A Coronavirus Strategy Memo to Chairman Xi

China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing, December 10, 2018. (Fred Dufour/Reuters)
Imagining Chinese internal communications

To: Chairman Xi Jinping
From: Long-Term Strategy Office (PLA)
Subject: China’s Victory in the Age of the Pandemic

*    *    *

Summary: The coronavirus currently circling the world offers a unique strategic opportunity for China. It plays to our comparative advantage, our ability to ignore our own casualties; it is imposing serious costs on our enemies in the West and it is remaking them in our image; and it has created a precedent that we can use to our gain in the future. This global pandemic is a crisis that we should not waste and should use to advance our influence.

Analysis: Our costs from this pandemic are small. We have a comparative advantage over our enemies because we can absorb deaths with fewer negative repercussions. Even assuming a round number of 50,000 dead since late fall 2019, the Party can remain unaffected by this pandemic. We have control over information and nobody will ever know the final number of dead. The truth is what you decide it is.

Our dead are an insignificant cost for the global gains the pandemic is bringing us, in large measure because our enemies fear casualties more than we do. Europe, the U.S. and the capitalist enemies in Asia have effectively shut down and, inward-focused, have temporarily withdrawn from the geopolitical competition.

Economically, the West is undergoing a massive disruption. One-third of the U.S. economy has stopped, while the federal deficit has skyrocketed because of a stimulus package. Italy, the world’s eighth-largest economy (and the EU’s third-largest) has been shut down for more than a month. It will not reopen before the summer. Similar situations are visible in the other Western economies.

This creates two immediate benefits for us. First, your decision to reopen our economy, even in Wuhan, will allow us to grow economically while our rivals go through a depression; our relative power will increase. Second, there will be many struggling businesses across the West that will survive only if we provide them financial support, allowing us to harvest even more aggressively their technology and intellectual property. The pandemic is opening the doors for us to grab a lot of Western industrial capabilities.

Once Western economies reopen, their consumption pattern will be different. This future change will hurt them more than us: Restaurants, hotels, travel services, and various other forms of mass entertainment will never return to the pre-pandemic levels, but this affects large swaths of their labor with minimal impacts on us. They will still need our products while their own unskilled labor will be unemployed with all the social disruptions that come with this. They will be politically less stable, another clear benefit to us.

Militarily, the pandemic is also improving our position. The fear of the virus has made at least one U.S. aircraft carrier unfit for service, while creating leadership tensions inside their military ranks. Our assessment is that similar situations are occurring throughout the U.S. and Western military establishments. The U.S. will be reluctant now to organize large-scale military exercises in Europe and Asia with its allies. They are choosing “social distancing” over military effectiveness.

Politically, the benefits for us are perhaps the most impressive. Western states are remaking themselves in our image, praising the speed and efficiency of our Party-run state in responding with great decisiveness to the outbreak of this virus. Even if they do not recognize it publicly, they are adopting features of state power that we approve. They are already enforcing their various “lockdowns” and “shelter in place” policies through their police — and, aided by their large tech companies, are likely to embrace more assertive forms of surveillance in the months to come. Whoever controls the health information of people will control society.

Even more important, they have deemed their churches, even that powerful enemy of our Party, the Catholic Church, as “nonessential” to their people. Their grocery stores are open — and in Italy, bookstores and paper stores will soon reopen — but their churches remain closed. They can buy our products but not pray in their temples. They have achieved with great celerity and ease something that required a lot of violence for us to achieve: the expulsion of that opium of the masses, religion, from the daily lives of the people. Their populations are now fully under the power of the state, unable to gather in large groups and atomized in the confinement of their houses.

Next steps: We can translate these immediate benefits in long-term gains for China. The situation is, of course, very fluid, and there is a slight chance that we may lose some of these benefits. As mentioned earlier, the greatest danger is that some Western policymakers may try to inflict costs upon us by cutting us off from the world. Some call it “decoupling.” Its main consequence would be that Western states become less dependent on our ability to outproduce them. By bringing their supply chains back to their own countries (or to a group of close allies), they would limit our ability to harvest their technologies and to penetrate their societies through universities and cultural organizations.

To counter this, you should encourage three sets of efforts.

First, you should stress that the pandemic is a global challenge that requires global solutions. This is an argument many in the West love, and we have many useful voices among their elites that will spread this message on their own. To magnify the appeal of this “global challenge/global solutions” logic, we should continue to publicize our supplying of masks and subpar testing kits to various countries (especially the most vulnerable economically). The message should be that China is a responsible global citizen, helping the world fight an invisible enemy that does not discriminate. Be bold in your global outreach!

Second, you should develop a strategy to use this crisis to further penetrate Western societies. For instance, we should offer our help with surveillance tools for health purposes: Monitoring people with the virus is a great way of acquiring enormous quantities of other data, especially as this virus seems very contagious and thus affects large numbers. We should push with renewed vigor our 5G capabilities that could serve as a backbone for “health surveillance.” Be generous in giving your technologies!

Third, you should keep in mind for the next years that we now have a new powerful weapon: the mere rumor of a pandemic. In the future, any mention of a potential pandemic will result in the West’s shutting down again. They now have a precedent, and their elites will be eager to avoid any risk to their people (and to themselves, as their authority and power are linked to the moods of the populations). Be ready to use this weapon when needed!

Jakub Grygiel is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.) and a senior adviser at The Marathon Initiative.

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