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Comparative Politics Foreign Policy

China’s post-COVID19 image problem

When democracies fail at upholding their values that might be a more consequential image problem than anything the Chinese will have to worry about.

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s objective is to make China great again. He is not unaware of the challenges but he is also counting on the leaders of nations competing with China being too cautious, making mistakes, being plain incompetent or all of these things combined. And in varying degrees his gamble has paid off from Germany to India to the United States. 

While the going mantra in India – not without reason – is that Xi has through his actions only strengthened coalitions against China, there are at least two other ways to look at this. 

One, Xi has forced both the Chinese people and his critics within the system to rally behind the flag under his leadership. In other words, foreign policy is a tool of domestic policy. It is for this reason that China’s wolf-warrior diplomats seems shockingly indifferent to the damage to their country’s reputation from their statements and actions, Covid or no Covid.

Two, even a world with coalitions against China, Beijing is not without friends or allies of its own and that really is the big failure of the liberal internationalist order led by the West – that it did not use the post-Cold War moment to secure the world against authoritarianism. Even if China might not have too many friends there are plenty that will vote with it if nothing else to thumb their noses at the West that many countries in the Third World and their rulers find a much more unpleasant party to deal with. The simple structural reality of international politics that stacks the scales in China’s favour is its permanent seat on the UN Security Council that prevents any major concerted global effort that can sanction or criticise China for any of its actions.

China obviously also has the economic muscle to buy friends. In the wake of the pandemic, it has put this to good use by engaging in anti-Covid efforts around the world. China’s competitors like the US or India have not done either themselves or their cause against Chinese hegemony and bullying in the region any favours by their own less than fully competent responses to Covid. Ultimately, the power of example counts, and the Chinese has matched this with an extremely sophisticated, worldwide propaganda and misinformation campaign. 

Indeed, China’s ‘image problem’ might be one evident only to liberal elites around the world and Western governments. For the rest of the world, which in practical terms makes up the greater majority, there is no such problem or at least none that cannot be forgotten or set aside for the right price and for the right incentives. Both of these Beijing is always happy to provide. What is more, there is now a demonstration effect evident on sections of Western elites, especially their corporate entities, as well as governments elsewhere that are considered allies of the West, as they try to soft-pedal on taking stronger measures against the Chinese political regime and its economic mercantilism and industrial-scale thievery. American president Donald Trump is as good an example of this effect as any, and there are and will be others.

A post-Covid world will test not just the economic resilience of democracies but also their very political identities and values. When they fail at upholding the latter, that might be a more consequential image problem than anything the Chinese will have to worry about. 

China might not have to tackle an image problem if it can show everyone else has an image problem, too. It might even come off looking the better party.

This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘China in the post-COVID19 era — How will the CCP tackle its image problem?’ Observer Research Foundation, Raisina Debates, 28 December 2020. 

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