Victimization and Nationalism in the U.S.-China Relationship

1. Introduction. 


In any contemporary discussion about the international order, an issue that consistently makes an appearance is the rise of China. It is certainly an issue that promises to dominate American foreign policy during at least the first half of this century because of its potential to affect and even disrupt foundational tenets of the current world order. By the end 2019, foreign policy analysts in Washington could already discern a tangible bipartisan consensus in the U.S. when it came to China. As political scientist Fareed Zakaria noted in December of 2019, there is “A new consensus, encompassing both parties, the military establishment, and key elements of the media…China is now a vital threat to the United States…and Washington needs a new, much tougher strategy to contain it.”[1] Pew Research Center found around August of 2019 that although there was still a gap between the parties when it came to the exact cause of the increased threat from China, that negative perceptions of the People’s Republic were steadily on the rise.[2] This trend has only accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, initially reported to have originated from the wet markets of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. With two thirds of the U.S. survey respondents now reporting an unfavorable view of China, it is clear that the U.S.-China relationship will feature prominently in the election this November. 


Despite the rise in tensions and the accompanying calls for harsher measures to be taken with Beijing, there remain voices that have called for a more cool-headed evaluation of U.S.-China relationship. Fareed Zakaria argues for example that China has a stake in the current international order, and will therefore seek to bolster rather than undermine it.[3] American foreign policy officials have, according to him, overexaggerated this problem, and in doing so have raised the question of Washington’s ultimate end when it comes to China: “Unspoken but clearly central to the hawks’ strategy is the notion that containing China will precipitate the collapse of its regime, just as happened with the Soviets.”[4] This underlying notion, warns Zakaria, threatens to truly destabilize the international order. More importantly, it is not reflective of the true state of the world. Zakaria acknowledges at the end of his analysis that competition is to some degree inevitable, but that still does not necessitate the revival of the Cold War designation. 


The fact that both official and public opinion in the U.S. towards China is becoming increasingly negative was well-established before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as Fareed Zakaria notes, “Strangely absent from most discussions of U.S. policy toward China is the question of China’s reaction.” Even now, prognoses of the world order after coronavirus have failed to include Beijing’s response and political readjustment during the pandemic. Even as analysts decry the ways in which the Trump administration’s actions have destabilized America’s position in the current world order,[5] they neglect to mention the ways in which the COVID-19 outbreak has exacerbated insecurity within the CCP in ways that will limit the party’s ability to compromise even on issues where it clearly has material incentive to work with the U.S.[6] This paper will attempt to fill in the China side of this discussion by outlining the victim narrative that the CCP has followed, before describing the ways in which that narrative has been reinforced during the spread of the virus. It concludes by outlining the ways in which a revitalized victim narrative could affect China’s position in the international order going forward.              


The entire world has a stake in the U.S.-China relationship. The threat of outright conflict and even of heightened competition between the two powers contains numerous ramifications on issues as diverse as climate change and global governance. We must first understand the extent to which the Chinese rhetoric during this difficult time is more than just posturing for publicity’s sake in order to make any sort of prognosis for the future of the international order. 


2. Beijing’s Insecurity

In order to understand the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic and specifically the American response to the pandemic can have lasting effects on China’s international role in the ensuing world order, it is important first to establish the Chinese Communist Party’s insecurities and ensuing motivations.  


Authoritarian regimes are, first and foremost, concerned with the survival of the regime.[7] Advancing state interests might be one of an authoritarian regime’s priorities, but this is only so when augmenting state interests bolster the chances for regime survival. In the case that regime survival and state interest are pitted against each other, an authoritarian regime such as CCP-led China ultimately moves to protect the party first at the expense of the country.[8] Thus, when we consider the ways in which external events affect China’s leaders in Beijing, we must rely not on measures of hard power or security concerns, but rather focus our attention on the interests of the regime.


A crucial aspect of the party’s psychology, and a critical one to understanding its behavior, is the perpetual insecurity over its lack of political credibility.[9] While trying to expand China’s global influence and convince the rest of the world that this process will be peaceful and responsible, the primary obstacle for the CCP is that by any traditional measures, its rule is not legitimate. China cannot boast responsive governance, respect for democracy, protection of human rights, or responsible international behavior.[10]Because the CCP flouts these accepted international norms, it is automatically at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining a favorable national image in the international community. Indeed, media coverage of China’s unfair trade practices, penchant for playing dirty when it comes to technological development, and rigorous repression of free speech has demonstrated just how negatively China’s rise is seen around the world.[11]

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