A New Era for Beijing China Is Happy to Fill the Leadership Vacuum Left by the U.S.

In the global jostling amid the coronavirus crisis, Beijing is extending its influence while U.S. President Donald Trump continues to squander America's leadership role. The pandemic could mark the beginning of a new Chinese era.
Graffiti showing the Chinese and American presidents, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump

Graffiti showing the Chinese and American presidents, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump

Foto: ZUMA WIRE / ACTION PRESS

The leadership in Beijing has done everything in its power to ensure that the People's Congress can take place this year. Around 3,000 delegates will meet in the Chinese capital in late May, with many having traveled all the way from Shanghai and Sichuan, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. They will walk across Tiananmen Square, past the red flag and soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, before taking a seat in the Great Hall of the People, which was built at the behest of the founder of the modern Chinese state, Mao Zedong.

For more than 20 years, China's Communist Party has held the National People's Congress in early March. It is a ritual of self-affirmation, and this has been especially true since the rise to power of Xi Jinping, who leads the country with an iron fist. Delegates don't debate much at the congress. Instead, they clap. The congress is meant to give people in China and around the world an impression of how satisfied provincial Party functionaries are with the leadership in the capital. And that makes it all the more important that the meeting takes place this year, despite the coronavirus.

The fact that Xi has announced a specific date for the congress, namely May 22, sends a specific message: The corona crisis is over. For weeks, strict entry regulations have been in place in Beijing to prevent the political spectacle from being jeopardized by a last-minute flare-up of the epidemic. Visitors from abroad are unwelcome. Even the 163 embassies in Beijing are not allowed to receive guests until mid-May. There are also rules in place requiring visitors to Beijing from the countryside to self-isolate for three weeks.

DER SPIEGEL 19/2020
Foto:

cgs

For a while, it looked as though the coronavirus outbreak would set China back years. But now, it's U.S. President Donald Trump who is reeling as his country fails to get the disease under control. As of Tuesday, almost 1.2 million people in the U.S. had been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. In China, the country in which the pandemic originated, there were only 83,966 infected people as of last Thursday, according to statistics from Johns Hopkins University.

A Reignited Quarrel

Are we witnessing a shift in global power relations? Beijing is seizing the moment to increase its influence, particularly in the South China Sea, where China -- to the annoyance of the U.S. and many neighboring countries -- is becoming increasingly bold and cementing its territorial claims. A confidential situation report from the German Defense Ministry states: "The U.S. Navy assumes the Chinese navy will make use of the, albeit temporary, COVID-19-related absence of all U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific to deliberately increase military pressure on countries in the entire region." The report is apparently referring to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which has experienced an outbreak of the coronavirus infecting nearly 1,000 crew members.

The fact that China is finally managing to become a superpower -- not just economically, but also geopolitically -- during the tenure of U.S. President Donald Trump is not without irony. After all, it was Trump who promised during the election campaign that he would put China in its place. Upon entering office, Trump tapped the economist Peter Navarro to be one of his consultants on trade. Navarro once wrote a book titled, "Death by China," in which he warned that the world's most populous country would soon also have the strongest economy, at which point it would become "an effective killer."

This marked a radical change of tone. Ever since Richard Nixon's famous trip to Beijing in February 1972, every U.S. president has sought to establish a fruitful relationship with China. Trump, though, has favored confrontation. He called on American companies to withdraw from China and slapped the country with punitive tariffs. The fear of a stock market crash finally persuaded him to end his brinkmanship with Beijing. That, plus his admiration for the authoritarian Xi, who managed to make himself China's de facto head of state for life.

Now, the virus has reignited the quarrel between the two countries. Republicans in Washington are particularly keen to find a scapegoat. In February, back when there were only a few confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., Republican Senator Tom Cotton posited the theory that the coronavirus may have been concocted in a lab in Wuhan, a claim that was immediately taken up by Trump's favorite TV station, Fox News, and that is now being investigated by U.S. intelligence agencies, according to the New York Times.

