By: Ian Forsyth
As the source of the Covid-19 outbreak, China initially faced a situation similar to the Soviet Union’s 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion: an authoritarian state’s lies, cover-ups, and utter lack of openness and transparency leading to unnecessary loss of life domestically and internationally. Chernobyl—by some accounts—was the first step of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Could the Covid-19 pandemic be China’s Chernobyl?
China’s comprehensive lockdown of Wuhan, the source of the outbreak, allowed Beijing to control the scope and scale of the outbreak to the point where China currently has a lower infection rate and lower lethality rate than does the United States. It followed up its lockdown by delivering vast amounts of personal protective equipment to suffering countries and allowing Beijing to frame itself as performing a Berlin Airlift of sorts, using its knowledge, abilities, and largesse to provide much-needed relief to grateful populations. The Berlin Airlift provided immeasurable global esteem to the United States, and Washington’s soft power has been high ever since.
More broadly, this crisis could reveal that China’s rise is independent of the United States. Whether Washington’s power is declining, China cannot effortlessly fill a void that the US might leave. If Washington suffers a loss to its soft power due to mishandling of this crisis, that doesn’t directly help China. The end result could be a world looking at a post-WWI style void with no obvious benign hegemon leading a liberal international order.
China’s Covid-19 outbreak possesses some of the qualities of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster: heroic localized response, cover-up, reassigning blame and ducking responsibility. Dr. Li Wenliang—the hero who first brought attention to the virus and was silenced for it—died of Covid-19 on February 7, sparking a massive outpouring of grief and rage on Chinese social media overwhelming censors, yet Beijing denied there was a problem.
The response of the Hubei authorities to the first cases of Covid-19 was not an anomaly but instead part and parcel of the Chinese system of regionally decentralized authoritarianism. Authorities reacted with hesitation and even denial because they did not want to create an impression of lack of control or of poor management. They relayed as little information as possible to the center about the mysterious infections, even as the seeds of the pandemic were sown. They took pains to silence whistleblowers. “Internet police” were mobilized to threaten people criticizing the CCP and its handling of the virus online. Their efforts to cover up the outbreak delayed effective responses and allowed the virus to spread unabated.
Crucially, Beijing waited six days—14 to 20 January—to issue a public warning. Authorities allowed the residents of Wuhan to circulate inside the country and abroad to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Only when the problem was too obvious to conceal was the truth allowed to climb uphill. At that point, China’s central government responded with efficiency and professionalism that made up for some lost ground.
The centralized power structure, resource management and surveillance state capabilities proved to be very useful in containing the domestic spread. China was able to direct resources in an authoritarian manner and shift assets—including human assets—to where they were most needed. The construction of ~1,000 bed hospitals in Wuhan in a week was an impressive example of this.
The end result was containment: Shanghai, a city of 24 million persons, experienced coronavirus deaths only in double-digits, just three months after its quarantine was imposed. China essentially approached the Covid-19 outbreak as a domestic security threat, not just as a public health emergency. Once they received Beijing’s signal to clamp down at all cost, local governments organized quickly. Citizens were told to monitor their neighbors. Chinese tech companies supplied the police with data from health apps that determined whether citizens should be quarantined. Like the Chernobyl explosion, this was an unmitigated disaster that actually could have been much worse for all involved.
However, there is deep suspicion that Chinese authorities throughout the provinces were systematically underreporting cases. It is now widely known that asymptomatic cases were not included in statistics before March 31. On 17 April, China revised its domestic fatality rate upward by 30 percent; thus, tacitly admitting errors if not outright deception. Perhaps most damning is the US intelligence analysis that alleges China covered up the extent of the Covid-19 outbreak—and how contagious the disease is—to stock up on medical supplies needed to respond to it.
China’s global standing suffered a major blow. Beijing’s relations with Sweden and the Czech Republic were already deteriorating, but this exacerbated it. Even Russia and Iran have criticized China’s hiding the extent of the outbreak. A large majority of Germans thinks China bears some blame for the Covid-19 pandemic and believes Beijing has been dishonest about its numbers. An online poll of 1,500 adults by London-based Redfield & Wilton Strategies on 7 May, showed that 77 percent of respondents said China was at least somewhat to blame for the virus with 34 percent saying China was significantly to blame. Meanwhile, 74 percent said China has dishonestly reported its infection figures.
