WWS Reacts: China’s Response to Covid-19

Written by
B. Rose Huber and Patricia Yelavich, Woodrow Wilson School
April 24, 2020

As the rest of the world struggles to combat Covid-19, China, where the virus originated in late 2019, appears to have made significant strides to quell the virus. As a result, researchers, health care professionals, and policymakers around the world are looking for the lessons learned from China’s experience.  

We asked faculty expert Rory Truex, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, to share his thoughts on China’s response to Covid-19 and the future of U.S.-China relations once the pandemic is over.

Truex studies comparative politics, focusing on Chinese politics and non-democratic regimes.

Q. How has the Covid-19 outbreak affected China’s political stability?

Truex: In the initial stages of the outbreak, there was a lot of commentary from Western observers that the outbreak spelled the end of the Communist Party of China (CCP) regime. In my research on Chinese policymaking I’ve argued that the Chinese government tends to come out with rapid, visible policy responses in the face of a crisis to show the population that it is doing something. This strategy, combined with propaganda, censorship, and the repression of critical voices has allowed it to weather a lot of storms over the years, and that’s basically what happened with Covid-19 in the initial weeks. There was a lot of outrage online, especially about the death of the whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang, but nothing that visibly threatened the regime.

At this point, I would say that if anything, the Covid-19 outbreak has bolstered the standing of the CCP, the ruling regime. The party’s political narrative is on the idea that the authoritarian system produces superior leaders, and that the regime is effective in handling crises, maintaining stability, and promoting economic growth. The party bungled the initial phases of the outbreak but appears to have succeeded in “flattening the curve.” The fact that the United States has had arguably a more severe outbreak despite a two-month head start has played right into the party narrative.

Conspiracy also plays a role in this. On social media, a popular rumor in China is that Covid-19 was somehow planted by the U.S. government and originated in a U.S. military institution. This conspiracy theory was actually pushed by Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian, but was later disavowed by China’s ambassador Cui Tiankai. So, many Chinese citizens blame the United States for the virus, rather than their own government.

Q. How might U.S.-China relations change after this pandemic is over?

Truex: I expect the coronavirus will cement the more confrontational turn we’ve seen in U.S.-China relations in the past five years. President Donald Trump has made “standing up to China” a cornerstone of his presidency. His administration has tried to pin the Covid-19 outbreak on the Chinese government in an effort to deflect blame from his own incompetence — labeling the virus the “Chinese virus” is the simplest example of this. Because of this, my sense is that many Americans are angry at China, and there is little political room in either party for a more moderate China policy centered on engagement on global issues like health, the environment, terrorism, and so forth. The relationship has deteriorated quite rapidly, and the Covid-19 outbreak has only accelerated that deterioration. I do not expect a Joe Biden administration to be more conciliatory towards China — his campaign is making efforts to paint him as tough on Beijing.

WWS Reacts is a news-focused series featuring faculty who present their views on current events.