When historians look back at 2020, many may regard it as a pivotal year, like 1949 and 1979, which transformed China’s relations with the West. After Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949, the country became part of the Soviet bloc and an avowed enemy of the U.S.-led West. But 30 years later, when Deng Xiaoping launched his reforms and made an official visit to the United States to normalize Sino-American relations, a China impoverished by Mao’s calamitous rule received a warm welcome back to the international community.

In 2020, the pendulum swung back again toward mutual distrust and hostility. Two developments in China played a decisive role in this fundamental shift: the COVID-19 pandemic and the national-security law that the Chinese government imposed on Hong Kong.

Viral tensions