The Year of the Rat, 2020, began poorly for China. Hong Kong was in an uproar, and its protesters were enjoying international sympathy. The Communist Party’s policies toward Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang were being widely condemned as excessive, even genocidal. Consumers, particularly in America, had begun to boycott Chinese goods in the backlash over pro-China censorship by the NBA, Blizzard Entertainment, and other ostensibly American companies. Tariffs had precipitated a dramatic decline in Chinese exports to the United States. The world had woken up to the Communist Party’s hegemonic ambitions, and it seemed that a pushback had begun under American leadership.
The ensuing eleven months have proven to be a disaster: for those who have lost their lives or livelihoods to COVID-19 and government incompetence, for those whose freedoms are being wrested away across the West and the world, for trust in public institutions and global bodies like the World Health Organization, and for unity here in the United States, where the mail-in election has turned into a fiasco like none other. And 2020 has also been a disaster for the global response to the Communist Party, which has, through a mix of brute force and opportunism, maneuvered into a stronger position than ever.
China and its communist bureaucrats have had a very good year.
Such an end to 2020 would have seemed absurd as the world watched the coronavirus tear through Wuhan in January and February. Cases were doubling every week, and despite Beijing’s staid demeanor about the whole situation, apocalyptic scenes of hazmat-suited officials and of patients lying in overcrowded hospital hallways were going viral online. The timing could not have been worse: it was Chinese New Year, and tens of millions were on the move into, out of, and through Wuhan, a hub city at the heart of the world’s largest high-speed rail network. Even as other countries began announcing dozens of cases, all eyes were on Wuhan as the official death toll shot past one thousand in early February and then three thousand in March.
As the Communist Party’s resources were being tested, so was its ideology. The story of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who was reprimanded by local authorities for “spreading rumors” about a viral outbreak and who later died of the coronavirus on February 7, became a lightning rod for criticism of the communist system’s repressiveness, incompetence, and emphasis on conformity.
All of this criticism was well-deserved, and indeed the communist government has the blood of many Britons, Americans, and Indians, in addition to Chinese, on its hands: it took over a month, from the first case of COVID-19 being identified on December 8, 2019, to the introduction of screening measures on January 14, 2020, for Wuhan officials to respond to the outbreak. China’s bureaucrats either denied or downplayed the risk of human-to-human transmission until the country’s Health Commission finally acknowledged reality on January 20. Had the situation been made clear to the world at least a few weeks prior, strict border controls might have spared many countries the worst of the pandemic.
But in a decisive twist of fate, China crushed its own outbreak even as it infected the rest of the world. The crackdown was brutal: videos emerged of Wuhan officials welding shut the apartment doors of infected citizens to keep them contained. But it seemed to work. Since mid-March, the country has declared virtually no new cases of coronavirus outside of international travelers. In the United States, meanwhile, case numbers continue to dominate headlines as states stumble through ruinous cycles of lockdowns. Whether China is truly virus-free or has merely ceased reporting the real numbers is almost beside the point: the factories are working again, and the party has, with the support of Western media, put on a clean face for the rest of the world.
In sum, the course of the pandemic has been a decisive, and wholly undeserved, success for the Communist Party on several fronts.
In American politics, the virus gave the Biden campaign and the media establishment a cudgel with which to clobber President Trump and to push for unacceptable curtailments of civil liberty. A Beijing-backed Biden takeover of the White House would place Chinese influence in the upper echelons of the American government, on top of removing Trump’s adversarial administration. Suppose that a President Biden “listened to the experts” and backed further indefinite lockdowns with the full force of federal mandate. Between that and an end to the trade war, Xi Jinping and his Standing Committee would be popping open baijiu to celebrate the end of American global leadership.
The pandemic has also allowed China to implicitly promote its authoritarian system as a viable alternative to America’s own. The Chinese government has been quick to praise its own decisiveness, while skeptics accuse it of fudging the case numbers. In either case, an authoritarian system — whether through its executive power or its ability to lie to its own citizens and the world — allowed China to reboot its manufacturing only two or three months after it had shut down. Its economy in 2021 is expected to be 10 percent larger than it was in 2019, while America’s economy suffers and Europe’s shrinks dramatically. For the first time in a decade, inbound mergers and acquisitions investment has surpassed outbound investment for China as investors bet that the Chinese middle class will buoy the coming recovery.
