China’s leaders are split between wanting America to decline “in an elegant and decent way” under Biden, or risk more “star performances” from Trump.
The American response to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic—which has left over 200,000 Americans dead, millions infected, and much of the U.S. political leadership incapacitated with illness—has reinforced preexisting Chinese views on American dysfunction and decline. As Yuan Peng, the head of a Ministry of State Security think tank, argued, America’s poor response to COVID-19 “is a blow to America’s soft and hard power, and America’s international influence has suffered a serious decline”—with the pandemic’s implications as consequential for world politics as a great-power war. The resultant confidence has likely encouraged Beijing to be more assertive in its neighborhood and less concerned about the implications of its repression in Hong Kong and the damage done by its increasingly off-putting public diplomacy.
That overconfidence may be unfounded, particularly as China faces a demographic slowdown, diplomatic setbacks, and a middle-income trap. It may also be somewhat artificial, a product of a party line reproduced in key texts and academic commentaries that resembles propaganda rather than objective analysis. Even so, Beijing’s confidence—justifiable or not—has an official imprimatur, shapes Chinese strategy, and encourages Beijing to take dangerous risks. It cannot be dismissed.
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