The COVID-19 pandemic is deepening divisions between the US and China and dimming hopes for Donald Trump’s re-election. Duncan McCampbell reports
I was overwhelmed by the crowds as I stepped down onto the platform of Wuhan Central Station in December 2019. I could not imagine how the trains could cope with any more passengers. Yet within a few weeks, this Chinese city would become even more heaving, as people took to the road for the Spring Festival – an annual migration of around half a billion people.
I did not realise it at the time, but in the crowded housing estates, just a stone’s throw from the station, the first cases of COVID-19 virus were spreading. We now know that warnings from the physicians in Wuhan’s Central Hospital of a ‘SARS-like virus’ were going unheeded, and indeed were being suppressed.
Unaware of the threat, 40,000 families gathered for their annual Lunar New Year Potluck Dinner in Wuhan in late January. Trains and airlines then carried many of the city’s residents to every corner of China and the world.
As the sickness overwhelmed Wuhan’s hospitals – and China instituted stringent quarantine measures – some US and Chinese officials began floating competing theories as to the origin of the virus. Arch-conspiracist Steve Bannon, once a senior advisor to Donald Trump, claimed that COVID-19 was deliberately created and weaponised by the Chinese government. The Chinese in turn suggested it was released into their country by the American military, although they offered no credible evidence for this. Conspiracy theories thrived online.
Trump took heed of the hawks and banned all flights from China to the United States in January – a move that he claims has saved millions of lives. He later told a White House briefing that he blames China for the global pandemic and its huge economic fallout.
‘It could have been stopped in China before it started and it wasn’t, and the whole world is suffering because of it,’ he said.
China’s image problem
Inevitably, public opinion in the US on China, already affected by the trade war, took a turn for the worse. According to a recent Gallup poll, American perceptions of China are now more negative than they were after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
There have been attempts at rapprochement. Mr Trump and the Chinese president Xi Jinping held a phone conversation in late February, each pledging mutual assistance against the pandemic. But on that same day, Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI Act), a law vigorously opposed by China.
Taiwan’s January election, in which people overwhelmingly voted to return pro-autonomy president Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party to power, seemed to blindside China. The Taiwanese appear to have been inspired by the protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese Communist Party and calls for greater democracy in the city.
In my view, the US-China relationship has now entered a new and potentially more fraught period, arising from the coronavirus pandemic. Powerful political forces in both countries are pushing leaders to advance nationalistic narratives.
China’s domestic messaging is triumphalist. Propaganda speaks of the ‘People’s War’ on the disease, positioning the government and the Chinese Communist Party as vanquishing an invisible enemy, while the rest of the world dithers and ignores China’s warnings. Chinese officials are eager to claim that their socialist model, and its ability to marshal an effective national response, is superior to western democracy in dealing with an emergency.
Perhaps the next front in this battle of narratives will be fought in the laboratory, with a frantic search for treatments and vaccines. China is focusing its considerable national resources into medical research. It recognises that the first country to produce a cure can expect to receive international prestige.
Yet China is also coping with the enormous economic fallout from the pandemic. The massive quarantine and lockdown practically shut down large swathes of its economy, so China’s GDP contracted by 6.8% in the first quarter this year – the first ever contraction since China started reporting quarterly GDP data in 1992.
One must remember that China is still feeling the impact of the trade war with the US and a global collapse in demand for Chinese-made goods. The unrest in Hong Kong continues to cause political trouble, as does tension with Taiwan. One cannot help wondering how much of a toll all this is taking on Xi’s base of power. No new date for parliament, known as the National People’s Congress, has been announced, though some sources say it could be held next month.
Mr Trump’s political problems are mounting, too. He has come under fire both from Democrat and Republican governors for insisting that the US has sufficient capacity to conduct coronavirus tests.
American presidents typically get substantial ‘rally round the flag’ approval bumps during periods of national crisis. According to Business Insider magazine, George H.W. Bush rose to 89% approval during Operation Desert Storm, and his son, George W. Bush, one of the least popular presidents in recent decades, shot up to 90% approval after 9/11. However, polls suggest that almost two-thirds of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the current crisis.
His opponents seek to keep up the pressure.
Joe Biden, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has criticised Mr Trump for his response to COVID-19. ‘The governor of Maryland – a Republican – had to turn to South Korea to get badly needed tests,’ Mr Biden said.
‘Think about that: a governor had to turn to a country halfway around the world for aid because he couldn’t rely on timely help from a president and a White House that sits just miles from his state’s border.’
President Trump had pinned his re-election hopes on a roaring economy and historically high levels of employment. Yet the IMF has warned that fallout from the global Great Lockdown will be the worst recession since the Great Depression, and far worse than the Global Financial Crisis. If the US enters a deep and prolonged recession, Mr Trump’s chances of re-election will be very much in doubt.