China has been criticized at home and abroad for its handling of the virus, particularly during the initial epidemic. Rejecting these critics with increasingly fierce rhetoric, Beijing says it is only “responding” to false accusations, particularly from the United States.
“Lowest point” for decades
The dramatic deterioration in relations follows a two-year trade war between the two largest economies in the world – a trade war that had already pushed tensions to new heights and spurred discussions on decoupling.
Yet while Trump’s approach to China is not necessarily new, the situation he faces is “much more dramatic and dangerous,” said David Zweig, professor emeritus at the University of Science and Technology. Hong Kong and director of Transnational China Consulting Limited.
“The stakes are much higher,” said Zweig. “In 2016, it was people’s work. In 2020, it was people’s lives.”
Detected for the first time in the central city of Wuhan last December, the coronavirus has since spread far beyond the country’s borders, infecting 3.9 million people and killing at least 276,000 worldwide.
The Chinese government has questioned the origins of the pandemic, saying the first cases may not have happened in Wuhan.
Shi Yinhong, Chinese government adviser and professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said that US-Chinese relations have now “bottomed out since 1972”, when former US President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to Beijing to normalize bilateral relations. with China, which for years had been diplomatically isolated from the West.
“Since the beginning of 2018, Sino-US relations have already entered a state of global competition and rivalry. However, since the pandemic, relations have been severely damaged,” said Shi.
The rivalry and antagonism between the two countries has now spread to trade, technology, geopolitics and political ideology, and signs of decoupling are also developing under the pandemic as lock-in measures disrupt flights, international travel and global supply chains, said Shi.
Rise of nationalism
Similarly, in China, nationalism and anti-foreign sentiment are on the rise. Supported by the media and state officials, there is also a growing sense of bitterness that the Chinese people, especially the people of Wuhan, have made enormous sacrifices to contain the virus and suffered great losses. , but their country is still criticized for not doing enough – – and for blaming the inadequate response of other governments in managing the pandemic.
“It is very clear that in the event of external hostility towards China, the people tend to become more nationalist. And the (Chinese Communist) Party plays on it,” said Zweig.
“People feel that the Chinese ethnic group is under attack. They are becoming very defensive. And it is very difficult for more rational voices to express themselves.”
Economic growth and nationalism have been the two sources of political legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party for decades. The country’s economy was hit hard by the coronavirus epidemic, shrinking 6.8% in the first quarter of this year – the worst plunge since quarterly records started in 1992. And with economic growth more difficult to argue that the party should never turn more to nationalism to consolidate its grip on power.
As the number of new infections fell in China and increased abroad, state media touted China’s success in defeating the virus while highlighting the failures of other governments to contain its spread – in especially the United States.
On April 30, the Chinese news agency Xinhua released an animated video of Lego-type characters who laughed at the American response to the pandemic. It has been viewed 2 million times on Twitter.
Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to young people in the country last week on the 101st anniversary of the student-led political movement of May 4 sparked by anger over the failure of the government to end foreign aggression and defend the interests of China. It later became broader calls for modernity, democracy and science.
In his speech, Xi praised young people for their role in fighting the coronavirus epidemic and urged them to “work hard to realize the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,” public TV station CCTV reported. .
Under Xi’s vision of the “Chinese dream” and pressures for “national rejuvenation”, Beijing has become increasingly assertive in its foreign policy, eager to project its influence in the world and to firmly defend its “fundamental” national interests. ”, Including the disputed land claims. . This approach has already drawn criticism at home and abroad for alienating the United States and other members of the international community.
As part of the pandemic, Beijing finds itself in the midst of a growing global backlash that extends far beyond the United States.
Shi, the Chinese government’s adviser, said that some Western powers have aligned themselves with the United States by accusing China of mismanaging the epidemic – and this is a serious foreign relations problem for Beijing.
“From China’s point of view, this is closely linked to the prestige of the Chinese regime and potential stability,” he said.
As well as through the state media, China has attempted to defend its image through diplomatic envoys. Known as the “wolf warrior” diplomacy, it refers to a series of popular Chinese action films in which the country’s military conducts daring operations around the world. However, the increasingly combative tone of some Chinese diplomats has itself fueled tensions and sparked criticism.
“Even if, after the pandemic ends, these problems will remain. They may be less emotional by then, but they will still be there,” said Shi.
“The memory (of the pandemic and its ravages) is so deep that I am afraid (the scars) will remain in the hearts of an entire generation.”
Vivian Salama, Jeremy Diamond, Kevin Liptak, Kylie Atwood and Stephen Collinson of CNN contributed to this report.