As the pandemic spread in the U.S., Trump began referring to the "Chinese virus." At the end of March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried in vain to get the words "Wuhan virus" to appear in the closing statement of the G-7 summit. Last Monday, Trump said he was demanding "substantial" compensation from China because the virus "could have been stopped at the source."

Different Approaches

Indeed, there is evidence that the world could have been spared a catastrophe had the Chinese regime not silenced doctors who warned of the new disease early on. "The lack of openness is disturbing and has contributed to depriving the rest of the world of the opportunity to respond to the virus," says Nicholas Burns, a foreign policy adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

But unlike the U.S., the Chinese were consistent in their campaign against the virus. On Jan. 23, Beijing imposed a strict blockade of Wuhan and the surrounding province. When the measures were at their strictest, almost 800 million Chinese were subject to travel restrictions. Those who displayed symptoms of the disease were transferred to hastily built hospitals in order to protect their family members from infection. Even if the official government figures are inaccurate, there is little doubt that China has contained the epidemic, while in the U.S., the number of deaths due to the coronavirus is still rising by the day.

A meat saleswoman in Beijing on April 24

A meat saleswoman in Beijing on April 24

Foto: KEVIN FRAYER / GETTY IMAGES

Nowhere is the haphazard approach more apparent than in Georgia, where last week -- at the behest of the state's governor, Brian Kemp, and against President Trump's express wishes -- many stores were allowed to reopen. "The Barber Pole," a small barbershop in downtown Savannah, was well attended last Monday. Two customers were getting their hair cut while a third was having his shoes shined. Four more men waited outside. Not everyone was wearing a mask. At the local deli, guests sat close to one another at tables.

Van R. Johnson, the mayor of Savannah, makes no secret of his desperation. "If the governor and the president and the mayor are all saying different things, it is extremely confusing and scary for our citizens," he says. Johnson pleaded with local businessmen not to open their stores. But why should his authority be respected more than the governor's, when even the president's words fall on deaf ears?

A Unique Opportunity

The discrepancy with China could not be greater. In Wuhan, the lockdown was lifted on April 8, after close to 11 weeks of strict quarantining. And even now, many shop owners in the city center aren't allowing customers into their stores but are serving them at the front door. Fashion boutiques measure people's temperature before they allow them inside. And everyone wears a mask and has a coronavirus app on their smartphone.

The regime in Beijing was quick to recognize the opportunity the pandemic presented. The deeper the U.S. sunk into its crisis, the more China could prove its superiority. In March and April, Beijing dispatched teams of doctors to 16 countries. At the same time, it provided more than 125 countries and four international organizations with relief supplies. While Italy was begging Europe for help at the beginning of the crisis, the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma was supplying the EU with 2 million protective masks.

But the regime isn't only limiting itself to charitable actions. Lu Shaye, China's top diplomat in Paris, was summoned to the French Foreign Ministry a few days ago after a text appeared on his embassy's website stating that French geriatric nurses were letting people "die of hunger and disease." In March, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that American soldiers had brought the coronavirus to China. The regime then more or less ignored the furious protests coming from Washington.

Protesters in Miami on April 25: The discrepancy between the U.S. and China could hardly be greater.

Protesters in Miami on April 25: The discrepancy between the U.S. and China could hardly be greater.

Foto: ADAM DELGIUDICE / AFP

The reality is that there's little Trump can do to oppose China. The government in Washington isn't just paralyzed by its mismanaged response to the coronavirus. China's rise is also the result of imperial hubris on the part of the U.S., which thought itself invincible after the collapse of the Soviet Union and waged wars that proved as expensive as they were fruitless.

According to one study, U.S. deployments in the Middle East and Asia alone have devoured an estimated $6.4 trillion (5.9 trillion euros) and cost the lives of 7,000 American soldiers since 2001. China, on the other hand, was busy concentrating on raising the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people. While the annual, price-adjusted per capita income was a mere $430 in 1980, today's it's $10,000. Never before in the history of mankind has such a large country recorded such a dramatic increase in prosperity in such a short amount of time. In the U.S., per capita income rose from $33,400 to $65,100 in the same period.