More generally, the pandemic has fed arguments that countries should not rely on China for crucial goods and services, from ventilators to 5G networks.
However, China can potentially improve its image if and when it allows the WHO to conduct a review of the Covid-19 outbreak. The political effects—both domestic and international—will take more than a year to fully realize. Still, there is no denying that China’s handling of the outbreak makes referring to it as “China’s Chernobyl” not unfair. However, that does not mean that is all it is.
The Berlin blockade and airlift was an international crisis that arose from an attempt by the Soviet Union in 1948 to force the Western Allied powers to abandon their post-WWII jurisdictions in West Berlin. The Soviet Union sealed all road, rail, and river links into Berlin. Millions of German citizens under the protection of American, British, and French forces faced starvation. The Western Allies organized the Berlin Airlift (26 June 1948–30 September 1949) to fly supplies to the people of West Berlin.
At its height, an American or British airplane landed or took off every 90 seconds, 24 hours a day, an act of heroism and coordinated resolve that yielded immeasurable amounts of credibility and “soft power” for the West, particularly for the US. China hopes that providing medical PPE and financial aid (combined with proper messaging) to needy countries will engender similar soft power and goodwill to that the United States enjoyed from the Berlin Airlift. Has it been successful?
As the outbreak was becoming a full-fledged pandemic, President Xi made a flurry of phone calls with world leaders to promise aid. By March 31, China had provided 120 countries and four international organizations with surgical masks, N95 respirators, protective suits, nucleic acid test kits, ventilators, and other assistance, including loans. More than 170 Chinese medical experts were dispatched to Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa.
At the subnational level, Chinese local governments sent medical items to their sister cities in more than 50 countries, and Chinese provinces dispatched medical teams to neighbors in need, including Guangxi to Cambodia, Yunnan to Laos and Myanmar, Xinjiang to Pakistan, and Fujian to the Philippines. China used videoconferencing to share experiences and provide expertise on testing methods, contact tracing, prevention and control measures, clinical treatment, and asymptomatic cases in partnership with the ASEAN Secretariat, the Arab League, and individual countries including India, Malaysia, and Russia. Even the Chinese private sector such as the Jack Ma Foundation was part of this aid effort.
Overall, China delivered 30 tons of equipment to Italy and 500,000 surgical masks to Spain, two EU countries that were hardest hit by Covid-19. The aid to Italy was especially notable because Rome had expressed feelings of abandonment from its EU neighbors in its time of need.
To capitalize on this aid, Beijing crafted a formidable soft-power narrative through official and unofficial channels. President Xi engaged with foreign leaders on a daily basis to express support as outbreaks appeared there. Chinese state media outlets flooded the Internet with photos of Chinese PPE arriving in more than 100 countries. Ambassadors inundated international newspapers with op-eds hailing the sacrifices Beijing made to buy time for other countries, while ignoring the source of the pandemic.
China’s medical aid has borne soft-power fruit, at least in Italy, with 36 percent of Italians indicating Italy should look more to China than to the United States to develop their international alliances outside of Europe while only 30 percent chose the US. The leaders of Hungary, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Serbia also sang China’s praises.
However, some of the tests Beijing gave to European countries didn’t work. Spain, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands announced recalls of Chinese masks and testing kits after large batches were found to be defective, undercutting what China sought to portray as goodwill gestures. In addition, United Kingdom’s foreign relations committee urged the government to fight a surge in Chinese disinformation. Officials in Germany exposed subtle outreach attempts from Chinese officials hoping to persuade them to publicly praise China.
Nonetheless, by one metric at least, the Berlin Airlift parallel is applicable – looking at it in terms of domestic consumption. The Berlin Airlift generated US domestic pride, as China’s foreign medical donations have, regardless of any negative commentary by the recipient countries.
