To Confront China After Coronavirus, We Must See the Bigger Picture

President Xi Jinping walks towards the stand to deliver his speech during the opening session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, China October 18, 2017. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
In post-pandemic days to come, we must carefully take the measure of the CCP and hold it to account.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n a popular movie two decades ago, hard-eyed criminals released into Sydney a woman infected with a virus, knowing that unsuspecting Australians would catch the highly contagious disease and, traveling on, unwittingly spread death across a hundred homelands. This past winter, the hard-eyed leaders of China did worse. They allowed not one, but thousands of infected to leave China and enter an unsuspecting world, a world lulled by Beijing. The crucial question is: Why?

“China caused an enormous amount of pain [and] loss of life . . . by not sharing the information they had,” Secretary of State Pompeo said on April 23. America is angry, he added, and while much remains to be known, China “will pay a price.”

No subpoenas, no oversight committees, no tell-all books will expose President Xi’s calculations as the novel coronavirus spread inside China. The unelected of Beijing guard well their secret debates. The CCP knows the virtues of opacity, of letting uncertainty, complacency, and wishful thinking paralyze the West. Exploiting these has been its way.

In 2018, a major Trump-administration speech called CCP misdeeds to task. Some, including, notably, Japan’s prime minister, applauded. But many nations looked toward their feet, too reluctant, too sophisticated, perhaps too intimidated to bestir. Staggering COVID-19 losses may yet remind the world of the dangers of drift as great powers go astray.

Today’s American, European, Japanese, and Asian policymakers, like those of centuries past, bear the burdens of judgment. Uncertainty has ever been the statesman’s curse. America’s famed diplomat, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, has written, “Nations learn only by experience, they ‘know’ only when it is too late to act. But statesmen must act as if their intuition were already experience. . . .”

A reassessment of Xi and the CCP looms. From their actions and practices, from assessments of their motives and apparent long-term aims, today’s statesmen, like their forebears, must judge future risks and craft the surest course ahead. These are early days, but the picture of Beijing presented so far is troubling.

Even before the virus spread in Wuhan, Xi brooded over a worrying hand. The CCP could not intimidate prolonged protests on the streets of freedom-loving Hong Kong. And the Party’s oppression there, in determined violation of treaty commitments, spurred voters in Taiwan to rebuff Beijing’s hopes for a more amenable regime in Taipei. The world was finally awakening to Xi’s increasingly autocratic surveillance state, his harsh repression of Uighur Muslims, and his predatory Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s economy, essential to Xi’s hold on power, had stumbled, in part because of the Trump administration’s move to counter China’s unfair, neo-mercantilist practices and to condemn their grim geopolitical implications. Worse yet, America’s markets hummed, raising reelection hopes within the Trump administration, which had also surpassed modern predecessors in challenging China. Rumors of Party dissatisfaction with Xi seeped out.

COVID-19’s outbreak in Wuhan further darkened Xi’s prospects. As long as the virus raged primarily inside China — derailing only her economy, stigmatizing only her government — his troubles would soar. All the while, the world predictably would have leapt ahead, taking Chinese customers, stealing China’s long-sought glory.

The disease’s spread to Berlin and Paris, New York and Tokyo, improved Xi’s prospects, at least in the near term. Pandemic diverted foreign eyes from Hong Kong’s and the Uighurs’ plight. Desperate needs rendered disease-weakened nations more susceptible to China’s goods and BRI’s short-term appeal. Asian states, wary of Beijing, had new cause to doubt the commitment of a pandemic-preoccupied Washington, while a weakened economy and vastly increased debts would likely constrain future U.S. defense spending, essential to Asian security. An unpredictable element had entered into America’s 2020 election.

As events unfolded, might Xi have recognized that COVID-19’s leap into the wider world promised such political and geopolitical gains? Some say a desire to protect itself first fed a CCP cover-up, as if putting this before the health of innocents were not bad enough. But were CCP leaders blind, as days passed, to other benefits? It is the Chinese way, the noted French Sinologist François Jullien has written, to exploit the potential inherent in unfolding situations. CCP leaders still study China’s legendary strategist, Sun Tzu, who advised centuries ago that if, “in the midst of difficulties, we are always ready to seize an advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune.”

As the CCP realized the imminent disaster COVID-19 posed inside China, Xi suppressed the world’s appreciation of its dangers. By sometime in December, Chinese authorities had learned that a novel, highly infectious coronavirus similar to deadly SARS was on the loose. Yet for weeks PRC authorities, including China’ National Health Commission, suppressed inquiries and, directly or through the WHO, misled the world about the risks. When Chinese authorities finally acknowledged human-to-human transmission, the CCP took steps to isolate Wuhan from other parts of China, but continued to permit international travel. After the U.S. on January 31, and later Australia, restricted travelers from China, Beijing’s spokesmen, artful and indignant, rose to denounce such acts as ill-founded and ill-intentioned.

For days, even weeks, after the CCP first knew of the danger, Chinese authorities and customs officers let tens of thousands of travelers, infected among them, leave China and enter an unwary world. In late January, China extended Lunar New Year celebrations, inviting greater international travel. PRC border guards stamped more exit papers. When America restricted such travelers, Beijing allowed more to leave for less cautious lands.