Potentially worse than the immediate effects of the pandemic will be the lasting question of culpability. The answer to the blame game had been unambiguous in the first few months of the year, when China and the World Health Organization (WHO) were caught in a series of bald-faced lies about the state of the outbreak. The waters have been muddied since then. According to Pew Research, 61 percent of people in the developed world believe that China did a bad job “dealing with the coronavirus outbreak,” compared to 37 percent with a positive view of China’s performance. Views on America, however, are substantially worse, with 84 percent responding “bad” to 15 percent “good.” The numbers for the WHO are exasperating: despite it kowtowing to the Communist Party and helping to downplay the outbreak during the crucial early days, nearly two-thirds of respondents in all surveyed countries reckon that the WHO did a “good job” with the pandemic.
Back in July, Pew found that almost 80 percent of Americans thought that the Chinese government deserved “a great deal/a fair amount” of blame for “the global spread of the virus.” A more recent poll, conducted by the Associated Press in September, found that only 47 percent of U.S. adults blame the “governments of other countries” (read: China) for the outbreak situation in the United States. By contrast, 56 percent assign significant blame to the U.S. government, including 79 percent of Democrats. The anger of Americans, and in particular Democrats, has been directed inward. To understand why, look no further than the Biden campaign’s line on coronavirus, pushed daily by CNN, that elected Republicans personally murdered two hundred thousand Americans. As the White House flips in January, you can bet that history will be rewritten to assign all blame for the pandemic to President Trump.
The closing months of 2019 seemed, at the time, to be a turning point in the fight to resist the Communist Party’s growing foreign influence. Back-to-back headline-grabbing censorship scandals had combined into a conflagration that threatened to scorch the party’s credibility.
On October 2, 2019, Apple drew widespread media attention and criticism after it bowed to pressure from China and banned an app from its App Store that protesters in Hong Kong had been using to track police movements. On October 8, Activision Blizzard, a U.S.-based (but partly Chinese-owned) video-game developer and publisher, punished the winner of an online game tournament after he spoke in support of Hong Kong’s protest movement in a post-match interview. Even more memorable was the National Basketball Association controversy, in which China virtually severed its ties with the NBA over a pro-Hong Kong tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, causing the NBA leadership to apologize and reprimand him. The grassroots backlash against the association, and against every corporation that had acceded to Chinese pressure, was ferocious — the issue of foreign influence had suddenly become personal for millions of people. The Communist Party had at last overplayed its hand, and it appeared that a reckoning was imminent.
The example of Hollywood demonstrates how China has turned Western soft power against the West.
As it turns out, 2020 had other plans in store. Chinese attempts to censor foreign organizations have continued, and the targets of these attempts have complied at alarming rates. Despite this, media attention on the issue has all but ceased. In April of this year, the European Union agreed to self-censor in a letter published in China’s English-language newspaper China Daily, removing a reference to China as the source of the coronavirus outbreak. On June 10, a Serbian professional football club fired one of its players after his father criticized the Communist Party. Two days later, it was revealed that the now-ubiquitous videoconferencing company Zoom had suspended multiple users who were planning to use the platform to coordinate a commemoration of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. None of these incidents received much attention. When was the last time that anyone mentioned that millions of Americans now telecommute to work on an app that censors on behalf of the Chinese government?
Hollywood remains the quintessential example of corporate profit-seeking butting heads with free expression. Most Americans witness dozens of subtle attempts to shape their perception of China through Hollywood movies every year, whether in the form of inclusion (of the Chinese space station in Gravity, which saves the protagonist from certain death) or exclusion (of references to a zombie virus originating in China when World War Z was adapted from its source book). Disney’s live-action Mulan, though a flop with critics on both sides of the Pacific when released earlier this year, painted a picturesque image of Xinjiang despite the ongoing atrocities against Uighur Muslims there.
Chinese influence in Hollywood derives its potency from a nexus of money and corporate consolidation. The country’s censors allow in exactly thirty-four American films per year, and these coveted slots are fought over by the Big Five American film studios: Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, and Columbia Pictures. Studios do not know whether their latest blockbuster will be admitted until it is shown in full to Chinese officials, leading to self-censorship from the beginning of the film creation process in a bid to maximize each movie’s chances of acceptance and therefore access to a box office worth billions of dollars. Consequently, dozens of movies that never make it into the Chinese market are nonetheless created with Chinese sensibilities in mind.
The major studios have every incentive to avoid offending China at all costs. Disney’s colossal size is a source of much resentment and envy in the entertainment industry, but it becomes a disadvantage when dealing with the Communist Party. It owns immensely profitable theme parks and other auxiliary operations across China — all of which could be hamstrung at a moment’s notice if its film distribution arm happens to cross a line regarding Tibet or human rights. This guarantees an unspoken commitment to self-censorship at every level of the corporation.
