The coronavirus saga is also certain to set off another round of debate on the merits of democracy and authoritarianism. The irony is abundant. It was actually the authoritarian characteristics of the Chinese system that initially allowed the virus to spread, and some democracies — notably South Korea and Taiwan — have done remarkably well in responding to the outbreak. Yet the fact that China subsequently claimed to have gotten a handle on the epidemic by energetically enforcing a draconian lockdown of the affected population, while the world’s leading democracy dithered in its own response, will be used by proponents of authoritarianism to argue that their system is best equipped for crisis.
More recent events are further advancing the narrative. As America struggles to test its citizens and build adequate stockpiles of basic health-care supplies, such as masks, the Chinese government (and prominent Chinese firms) are providing supplies to countries such as Italy and even the U.S. itself. Beijing has promised additional funds to aid World Health Organization programs in poor countries, and the Communist Party propaganda arm has touted these contributions for all they are worth, while also alleging that the virus somehow originated in the U.S.
Only a few weeks ago, when the impact of the coronavirus was still heavily concentrated in China, the dominant narrative was that Beijing was once again the new “sick man of Asia.” Now, the theme seems to be that the coronavirus shows just how badly America’s relative power and prestige have fallen. After 2008, this perception led to a surge in China’s willingness to defy the U.S. and its friends and allies in the South China Sea, in international institutions, and in negotiations on global responses to climate change. No doubt the coronavirus will stimulate new Chinese efforts to displace and discredit American leadership in global affairs.