Fears of a Chinese global takeover are greatly exaggerated

Chinese President Xi Jinping learns about the hospital's operations, treatment of patients, protection for medical workers and scientific research at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Hubei province, China March 10, 2020. Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Editor's note:

Writing in Barron’s, former diplomat Susan A. Thornton argues that although “China will not emerge from this crisis as a dominant world power…it will use the crisis to adapt and change, as it has in the past.”

It has been discouraging to see the war of words waged between China and the U.S. in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that is ravaging the globe. Now is the time for Winston Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” not finger-pointing and gratuitous swipes. Our societies are resilient. We will get through this, but the opportunity to join hands and overcome this shared tragedy is evaporating with every Twitter barrage.

The level of suspicion and mistrust between China and the U.S. is currently so high that each side sees the other’s moves as deliberately aimed at undermining, damaging, or usurping the other’s interests. This has included the U.S. casting aspersions toward Chinese efforts to deliver medical aid to other countries in dire need. Never mind that China feels a duty to help, manufactures large quantities of personal protective equipment, and was the first to confront the disease. They now have enough PPE to send it elsewhere.

We are still in the throes of the pandemic, yet alarm bells have already been ringing in the U.S. and elsewhere over China’s possible gains from this crisis. Some worry that the crisis will shake the world order and put a new dog on top. These fears are greatly exaggerated; China will not emerge from this crisis as a dominant world power. It has much to answer for in its early handling of the outbreak, and it will come under enormous postcrisis pressures, as others have noted. But it will use the crisis to adapt and change, as it has in the past.

Some see in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for “turning danger into opportunity” a Machiavellian plot to gain advantage from others’ misfortune. This is a misreading of the oldest Chinese motivational aphorism, a reference to the fact that the Chinese character for “crisis” is literally composed of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.”

Are there problems? Of course, and many, but this is an unparalleled situation and problems are to be expected. The thing to watch is how China learns and makes improvements.

I lived in Chengdu during the 2003 SARS outbreak, and while many others have made comparisons between SARS and Covid-19, few have highlighted that China learned from SARS. China failed to disclose the SARS novel coronavirus between its discovery in November 2002 and March 2003. Word leaked out slowly, until an infected doctor traveled to a wedding in Hong Kong and many others spread the virus around the world. But after SARS, China made many improvements to its disease surveillance and health systems, some with the advice of U.S. Centers for Disease Control counterparts.

Since SARS, China has confronted several avian flus, H1N1, MERS, Ebola, Zika, African swine fever, and others. It has been adapting. The Covid-19 response seems to have been marred by early misjudgments and misreporting. China’s CDC did not acknowledge that human-to-human transmission was occurring until well into the epidemic. But despite the fumbles that may have cost precious time, the response was thankfully much different than 2003. The response was much faster and the early lockdown of Hubei was dramatic and unexpected. And it is likely that China will get to the bottom of what happened and will make changes again.

Which brings me to China’s poor public diplomacy response to this crisis. China’s governing system has not adapted well to social media, citizen journalism, and viral videos. In a fragile authoritarian state, public opinion can be harnessed, but it can also be destabilizing. China has traditionally seen public opinion as something to be defended against and has spent enormous resources trying to constrain and shape it.

In an era of global audiences and an information explosion, however, this is proving difficult, to say the least.

Chinese were no doubt taken aback and offended by an apparent unsympathetic reaction abroad to Wuhan’s trials and suffering. Many Chinese who saw it were incensed by The Wall Street Journal’s headline calling China “the Sick Man of Asia,” for example. To do so at a time when people are dying of an untreatable virus is in obvious poor taste. But China’s response, to threaten to exile journalists who had nothing to do with the story in the middle of a crisis, is not appropriate.

That China has a difficult time with such things was reflected in its disproportionate response to a Twitter GIF about Hong Kong posted by an NBA coach last fall, resulting in the cancellation of the entire NBA season in China, even before Covid-19 hit. Can China learn and adapt in this difficult area as it has in others?

Many in the West belittle Chinese soft power and public diplomacy efforts, and it is true that the results have been mixed. But there are hints that some in China see an opportunity from this crisis for changing China’s public diplomacy. Former Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying wrote recently that “the outside world’s perception and judgement of China will change with changes in China’s own discourse and behavior.”  She goes on to list the qualities of persuasive discourse, including that “successful efforts should be based on facts and deeds, as vague concepts and pronouncements are not convincing.”

Another former diplomat noted in a report on China’s Covid-19 response that China “showed shortcomings” in its early response, including “formalism and bureaucracy,” but that it takes the problems seriously and is making corrections. We should not dismiss the notion that China will use this crisis to make reforms and improvements. Will we?