Coronavirus News Asia

China’s domestic politics hamstring its diplomacy

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The pandemic was both a crisis and an opportunity for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beijing had the chance to make the best of a bad situation. 

The initial attempt to cover up the severity of the outbreak damaged China’s international reputation, but thereafter the Chinese government relatively quickly flattened the curve of infections as the disease exploded in the United States and Western Europe. 

The Chinese also made a show of international leadership by providing medical supplies to other countries, drawing expressions of gratitude. The poor response to the pandemic by the US seemingly gave China an opening to gain strategic ground.  

On balance, however, China’s pandemic diplomacy in the first half of 2020 has clearly failed. Despite China’s appeals for calm and cooperation, its relationship with the United US has hit perhaps its lowest point since the two countries established normal relations.  

International opprobrium toward China has spiked, reminiscent of the fallout from the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. Economic decoupling, which Beijing strongly wants to avoid, is proceeding with new momentum.  

A major German newspaper raised the issue of demanding compensation from China over the virus outbreak, while several American entities are actually trying to sue the Chinese government. 

US politicians seek to hold China financially and legally accountable for the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Facebook

The reason for its failure is that China’s international pandemic outreach was an extension of Chinese domestic politics, specifically the insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the regime’s emphasis on promoting the image of paramount leader Xi Jinping. 

As state and regime are fused together in China, the political system mandates that the CCP is the only party allowed to rule the country. The system does not provide for the possibility of the CCP gaining legitimacy by earning the vote of the Chinese public in competitive, multiparty elections.  

Rather, the CCP’s legitimacy rest on its claims of competence, rectitude and performance – specifically, delivering on the promises of increased living standards; protection of Chinese lives, property and territory; and restoring China to its expected level of glory, honor and global influence.     

Xi is also embroiled in an extraordinarily difficult campaign to break through the resistance mounted by multiple powerful interest groups so he can make the economic reforms and restructuring necessary for China to continue its relatively rapid development and achieve the rare success of progressing from middle-income to high-income country.  

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