Rather than changing anyone’s mind, the Chinese Party-state’s handling of COVID-19 will entrench existing perceptions of China. In Australia, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and India, views towards China were already at historic lows prior to the crisis. This skepticism of China will only deepen, as these countries recall the initial suppression of information and draconian measures in Wuhan, and observe China’s attempts to rewrite history.
But for countries where public opinion has tended to support closer ties with China, the crisis will consolidate those views. China’s ability to rise from the ashes of Wuhan’s innocents and marshal massive resources to respond to the crisis will awe those countries that already admired China’s prowess. Today, Cambodia, Pakistan, Hungary, and Serbia are praising China’s decisive response and expressing gratitude for medical supplies. And while some mask diplomacy has failed due to a lack of quality controls, the real benefits derived in developing countries from receiving teams of medical professionals and webinars in local language shouldn’t be underestimated.
Overall, this mixed scorecard suggests that China’s reputation will not have improved in absolute terms. But the incompetence of many countries around the world in preparing for and responding to COVID-19 provides China with relative gains on many of the globe’s oldest and wealthiest liberal democracies. In many quarters, China’s initial failures have been overshadowed by the challenges faced in Europe and the incompetence of the Trump administration.
Feelings toward U.S. President Donald Trump that existed before the outbreak intensify this dynamic. In Australia, only 32 percent trust China to “act responsibly in the world.” But fewer Australians have confidence in Trump than in Xi Jinping. When publics today think of which leaders have failed to contain the spread of COVID-19, does Trump or Xi come to mind? True, Trump has regularly had to face journalists, something Xi is yet to allow. Yet, Trump’s relationship with the truth is as tenuous as that of many of China’s officials’ spouting of conspiracy theories.
America has undermined its position and prestige overseas, leaving a relative win for China. China’s long-term coercion of the World Health Organization, for example, is unlikely to leave as lasting an impression as the United States’ loud bullying and withdrawal of funding at a crucial moment.
But these relative views of China will have a limited policy impact in the short term. The vast majority of Australians want less economic dependence on China, for example. Some level of “decoupling” was already underway, and more is likely, particularly as countries like Australia prioritize sovereign manufacturing in critical areas. But with China edging back towards normal life, and not giving up its position as the globe’s largest consumer market, few political leaders and publics will be in a position to decouple from China without severe economic pain.
It is far from certain who will “win” the international diplomatic stoush sparked by the crisis—if anyone. But if it is China that comes out on top, it will be a public diplomacy battle that the world’s leading liberal democracies have lost, not one that China has won. The beneficiary of this race to the bottom may be the only superpower left standing: China.