The continuing fallout of the pandemic will greatly accelerate this phenomenon. China began this year with a box office worth $9.7 billion to America’s $11.1 billion. Throughout the course of 2020, lockdowns have all but crippled the U.S. cinema industry, while China’s theaters began reopening in May. The Chinese market’s rise to the largest in the world, previously expected to occur sometime in 2021, has instead happened a year ahead of schedule. For studios looking to continue churning out blockbusters, access to China appears increasingly like a financial necessity more than a bonus.
How should America and its allies counter China’s encroachment? Any response must first acknowledge what has not worked. The list is, unfortunately, long. The year 2020 has, in many ways, marked the death of the old pipe dream that communist authoritarianism can be undermined through Western soft power alone. This may still be possible in a place like North Korea, with its universal poverty and death penalties for consuming Western media. Chinese audiences are evidently not so easily swayed; the example of Hollywood demonstrates how China has turned Western soft power against the West.
It is also time to be realistic about the idea that America can educate a generation of Chinese college students to bring liberalism and democracy to China. As many professors and university administrations have discovered this year, such students are more likely to bring Chinese ultranationalism to America instead — and if they’re bringing anything back to China with them, it’s probably American technology.
Countering China’s attempts to hijack American soft power has also proven difficult. This May, Sen. Ted Cruz introduced the SCRIPT Act, prohibiting studios from accessing federal funds for movies that have been altered to suit Chinese censors. It is the strongest move yet by an elected representative to combat Chinese influence in Hollywood, and Cruz’s intentions are certainly sound. But the act, which Skopos Labs gives a 3 percent chance of being enacted, would be the equivalent of hunting ghosts. Would the U.S.government have the ability to pore through every iteration of every film script coming out of Hollywood for signs of appeasing China? Would it be politically or legally feasible to foist such an approach upon a closed-door system like the movie content creation industry? As aforementioned, the censorship process is subtle and implicit; rarely do the major studios take direct cues from the Communist Party. Indeed, many countries engage in film censorship and banning — Singapore, Egypt, even Australia to a lesser degree. China just has a large enough market that studios actually pay attention.
On the economy, the trade war has proven useful but not sufficient. As with the consumer backlash and most other things, the end of 2019 looked like a looming disaster for China, with its exports to the U.S. falling to one of the lowest levels in recent memory. By August, however, Chinese exports worldwide had rebounded to their third-highest level on record, and exports to the U.S. had increased to their highest level in over a year. According to the latest available data, the U.S. trade deficit with China stands at $34 billion, the highest since November 2018. China’s early reopening, combined with the fact that it manufactures a large proportion of the world’s medical equipment, has allowed it to turn a healthy profit during the pandemic.
Even if the trade war had gone exactly according to plan, however, it is very unlikely that it would have been a viable long-term solution. The proportion of China’s GDP constituted by exports halved since 2006, from 36 to 18 percent. Tariffs, if applied strategically, can protect certain American industries, but they cannot protect America’s relative economic clout.
Other protectionist measures have also shown to be wanting. The Trump administration’s campaign against Chinese technology giant Huawei, including banning it from using American components, has slowed but not prevented its growth. The company’s latest move was the launch of the Mate 40 phone in late October, which Chinese retailing giant JD.com reported selling out in just eleven seconds.
Clearly, a new approach is needed on top of what is already being tried. Elected Democrats are unlikely to have answers — “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” to quote Joe Biden. Some on the left do have a few ideas, though. Matthew Yglesias of Vox made waves recently with his book One Billion Americans, which argues for a dramatic increase in the U.S. population through immigration and other initiatives with the express purpose of staying ahead of China. Yglesias is probably correct in thinking that letting in more immigrants will increase America’s GDP. For conservatives who find even current immigration levels excessive, however, it goes without saying that such a proposal would seem implausible.
Others on the right, like David P. Goldman of the Asia Times, have called for what Goldman describes as a “Manhattan Project” to retake the initiative in technological innovation. It is not sufficient to prevent China from appropriating U.S. technology — the U.S. must accelerate its creation of new technologies or inevitably fall behind, he argues. This could be accomplished by adopting parts of the Chinese strategy, such as massive government investment in capital-intensive industries, an alternative to the Belt and Road initiative, and incentivizing Chinese scientists to work for the U.S. instead. Of course, such actions would be a substantial pivot away from the laissez-faire status quo and would represent a small concession to China’s own strategy.
Regardless of what happens next, 2020 has left China with one Achilles’ heel despite its advances elsewhere. Between its lies about the pandemic and its interference in the business of other countries, enmity toward China has risen in opinion polls to its highest levels on record. Economic clout has so far mitigated most of the effects of this hostility. Countries buy masks from Chinese factories because there are few other options, just as they install Huawei’s 5G because it is half the price of its closest competitor. But make no mistake: China’s clients in many industries would be glad to switch sides should a workable alternative present itself. That is America’s opening for the decade to come.