Filling the Vacuum

At the same time, the U.S. is withdrawing from the system of international cooperation that it created in the first place. After the Second World War, it was Washington's efforts that led to the establishment of the United Nations, NATO and the International Monetary Fund. That engagement cost America a lot of money, but it also secured its superpower status. Trump, on the other hand, withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, tore up the nuclear deal with Iran and, most recently, stopped payments to the World Health Organization.

China is skillfully maneuvering itself into the gaps the U.S. is leaving behind in international organizations, observes Germany's ambassador to the UN, Christoph Heusgen. Take Liu Zhenmin, the head of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs in New York, for example: When Western diplomats introduce themselves, his response is: "I am here on behalf of China and President Xi."

On Jan. 17, 2017, just a few weeks after Trump's election as president, the Chinese head of state traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he made a passionate plea for globalization. Three days later, Trump said in his inaugural address in Washington: "From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it's going to be America First." The contrast could hardly have been greater.

China is skillfully maneuvering itself into the gaps the U.S. is leaving behind in international organizations.

China wants to once again secure a place for itself on the world stage. The Chinese Empire lasted more than 2,000 years and for several centuries, it was one of the world's largest economic powers, alongside India. That empire didn't begin to falter until the 19th century, when it was struck by multiple natural disasters and when the British forcibly opened up the country to the opium trade, causing many Chinese people to develop drug addictions. In 1911, the nearly 300-year-old Qing Dynasty came to and end. What followed were decades of chaos and decline. The country was first invaded by the Japanese and then, after Mao came to power, sank into the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. It wasn't until the opening of China under Deng Xiaoping in the late '70s that the stage was set for an unprecedented resurgence.

A New Cold War?

Militarily speaking, China is still inferior to the U.S. The U.S. Navy has 10 aircraft carriers, while the People's Liberation Army only has two. But Beijing is becoming increasingly adept at combining military and economic pressure. In early April, a Chinese patrol boat rammed a Vietnamese fishing vessel, whereupon Western diplomats encouraged the government in Hanoi to place the issue on the agenda of the UN Security Council. But the Vietnamese government, which has strong economic ties with China, preferred to leave the matter alone. Is the world facing a new systemic duel? A new cold war? That's certainly how the hawks around Trump see it. "If you don’t want your grandchildren speaking Chinese and obeying Beijing, then this is a topic we better have a national dialogue about," the influential Republican Newt Gingrich said recently. Gingrich has close ties with the president and Trump even appointed his wife, Callista Gingrich, as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

But does history simply repeat itself? There can be no doubt that China wants to regain its old place in the hierarchy of nations, writes Kishore Mahbubani, one of Asia's leading political intellectuals, in his book "Has China Won?" But it would be a big mistake, he goes on, for the West to believe the country has imperial aspirations similar to those of the former Soviet Union. "It's no coincidence that China hasn't fought a major war in 40 years and hasn't fired a bullet outside its borders in 30 years." This is evidence, he argues, of the strong civilizing impulse of Chinese society.

In light of the artificial islands that China is developing into military fortresses in the South China Sea, this comes off as slightly gullible. "I don't believe that Beijing wants to spread the gospel of Communist Party rule around the world," says Susan Shirk, who served in the U.S. State Department under President Bill Clinton. Instead, she believes, Beijing is driven by the fear that one day, the middle class will want to have its say -- which is why it is doing everything it can to keep the idea of democracy at bay.

From that point of view, America can only hurt itself, namely by betraying the ideals for which the country has long stood. The U.S. became a superpower not only with atomic bombs and the power of the dollar, but also through its "soft power," i.e. the promise of freedom, the brilliance of American universities and, frequently, the character and charisma of the man in the White House. Right now, that man is Donald Trump. But unlike China, the U.S. will soon have the choice whether to keep or replace him.