If there’s one thing worth knowing about China—in terms of geopolitics and American national security at least—it’s that its rulers are almost as afraid of the people as the people are afraid of them.
Think about it. Why would a government place secret cameras everywhere? Censor any criticism of the government? Mount massive propaganda campaigns to defend the infallibility of the ruling Communist Party?
If the people were all in for their form of government and their way of life, this wouldn’t be necessary.
“In 2013 the party issued a list of seven topics that could no longer be discussed with students: universal values, a free press, civil society, civic rights, the party’s past ‘mistakes,’ corruption and an independent judiciary,” veteran China correspondent Isabel Hilton wrote in The Economist in 2018. “This speaks of fear rather than confidence.”
There are many reasons that China’s rulers fear the ruled. Historically, the transition from dictatorship to democracy is led by a large middle class. A prosperous middle class, no longer worried about simple survival, tends to demand representation in government, the rule of law and other staples of democracy. China now has an enormous middle class.
It also has an enormous number of very poor people, which can be destabilizing when you have considerable income inequality and corruption, which China also has.
Moreover, China simply has an enormous number of people, which must be intimidating for the aristocrats in the perches.
For the last few decades, stability and social peace have been maintained by incredible economic growth. It’s easier to keep the masses happy, or at least compliant, when most are either getting richer or believe their kids will.
But in the last few years, Chinese economic growth has slowed, even according to China’s own unreliable numbers. The economic shocks of the coronavirus, which first emerged in Wuhan, are hitting everybody, but China may have the most lasting problems.
In America, policymakers in both parties see this as the last straw for an arrangement they didn’t like anyway. That means even more factories could be leaving China, never to return.
The scary part is that the Chinese government has seen the writing on the wall for a while now. Not only has it become more authoritarian than even a decade ago, it has become more nationalist.
This has been Russian President Vladimir Putin’s modus operandi for decades. His economy in tatters and the political system corrupt, Putin has held on to power in part by convincing the Russian people that they are besieged from abroad. “The West” is trying to destroy Mother Russia, and only a strong man like him can protect the homeland.
While everyone in the West has been focused on the pandemic, Putin has been orchestrating a constitutional change that will essentially make him president-for-life.
Chinese President Xi Jinping already did that. But he’s catching up to Putin in other ways.
As the social cohesion of economic growth has ebbed, the Chinese—specifically the Han Chinese—have doubled down on jingoism. Part of their strategy is to emphasize the infallibility of the government in general, but of President Xi in particular. That’s why they’re pushing a major propaganda effort to claim that COVID-19 was unleashed on China by the U.S. military. It’s also why the surest ticket to jail (or worse) in China these days is to publicly call into question Xi’s response to the virus.
What worries me about the current brouhaha over what to call the virus is that everyone is playing into Xi’s hands. The mainstream media’s ridiculous obsession with proving President Trump is racist because he calls it the “Chinese coronavirus” is perfectly in sync with the Chinese propaganda effort.
So is the Trump administration’s determination to fight back on this. I’m actually sympathetic to the need to rebut China’s propaganda campaign. I can see the case that Trump has no choice, even if I think the way he talks about it is sloppy.
But the fact remains that the Chinese people will get a very different message than the one the Trump administration intends. Thanks to Chinese censorship and state-controlled media, the Chinese people will only get the message the Chinese government wants them to get. And that message is that the blame for their problems doesn’t belong with their own corrupt government, but with the West.
I have no idea how to short-circuit the collective action problem in front of us. But I worry that things could continue to deteriorate in such a way that the worst consequences of the COVID-19 epidemic won’t be matters of public health or economics, but an escalating cold war that could turn hot.
Photograph of Xi Jinping by Ding Haitao/Xinhua/Getty Images.