Then, as pandemic gripped the world, the CCP brazenly blamed America for COVID-19. Xi once more preened over his authoritarian “China model’s” efficiencies, now cauterizing troubles he denies having caused. In Europe, Beijing postured as a savior offering needed medical supplies — albeit that its sales favored states where it sought geopolitical gains, often bore high prices, included defective products that could undermine defenses, and drew on CCP surpluses bolstered by January purchases of world supplies at pre-pandemic prices. In Southeast Asia, Beijing proved “relentless in exploiting the pandemic,” a respected, former high-level Filipino bemoans, as it pushed its “illegal and expansive” territorial claims. Inside China, the Party seized the moment to round up leaders of Hong Kong’s democracy movement and reassert unilateral efforts to curtail the city’s special, self-governing status.

Even after the virus began to spread inside China, events might have taken a different course. Many had once hoped for better from CCP leaders. Dreams of a mellowing CCP had floated widely among academics and policy elites, perhaps buoyed by the way such illusions avoided, rather than imposed, hard choices. Some yet hold to such views. The benign CCP of their reveries would have alerted others promptly as the novel virus’s dangers became known, shared information, welcomed foreign scientists, ceased reckless practices, and guarded against the pandemic’s spread.

Indeed, under different leadership, China could have followed such a path. Traditions of humane governance, venerable and Confucian, are not alien to that land. China’s ancient text, the Tao-te Ching, favors just such a response:

A great nation is like a man:

When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.

Having realized, he admits it.

Having admitted it, he corrects it.

He considers those who point out his faults

As his most benevolent teachers.

The learned will debate how much such leadership would have eased the wider world’s suffering. Metrics and estimates will vary, but the consensus will be clear enough: The harm would have decreased manyfold.

Such openness and grace have not been Xi’s way. As he built up islets in the South China Sea, he promised never to militarize them, then dishonored his promise, disregarded international rulings, and dispatched ships in packs to intimidate neighboring states and expand Beijing’s writ. Pledging to protect intellectual property, he enabled ongoing theft and coercion, ineluctably undermining industries of the advanced democracies, and then pressed forward on China’s newly gained advantages. His BRI professes to aid, then exploits poor countries’ weaknesses. Citing the betterment of all in the cause of greater China, he has imprisoned Uighurs, undermined Tibetan culture, and threatened the peaceful regional order that had enabled China’s rise. He violates treaty commitments to curb Hong Kong’s freedoms. Behind an anti-corruption façade, his prosecutors ruined scores of his rivals, as he consolidated and extended his personal powers. These wrongs he continues still. Xi’s are not the ways of grace and remorse.

An angry narrative drives this man. Under his hand, the CCP highlights Chinese suffering and humiliation roughly a century ago under Western and Japanese imperialists, while eliding the democratic world’s helping hand and Japan’s benign democracy over four generations since. He slides past the Chinese millions massacred in the intervening decades by the CCP and Mao — China’s legendary leader who spread cruelty and death as he judged useful. In imitation of Mao, Xi has issued his own “little red book” of wisdom. Mao’s iconic image looms over Tiananmen still. Coveting Mao’s autocratic power, Xi strove and won it; now he dare not let it go.

The bitter recall of ancient Chinese glories; resentment of past humiliations; insecurity bred by corruption and illegitimacy; disdain, even hatred of America’s easy ways — these are the pathogens coursing through Xi’s circle. A fever for Chinese primacy burns among them. For a time, they might pander to a Western-inspired, rules-based order, a liberal conceit; but this is not their dream. A historic economic rise, technological mastery, a rapidly expanding navy, all causes to be proud of, have freed them to be brazen. Xi now bares the teeth Deng Xiaoping’s smile hid. From South China Sea islets to the New Silk Road’s arid ends, the CCP, ruthless and defiant, pounds the stakes it holds to advance its aims. For Xi’s CCP, it is the fate of small states to bend to the strong.

Rules should soon be theirs to set, the CCP believes, and not without some reason. Before Trump, a subtle and experienced Chinese diplomat confessed, CCP leaders marveled at America’s ineffectual response. In the South and East China Seas, on India’s long border, Beijing’s hostile and determined quest had followed Lenin’s line: “Probe with bayonets, if you find mush, you push; if you find steel, you withdraw.” It is to our shame, Trump observed on China’s unfair trade practices, that Beijing had not been held to account by prior administrations. Unanswered, history has shown, the ambitious calculate and, at times, miscalculate.

In past American forbearance, CCP leaders have seen a once great power on the wane. In foreign capitals they confided, inside China they proclaimed: It will soon be America’s turn to bend. They claim their own version of the right side of history.

The keys to victory, Sun Tzu counseled, lie in knowing your enemy and deceiving them. The cunning men of Beijing have taken heed. They have an instinct for a divided, self-doubting, and weary West. Cloaking their aggressions in ambiguity, they weigh the likely costs against desired gains.

Straining to contain COVID-19, President Trump and Secretary Pompeo rightly extend a hand to international, including Chinese, cooperation. But in post-pandemic days to come, the democracies must carefully take the measure of the CCP and hold it to account, crafting strategies for what it is, not what they wish it to be. That is leadership’s task.

The late, great professor Fouad Ajami warned, “Men love the troubles they know” — too ready to slip into a comfortable neglect, too reluctant to face strategic change. Some cite an arc of history, he lamented, to hide behind, hoping it might bear the burdens they would rather shun.

With all doubts resolved in their favor, the untouchable leaders of the CCP have much for which to answer. Perhaps in reality, even more.

In a time of death, Ajami cautioned: “There is no fated happiness or civility in any land.” As a great river may abruptly rise or fall, “Those gauges on the banks will have to be read and watched with care.”

Lewis Libby is the senior vice president of the Hudson Institute. This essay was written in remembrance of Professor Fouad Ajami, who passed in the spring 2014.

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