The coronavirus has pushed US-China relations to their worst point since Mao

The Covid-19 pandemic is a grim reminder that the worst really can happen. Tail risk is real risk. Political leaders fumble, miscalculate, and bluster into avoidable disaster. And even as we try to deal with this catastrophe, the seeds of another are sprouting.

The US-China relationship will define geopolitics in the 21st century. If we collapse into rivalry, conflict, and politically opportunistic nationalism, the results could be hellish. And we are, right now, collapsing into rivalry, conflict, and politically opportunistic nationalism.

The Trump administration and key congressional Republicans are calling Covid-19 “the Chinese virus” and trying to gin up tensions to distract from their domestic failures. Chinese government officials, beset by their own domestic problems, are claiming the US military brought the virus to China. The US-China relationship was in a bad way six months ago, but this is a new level of threat.

Evan Osnos covers the US-China relationship for the New Yorker and is the author of the National Book Award winner Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. In this conversation on The Ezra Klein Show, we discuss the past, present, and future of the US-China relationship. What are the chances of armed conflict? What might deescalation look like? And we know what the US wants — what, in truth, does China want?

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation, which we released this week on The Ezra Klein Show.

Ezra Klein

We’ll get to the US-China relationship, but let’s start with China itself. In January, you wrote that, “To a degree still difficult for outsiders to absorb, China is preparing to shape the 21st century, much as the US shaped the 20th. Its government is deciding which features of the global status quo to preserve and which to reject.” Tell me a bit more about that.

Evan Osnos

I think the giant hidden fact of our lives over the course of the last few years has been the degree to which China has been shifting the ground beneath our feet. There’s now been this general sudden awareness in the American population about how significantly China is starting to rewrite rules on things like privacy and surveillance and human rights and their perception of sovereignty.

To take one example, China has now become in many ways the leader of surveillance technology that they use for purposes of governance. They introduced facial recognition on a very broad basis. China has been very aggressive in rolling that out and they don’t do it with an accompanying debate about civil liberties. They’re using it essentially the way that the United States put seatbelts into cars, with a full-throated commitment to that as a next-generation technology. And it’s not clear whether the American conversation about civil liberties that might accompany [such technologies] is going to become the global conversation or whether that’s just going to become kind of a minority conversation that we have just with our allies.

Ezra Klein

Ten, 15 years ago, the sense was still that China was creating a potential model for some developed countries but that the US still stood as a beacon of global political effectiveness. In the interim, we’ve been through the financial crisis and elected Donald Trump. Now, I think the broad global view of American democracy and American public state capacity is that it isn’t working very well. How does that change that dynamic of China being able to export and shape the global conversation?

Evan Osnos

In the broadest sense, it makes China’s case easier to make. In 1994, China’s economy was smaller than Italy’s and it has grown 24 times since then. It is now second only to the United States. And they can point to their model as they go around the world and point to, for instance, that they’ve reduced extreme poverty below 1 percent. In these kinds of basic metrics of how they perceive overall comprehensive national power, they have simply surpassed the United States. That’s their case.

I would say if you were balancing this out on a spreadsheet, you’d say the United States has had tremendous losses in trust over the course of the last few years. China was coming from a very low base and they’ve gained some, but they are not yet at the point where other countries are simply kind of falling into the Chinese embrace. And that creates this tremendous sense of uncertainty and a kind of moral competition between these two systems.

Ezra Klein

Coronavirus enters into this in a very weird way. On the one hand, it is a tremendous failure of the Chinese political and government system. And on the other hand, their response to it is now being seen, certainly by some, as a model — especially as America and much of Western Europe struggles mightily to get this under control. How did China respond to the outbreak?

Evan Osnos

When the virus first emerged in December in Wuhan, the initial instinct of the local authorities was to be very wary of allowing that information out. There were some doctors like Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried to raise some alarms first in the medical community, and others tried to raise alarms in the broader community. And these doctors were told not to talk about it. The virus continued to grow, and the best estimates are that about 7 million people from Wuhan left by the time the state shut down on January 23rd. That obviously contributed significantly to the overall growth of the virus.

But before we talk about that, it’s worth pointing out that then they imposed this extraordinary set of conditions on Wuhan which have been really admired in a lot of the world because of its ability to significantly flatten the curve. After being overrun at the hospitals, they imposed not just regular lockdowns, but really specific levels of quarantine. That had the effect of being able to significantly bring down the numbers to the point now that Hubei, which is the area around Wuhan, has now been opened up.

One of the things my friend Bill Bishop, a China analyst who writes the Sinocism newsletter, makes is, “Don’t listen to what the Chinese say on questions about the infection rate — look at what they do.” And they’ve done a couple of significant things that indicate that they really are confident about their progress. They’ve allowed Xi Jinping to schedule a trip to Wuhan, which is a big deal. And they have also started opening up larger parts of the country. They wouldn’t do that if they thought it was going to imperil their stability, ultimately their political stability.

Ezra Klein

Coronavirus is ultimately going to have a hugely negative impact on the Chinese economy. And, in response to declining growth, they are probably going to need to rely heavily on nationalism. In a context where America is led by this much-loathed president who is also attacking China constantly, the easiest way for that nationalist energy to be wielded is against America. That strikes me as a very dangerous context.

Evan Osnos

I think that’s exactly right. For years, people who think seriously about China’s political trajectory have said that the biggest risk in the US-China relationship is that there will come a time when China, because of something like an economic depression, would need to rally people around the flag in a particularly acute, brittle, aggressive way. This tool has been built into Chinese politics: When needed, you can direct your animus, your political energy, against a foreign opponent.

And you’ve heard people at the very top of the foreign ministry-spokesman system in China saying the virus may have been brought to China by the US military. There’s obviously no evidence to support that claim, but that tendency is a serious risk — it moves us further down this spiral of deterioration.

Ezra Klein

One of the things I’ve been trying to do in some of these interviews is trying to understand the context around coronaviruses that the virus is colliding in with. So if I was talking to you before coronavirus erupted into the global catastrophe it now is and I asked you to describe the state of the US-China relationship, what would you have told me?

Evan Osnos

I would have said that it was at the worst point since the forging of the relationship in 1972. A senior White House official who has a little bit of room for objectivity on this issue said to me, “The relationship is in freefall.” That is an accurate description. That’s how it was before this latest period. We had these serious underlying tensions in the relationship around questions of human rights and China’s treatment of [Uighur] Muslims. But you also have the more specific, recent tensions around trade and China’s attempts to acquire American technology. On top of that, there’s the way Trump has been so much more overtly aggressive about the US-China relationship.

On the Chinese side, you’ve had a much harsher authoritarian system take hold under siege in Beijing. Xi Jinping has been very effective at focusing on the threat from abroad as a way of trying to rally political support around him. One of the key points that he often has pointed to over the years is the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed. In the Chinese mind, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the inevitable result of a flawed system — it was a great tragedy of the 20th century. And the reason why it collapsed in the official telling in China is that they allowed themselves to be corrupted by the West. They were not ideologically pure and not ideologically vigilant enough, and their population was ultimately peeled away by Western thinking.

That was all in place before the virus arrived.

You can listen to the full episode by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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