A SERIES OF failures made 2020 a rough year for China’s relations with the world. First, Chinese officials—following the logic of their unaccountable, secretive one-party system—failed to report an unknown virus in the central city of Wuhan for several critical weeks, giving covid-19 time to take hold. More failures followed. As one foreign government after another botched its own response, China’s rulers refused to take any blame for the pandemic, instead slapping economic sanctions on such countries as Australia that called for inquiries into the outbreak’s origins. The costs are plain to see: a recent survey of rich countries by the Pew Research Centre found soaring distrust of China (with negative views in Australia jumping 24 percentage points since last year).
That political gulf between China and the world is set to widen. This time, the cause will be asymmetric success. China has effectively controlled covid-19 and its economy is returning to life. Meanwhile, governments in America, Europe and beyond face second waves of infections and business bankruptcies and exploding public deficits. Several elected incumbents will lose office.
Amid that global misery, China’s leaders call their country’s recovery proof that Communist Party rule offers a uniquely effective blend of organisational prowess, respect for science, and traditional Chinese morality. They are about to discover how provocative that boasting will sound to many in the rest of the world. Foreign anger will in turn prompt resentment within China. Ordinary Chinese remember the collective sacrifices made by hundreds of millions of citizens who stopped transmission by staying indoors for weeks, often without pay. Glib lines from Western politicians about admiring China’s people and opposing the Communist Party will not help. People are complicated. It is possible for Chinese citizens to remember their leaders’ early mistakes, to resent officials for thuggishly enforcing lockdowns, and at the same time to agree that the country’s pandemic response is a source of national pride. Modern China’s story is not one of oppressed masses all yearning to be free. Party bosses stake their claim to rule on making people’s lives better. Their China is a majoritarian project that enjoys broad, if unknowable, public support. The headache for foreign governments is how to respond when the party crushes minorities that get in the way, whether ethnic, religious or political.
Covid-19 has given a fresh edge to arguments about which political system is best. It is hard to overstate how bad the West’s handling of the virus looks to ordinary Chinese. It is heartbreaking to hear Western-educated liberals wonder whether democracy is being exposed as selfish and disorderly. Longtime admirers of America watch President Donald Trump blaming their country for unleashing a “China virus” on the world, and hear a horrifying incitement to racial hatred. Chinese…