In this interview, Michael Auslin, the Payson J. Treat Distinguished Research Fellow in Contemporary Asia, discusses the Communist Party of China’s strategy to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, the economic impact of the pandemic in China, and how this global crisis will affect future commercial ties between Washington and Beijing.
In a recent article for RealClearPolitics, you write, “While the world fights the pandemic, China is fighting a propaganda war.” How is China waging a propaganda war in the wake of the global COVID-19 outbreak?
Auslin: The aims of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] are very simple. It is deflecting all blame for the outbreak and for their initial bungled response. The leadership instead heaped praise on itself for what it holds is the communist system’s subsequent robust, resilient, and bold response to the outbreak. This is an approach that follows a pattern in which the CCP and the party-state government seek to rewrite history and shape public opinion immediately, without allowing actual facts to enter the public debate. They destroy any competing narratives about failures of their system, widespread corruption, or the incompetence of their leadership. The government does this in order to keep its own citizens under control and to extend its influence around the world.
This is a daily reality in China’s political life. China responded similarly in prior crises, including SARS in 2003 and the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008. They knew about COVID-19 probably in November 2019. By December 2019, they knew about human-to-human transmission and ordered medical samples destroyed. In early January 2020, the Chinese government knew that this was going to become an unprecedented outbreak. They threatened, intimidated, and silenced doctors who were trying to warn the world. The government shut down or controlled social media so that no one could get information that could have saved lives.
However, the world doesn’t understand that China is in many ways vulnerable. This pandemic is of a completely different order. China has infected the entire world. It is their fault that the world is suffering right now, and that we are in literally unprecedented political and economic straits.
More than 35,000 people already have died around the world, all because the party state was concerned with protecting its own image and reputation, as opposed to controlling the virus and giving medical professionals and the public the information they needed to protect themselves.
Have China’s repressive methods effectively contained COVID-19?
Auslin: There are two ways to answer that. First, let us say it is correct that the number of Chinese indigenous infections is way down instead of continuing to rise. If you are able to lock down 700 million or more of your citizens and brutally suppress anyone from going outside or assembling, then yes, that is a victory over a pandemic that should not have been widespread in the first place.
Second, we can’t trust what the leadership of the People’s Republic of China tells us. For years, there have been doubts about many of their claims, including rates of economic growth, the quality of public health, and pollution levels. It lied about incarcerating one million Uighurs. It has lied about forced abortions as part of its execution of the one-child policy. It has lied about nearly everything that the civilized world considers important. So, why should we believe them now?
We actually don't know much about what is really happening in the country right now, because as I mentioned earlier, social media is under severe restrictions. Citizens in Wuhan have calculated that, based on crematoria activity, there must have been around 45,000 deaths in that city alone, far above Beijing’s official claim that only 3,300 have died in the entire country. Another bit of potential evidence is that there are warnings from China’s leadership about a new virus from people who have traveled abroad. This an extremely convenient way to admit that they don't have full control yet over the pandemic, and also to deflect attention from what's happening at home. There is also leaked video showing that the supposedly closed emergency hospitals in Wuhan are simply being relocated to the outskirts of the city. The government admits there are new infections happening, but there are claims that officials ordered no more testing to be conducted in Wuhan, and that is why they can claim no new community transmissions.
The bottom line is that China must re-earn the world’s trust. Now, let us be very clear: we are not talking about the Chinese people. We are not talking about the victims. We are talking about the Leninist party state.
If leaders around the world are suffering a loss of reputation for mishandling the COVID-19 outbreak, does China’s leadership believe they can emerge from this crisis relatively unscathed?
China has already shifted that narrative, and unfortunately its leaders are receiving moral support from their enablers and fellow travelers across the world. Major media outlets are reporting that China is now safe from COVID-19. The communist party is promulgating a message that governance structures are failing in the United States and Europe, whereas China’s authoritarian governance structure is the one that has been most successful. The Chinese are absolutely hoping that by spreading negative information about President Trump, France’s president Emmanuel Macron, or UK prime minister Boris Johnson, the democratic public's attention will focus on their elected leaders rather than the unelected authoritarians of China’s Communist Party who put the world at risk.
Every national government must be held responsible for the actions that it has or has not taken. However, it is clear that governments around the world didn’t have the information that they needed from China early on to make good decisions, before the virus had already jumped borders.
