Beijing is trying to exploit the coronavirus pandemic at every opportunity. Although that strategy may advance some short‐term objectives for Xi Jinping’s government, it is a myopic approach that is almost certain to backfire. Indeed, it is already breeding extensive resentment in the United States and around the world.
As I discuss in a new article in The Hill, Beijing launched a propaganda offensive to shift blame for the spread of the coronavirus onto the United States. Most evidence indicates that the virus originated in a market in the city of Wuhan, but there are recent indications that the pandemic may have begun when a contaminated employee of a virology research lab outside of Wuhan accidentally transmitted the disease to the broader population.
Yet early on, the Chinese government and state media began promoting the ugly assertion that Washington likely initiated the pandemic as the consequence of a bioweapons program. Stories appeared in China’s state‐run media referring to the “American coronavirus” and emphasizing the participation of U.S. Army personnel at athletic games in Wuhan in October 2019, just before the first signs of the coronavirus began to appear. A furious Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the Chinese government for making such allegations.
Beijing’s exploitation of the coronavirus tragedy goes far beyond attempts at blame‐shifting, however. The attention of both the news media and general populations throughout the world is understandably focused on the pandemic, and Xi’s government is taking maximum advantage of that distraction. Chinese leaders chose this moment to pressure the Hong Kong government to crack down on the pro‐democracy movement. On April 18, security forces arrested more than a dozen top leaders of that movement. The New York Times observed: “The arrests signaled a broader crackdown on the antigovernment movement that roiled the semiautonomous city last year, one of the most significant challenges to Communist Party rule in decades.” Beijing and its Hong Kong surrogates also are calling for lawmakers to pass national security laws that would enable the mainland authorities “to further encroach upon the territory’s civic freedoms.”
In addition to the crackdown in Hong Kong, Beijing is attempting to strengthen its vast territorial claims in the South China Sea. The government just established two new administrative districts as though the region is indisputably Chinese territory, despite competing claims from several neighboring countries. That move is the latest step in Beijing’s strategy to establish de facto control over the area, following programs to build artificial islands and establish military airfields and other facilities on those islands. The timing of the new initiative is hardly coincidental.
The PRC’s abrasive, cynical behavior on the coronavirus and other issues is having a noticeable impact on American public opinion. Citing a recent Harris poll, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin concluded that “the coronavirus crisis is actually bringing Americans together on the China issue.” But the nature of that growing consensus should be a wake‐up call for Beijing. “Republicans and Democrats now largely agree that the Chinese government bears responsibility for the spread of the pandemic, that it can’t be trusted on this or any other issue, and that the U.S. government should maintain a tough position” toward China on nearly all issues.
Chinese leaders have only themselves to blame for that development. Xi Jinping’s government may well pay a heavy price over the long‐term because of its attempts to exploit the coronavirus outbreak for short‐term strategic gains, and it deserves to do so.