The war of words between Chinese officials and President Donald Trump has been furious in recent days, as each side tries to push its own agenda amid the coronavirus pandemic. It would be a mistake, however, to view this crossfire as mutually retaliatory. These are two separate messaging campaigns, each pursuing different, self-interested objectives.
China, where the novel coronavirus outbreak started months ago and spread rapidly before it turned into a global pandemic, is engaged in a multiprong effort to rewrite history and emerge empowered from this global crisis. Draconian lockdown measures in Wuhan and its surrounding province appear to have snuffed out much of the virus’s ability to multiply within the Chinese population. Official figures show only a trickle of new cases now, even as the rest of the world struggles with a tsunami of coronavirus infections that is overwhelming hospitals. The stage is set for China to project a triumphant air and get to work on crafting its public relations message for both domestic and international consumption.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, aims to use the coronavirus crisis to strengthen his personal standing at home, along with the Communist Party’s hold on power. Xi’s message to the Chinese people is that they are fortunate to have such a strong and wise leader and such an efficient and unified system. His message to the rest of the world is that China is the power of the future—its system worth emulating and clearly superior to the democratic alternative, especially as countries from the U.S. to Italy scramble to get a handle on the pandemic, often under flailing leadership and with hundreds of millions of people enduring stay-at-home orders.