Why do you argue that Western democracies, in taking extraordinary measures to contain COVID-19, are mimicking China?
Western governments are now intervening at greater levels in their respective societies to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. Shelter-in-place orders and mass quarantines that have been issued in California, New York, and other parts of the country make us look relatively more like China.
However, I am not sure how happy the Chinese would be if the rest of the world became more like China, because then you would have a world filled with predatory states that steal, threaten, and intimidate one another. It is interesting; do they actually want America to act like China? Probably not. Because America is still much stronger than China. The reason China has become strong, arrogant, and predatory is precisely because the United States has bent over backwards for decades trying to engage China, and helping them integrate into the world system.
What would it look like for America to act against China as China has done to us? First, we would be stealing as much of their intellectual property as possible. We would be harassing Chinese companies operating in America and forcing them into unequal partnerships with US companies; we would also demand that they apologize for insulting our nation and our people, threatening to cut off their access to our market if they did not bend to our wishes. We would be spying on their students studying here and forcing them to parrot pro-American arguments. We would prevent their reporters from visiting Baltimore, Detroit, and San Francisco. Our military would regularly harass Chinese air force and navy units operating in Asia and other places, sometimes by firing lasers into the cockpits of their airplanes, sometimes by nearly colliding with their ships. China does all that to American businesses, students, reporters, and the military, and our leadership ignored it for years.
Do they want the world to be more like China? It is something of a paradox. In the short run, they want to undermine the legitimacy of democratic governments around the world. They want to undermine the legitimacy of the United States, which espouses individual liberty and self-determination for ethnic minorities. The CCP doesn’t value those principles. They are very happy to export their surveillance-state strategies and facial recognition technologies, because that basically ties them closer to governments that resemble China’s style of governance.
These means justify the ultimate ends of making China a more attractive and influential power across the world.
How badly damaged is China’s economy?
That is a good question. It was already slowing down. It has been slowing down in a macro sense for over half a decade. It has been slowing down even more because of the recent trade war between the United States and China. As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, China will be hammered, because it is dependent on exports to economies that have virtually shut down. Exports account for around 20 percent of China’s GDP, so the hit is potentially huge.
The big question is, who can weather this storm better? The West will continue to experience difficult times, and public health and economic issues will likely loom large over democratic elections. Let us not forget, the US economy, until a month ago, was in extremely good condition and the stock market was at the highest it had ever been.
China has mispresented their economic data for a long time. Although we won’t understand China’s complete economic picture, we can look at data such as energy usage, and if wealthy Chinese continue to offshore money, estimates of personal wealth growth, data like that. If China is already weaker than its official figures state, then a global recession from the Wuhan virus could really knock the Chinese economy back for a while.
Do you think the current crisis in the United States will result in less economic dependency on China?
I certainly hope so. This should be a turning point where we consciously and rationally reduce our dependence on China, especially in products such as medical equipment, medicine, masks, vitamins, and so many goods that Americans should not have to import.
To make a short list: the United States should have a national strategic reserve of medicine and medical equipment. We also need to make sure that we take back some degree of the supply chain for our military from Chinese suppliers, who provide everything from transistors to chemicals. Finally, we have to protect the crown jewel of our industries, the semiconductor industry, and not allow it to escape to China.
Anyone who continues to be overdependent on China is playing with fire for two reasons: First, China will continue to have national crises. China suffered the SARS epidemic, the avian flu, African swine fever, and now COVID-19. China will continue to be an unsafe place to do business if you depend on them, because your supply chain is always going to be at risk. Second, China is not a trustworthy partner. They will lie to us and consistently act against our interests. If we make ourselves dependent on them, then we are putting ourselves under their power.
COVID-19 has greatly damaged exposed the vulnerabilities of China’s Communist Party. As a result of this crisis will China become more transparent or more authoritarian?
The CCP, which is China’s leadership, will become more authoritarian and more repressive.
The party-state is claiming that it has overcome the Wuhan flu and is relishing in a propaganda victory for the strength of the Chinese governance model. Even though they are almost certainly lying about the extent of the epidemic and the damage to the economy, and despite the fact that the Chinese people are not buying this line, the government believes that it has escaped a real reckoning over its incompetence and mishandling of this situation.
China could gain the world’s trust by becoming more transparent. However, that’s very difficult, because that is not what the Communist Party is built on. Transparency would reveal their corruption and brutality. Therefore, they will never become transparent.