Covid-19 was a preventable disaster made worse by the information control of an authoritarian government that refused to seem ill-prepared or in over its head. Yet it took quickly unified efforts to contain the damage. Chernobyl was both a disaster and a triumph. Equally, though the party—notably Xi—suffered a major loss of face and China’s economy was severely wounded, on the contrary, Xi seems to be weathering the storm.
China provided much-needed supplies to a desperate population, which yielded no small amount of goodwill. It could have yielded more had Beijing played its cards right. However, its substandard PPE made China look second-rate at least and deceptive at most. The heavy-handed propaganda—coined as “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”—and demands for praise undermined the charitable nature to the donations. If allegations that China is using cyberespionage to pilfer vaccine research are true, then China’s standing will take a large hit.
China had the opportunity to rise but has fumbled its chances. The accompanying propaganda has done little to erase the memory of Beijing’s Chernobyl-like cover-ups that helped enable the global pandemic in the first place. Tellingly, an alleged internal report by the Ministry of State Security’s China Institute of Contemporary International Relations reveals a fear of a world turning against China in the wake of Covid-19. If its aid was successful, Beijing would not allegedly fear a global backlash to it.
China could still make a net improvement in its standing in the Middle East and Africa, but much of that depends on how it handles its One-Belt-One-Road loans during this economic crisis. Furthermore, should China be the first country to develop a Covid-19 vaccine and share it generously, then its Berlin Airlift could become a Noah’s Ark moment.
But perhaps it is misguided to apply post-WWII and Cold War parallels to China’s Covid-19 actions. This assumes a framework that is fading and may have suffered a fatal wound with this pandemic. Perhaps neither parallel is applicable, because the world is staring at a post-WWI setting, more than a post-WWII setting.
The sobering reality is that a post-Covid order is more likely to resemble the post-WWI world than the post-WWII world. With the right leadership, international institutions and norms could be renewed with a spirit of unity, as was seen in the 1940s. Could international cooperation over nontraditional security threats flower? This seems unlikely.
The United States’ role as a benign hegemon with shaping power is fading. For example, in 2019, about twice as many Germans prioritized their country’s relationship with the United States over China (50 percent vs. 24 percent). Since then, however, the share of Germans who value a close relationship with the United States has fallen 13 percentage points, while the share who prioritize a close relationship with China has increased by 12 points. But China is not filling that role; so, neither a new Chinese benign hegemon nor a renewed US benign hegemon will emerge victorious, barring one being the first to develop and share a Covid-19 vaccine.
Rather, both powers will be weakened. In the words of Professor Ashley Tellis: “The absence of the United States in leading the international response to the pandemic has strengthened the perception, now commonplace even among its own allies and partners, that Washington can no longer be relied on to uphold the international order that it once created.”
Consequently, the global environment is not conducive for shaping. The distribution of power is more diffuse, resembling the 1920s more than the 1940s. Agendas among global powers are conflicting. As after WWI, leaders are more concerned with assigning blame than finding common cause and solving problems—or at least creating and/or strengthening institutions that can solve problems. Global inequality is increasing, as is global unilateralism.
The drive to constrict globalization is accelerating. Consensus is fading fast, as is cooperation. It would be nearly impossible to craft a post-Covid19 version of the Atlantic Charter. The post-WWII alliance structure is at its weakest point in its 75-year history. Emerging technologies and their unique challenges have outpaced the collective ability to contend with them.
Pre-Covid underlying pressures such as China-US tensions could exacerbate, fueled by authoritarian ambition and nationalist populism. Overall, these dynamics resemble the post-WWI world more than the post-WWII world, ultimately making post-WWII metaphors like the Chernobyl disaster and Berlin Airlift inapplicable.
Dr. Ian Forsyth is a senior analyst with the US Department of Defense in Hawaii. He has studied East Asia for over 30 years. Dr. Forsyth holds a PhD in international relations from the University of Southern California and a JD from Syracuse University’s College of Law. A more detailed version of this was written for Air University, a publication of the Air Education and Training Command at Maxwell US Air Force Base in Alabama, USA. His views are his own and do not represent those of the US Defense Department.