Despite being waved off by US officials as “grandstanding” for China’s domestic audience, the words of Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi reflect a genuine change in the global soft power balance that is reverberating through Chinese society
When I flew back to China on the 13th of March, 2020, it felt like a risky decision. The flight from London was full of nervous travelers in masks, gloves and goggles, and people in the UK didn’t understand why I was choosing to return (my company was threatening to withhold my pay if I didn’t). To all intents and purposes, it looked like I was leaving a safe place for a scary, virus-ridden one.
Oh, how times have changed.
While the UK, US and various other countries struggle through repeated lockdowns, public outcries and patchy policy enforcement, things have been back to normal in China since roughly August last year.
Bars, restaurants, schools and gyms are open as normal and have been for months; the economy has bounced back; domestic travel is practically restriction-free and COVID tests are easily available and efficiently carried out.
For the first time in my nearly 7 years living in China, people I barely talk to in the UK have been asking me about my life here, with the genuine interest that only comes when something relates directly to the asker. People ask, “Are things back to normal over there?” Presumably in the hope that a positive answer means light at the end of the tunnel for them too.
Ironically, the “Chinese virus” has been the best soft power play China could have possibly hoped for.
Way back in March 2020, COVID-19 looked like China’s worst international PR nightmare. Threatening the world economy and painting China as a country where people “eat bats” and authorities suppress the reporting of public health crises, the newest coronavirus was just another thing that faraway, less developed countries had to deal with.
A year and a half later, China and several other countries in Asia have left the US and the UK in the dust. Incompetent leadership, creakingly slow responsiveness and shoddy policy enforcement have drawn out the crisis far longer than it had to go on, and Chinese media have delighted in putting every mistake on display.
It has a been a long, painful and very public comparison of every nation’s crisis response capacity, and of the two largest nations, China showcased its strongest asset – rigid control of public behavior – right at the moment when the farcical Trump presidency was destroying confidence in American-style democracy.
This all came to a head in the first talks between the first US-China talks of the Biden administration. Given the geopolitical tension, hopes were never high for either party to get close to achieving macro-level goals. What was different this time, however, was the righteous and angry assertiveness with which China was able to push back against US “condescension”, in stinging opening statements that lasted close to an hour, rather than the assigned two minutes.
A video of the clearly offended Mr. Yang as he shook his finger at US officials across the table circulated widely on Chinese social media, with some favorably comparing the scene to that of the unequal treaties forced on China by foreign powers some hundred years ago, following the Opium Wars.
Though news reports on both sides blamed the other side for “violating diplomatic protocol”, and neither side came out very well from the spat, one has to admit there is an element of poetic, and historical, justice.