In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, after the pathogen had spread from Wuhan to other points in China and then to Italy, the rest of Europe and ultimately the entire world, the U.S. federal government’s chaotic response under then-President Donald Trump attracted global attention.
As hospitals struggled under the strain of the pandemic’s initial wave and anxiety rose across the West, Chinese leaders saw an opening. Beijing would try to capitalize on the crisis, using it to portray China’s political system as superior to that of Western democracies and China—under the omniscient leadership of President Xi Jinping—as a magnanimous, competent superpower.
Sure, the contagion had started in China, and it might not have spread if Chinese authorities had not sought to suppress crucial information about the initial outbreak. But the West’s difficulties looked like a propaganda godsend for Beijing. Now, however, as China’s COVID-19 response has triggered some of the biggest protests the country has seen in decades, it looks like the regime’s effort to capitalize on the pandemic has backfired spectacularly.