the United States,” wrote Julian Gewirtz, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in Foreign Affairs. “[Chinese Communist Party] leaders connect this rapid American decline to intensified U.S. efforts to contain China; the United States under Trump has gone from being a latent, long-term menace to the source of concerted efforts to, in the favored phrase of Chinese officialdom, ‘comprehensively suppress’ China.”

Hawkishness in Washington is seen as a mark of American weakness, not strength. “Alongside confidence in American decline has come some anxiety that a declining United States will lash out in dangerous ways,” wrote Rush Doshi of the Brookings Institution in Foreign Policy. “That view is reflected in [Chinese President Xi Jinping]’s speeches and in China’s official white papers, which warn of American ‘encirclement, constraint, confrontation, and threat.’ It is also mirrored in Beijing assessments of Trump, whom it sees as providing long-term benefits for China at the cost of high short-term risks.”

Trump’s launch of an anti-China trade war and moves to sanction Chinese officials and tech companies struck a nerve and, to a certain extent, have led Beijing to redouble its efforts. Chinese nationalists “have nicknamed [Trump] ‘the nation-builder,’ ” wrote Wang Xiuying in the London Review of Books, “because he has improved Chinese understanding of American hypocrisy and rallied people round the flag.”

Wang pointed to a surge of Chinese social media commentary invoking the “barbarians at the gate” analogy. In this instance, “the United States resembles the Ming dynasty of the early 17th century: it’s the paramount power and dictates the rules, but is rotting within. China takes the place of the barbarians: hard-working, paying due tribute, but never respected, constantly smeared and demonised.”

In a conversation with Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, Eric Li, a trustee of the China Institute at Shanghai’s Fudan University, inverted another a more recent historical paradigm — casting the United States as the Soviet Union, struggling through the final years of the Cold War. The country is in the middle an “existential brawl between two near octogenarians,” Li told the publication, referring to the November election. “Remember [former Soviet leaders] Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko?”

Betraying a degree of hubris, Li added that “China today is the opposite of what the U.S.S.R. was decades ago. It is practical, ascendant and globally connected.”

The palpable “overconfidence” of Chinese elites like Li, noted Doshi, “may be unfounded, particularly as China faces a demographic slowdown, diplomatic setbacks, and a middle-income trap.”

“China would not be the first power to confuse its momentum for longevity,” wrote Parag Khanna, a Singapore-based analyst. “Both nationalism and triumphalism indicate a high likelihood of conflict — but not that its aftermath will necessarily favor China.”

No matter narratives of U.S. decline, there’s also the inescapable reality that Beijing remains a soft power minnow on the world stage and is viewed with wariness and negativity in many countries. Xi and his allies may hope that Trump deepens the gloom surrounding the United States.

“Chinese nationalists will therefore favor President Trump’s reelection even though they find his administration obnoxious,” Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “China’s greatest interest in the presidential election is not to promote the victory of a particular candidate, but to see American democracy further discredited.”

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