Former Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon wrote this month that “it is hard to think of a time since the Cultural Revolution when China’s international prestige and reputation have been lower.” That’s a remarkable statement, given the advantages Beijing possessed just a few months ago. Machiavelli said that it’s better to be feared than loved. He didn’t say hated.

Understanding why the Chinese Communist Party is acting in such a seemingly self-defeating fashion is now a top question on foreign-policy minds. But perhaps there’s no single right answer. Early this year, as the virus spread from China around the world, leaders clearly worried about the threat to their international standing and sought to recast the narrative. Information operations and threats against those who might blame Beijing followed. In other cases, China has prioritized facts on the ground over fickle sentiment. The world might react with horror at Chinese actions in Hong Kong, for instance, but Beijing assumes that emotions will cool and that it will retain control—an approach reminiscent of Russia’s single-mindedness on Crimea a few years ago. Yet other instances seem better explained by hubris: The time has come, Chinese propagandists argue, for the world to accommodate itself to China’s power rather than the reverse.

Together, these varying motives suggest that the cliché—offered as recently as last week by Attorney General William Barr—that Beijing thinks in decades and centuries, whereas the West can’t focus beyond the next quarter, is often wrong. Its leaders can be just as daft as anyone else.