What narrative prevails has implications far beyond an international blame game. When the outbreak subsides, governments worldwide will confront crippled economies, unknown death tolls and a profound loss of trust among many of their people. Whether Beijing can step into that void, or is pilloried for it, may determine the fate of its ambitions for global leadership.

“I think that the Chinese remain very fearful about what will happen when we finally all get on top of this virus, and there is going to be an investigation of how it started,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They’re just trying to repair the damage that was done very early on to China’s reputation.”…

While China’s propaganda might usually be dismissed as just that, especially in developed, democratic countries, the errors in those countries’ responses have allowed it to gain more of a toehold than usual, said Yanzhong Huang, who leads the global health center at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

“The complacency, the lack of action, the efforts to downplay the serious of the problem by our own governments — we’ve seen these developments actually help China to make a strong case that they are not the cause of the problem,” he said.