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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

The COVID-19 pandemic most likely began in Wuhan, China, in November 2019, before quickly spreading around the world and crippling the global economy in 2020. At the crucial initial stage, the Chinese authorities responded poorly because of bureaucratic fear, a culture of censorship, and unfamiliarity with the new virus. President Xi Jinping was informed of the outbreak in early January but failed to take immediate aggressive action, causing valuable time to be lost.

Faced with a looming disaster in late January, Xi resorted to draconian lockdowns and other restrictive measures to suppress the virus. The Chinese authorities mobilized the entire country to fight what the ruling Communist Party of China called a “people’s war” against an invisible but deadly enemy.

This formidable effort saved the day for the Communist Party and enabled Xi to turn a calamity to his advantage – especially given U.S. President Donald Trump’s staggeringly incompetent response to the pandemic. As a result of its successful suppression of the virus, China was the only major economy to grow in 2020.

But despite the short-term political gains for Xi and the Communist Party, COVID-19 may have fundamentally turned the West away from China on economic and ideological grounds. The massive pandemic-induced economic disruptions forced the West to recognize that it had grown too dependent on China as a manufacturing center and a vital supplier of personal protective equipment. (In 2018, nearly half of all PPE imports to the United States and the European Union came from China.)

Although pandemic-related economic uncertainty and the costs of relocating supply chains will likely delay the mass exodus of Western manufacturing facilities from China, the country’s trade and investment ties with the West will weaken significantly. The only unknowns are the extent of the reduction, and how long it will take.

At the ideological level, Western democracies were infuriated by China’s official response to the outbreak, particularly its muzzling of doctors who first sounded the alarm, the blatant dishonesty of local authorities in Wuhan and Hubei province, and China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy aimed at whitewashing the Communist Party of China’s culpability.

An October 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that nearly three-quarters of respondents in 14 rich democracies in North America, Europe, and Asia viewed China unfavorably. In the next few years, these countries will likely overhaul their China policy by working to curtail their economic ties with the People’s Republic while confronting it more vigorously on human rights and security.

A man looks out of the window of a residential building in Wuhan, China, during lockdown on March 6. | REUTERS
A man looks out of the window of a residential building in Wuhan, China, during lockdown on March 6. | REUTERS

The fall of Hong Kong

Any lingering doubts about the neo-Stalinist nature of Xi’s regime were dispelled in late May 2020, when the Chinese government moved to impose a repressive national-security law on the former British colony of Hong Kong. The city of about 7.5 million people had been in revolt since March 2019, when its Communist Party-appointed chief executive, Carrie Lam, tried to ram through a controversial law that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China.

The anti-extradition protests nearly brought Hong Kong’s government to its knees. On the surface, they appeared to be the inevitable – albeit more spectacular and heroic — sequel to the mostly student-led 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” which had unsuccessfully demanded universal suffrage and direct election of the city’s chief executive. But the Communist Party regarded the 2019 demonstrations as more menacing because of their unprecedented size, with one protest that June attracting nearly two million people. Giving in to the protesters’ demands, including by fulfilling the Communist Party’s pledge of allowing free elections, would be viewed as a capitulation. Mindful of the need to protect his strongman image and ward off potential accusations of indecisiveness, Xi could not afford to allow the Hong Kong revolt to continue.

Xi eventually decided on a national-security law that would impose harsh penalties — including life imprisonment — for broadly and vaguely defined “activities endangering state security.” Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, stipulates that only the city’s semi-democratically elected Legislative Council can pass a national-security law. But Xi bypassed this body and instead ordered China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress to draft and approve the legislation within five weeks. The law went into effect on July 1, 2020, putting the final nail into the coffin of the “one country, two systems” governance model, under which China had pledged to respect Hong Kong’s separate legal system, independent judiciary, and civil liberties until 2047.

Xi’s drastic step may have temporarily stifled dissent in Hong Kong and brought him some short-term respite, but it has irreparably damaged China’s relations with the West. By reneging on its pledge on Hong Kong so quickly, China has destroyed its international credibility. The West simply can no longer trust the Chinese regime, and the consequences of this will be severe and lasting.

A new Cold War?

The impact of COVID-19 and the crackdown in Hong Kong on China’s relations with the United States has been especially profound and consequential. To be sure, Sino-American ties began to deteriorate in mid-2018, as a result of Trump’s trade war. But in January 2020, Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He signed a “phase one” trade deal temporarily halting the hostilities (although most U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods remained in place). There were no indications then that Trump intended to harm his own re-election chances in November with a new round of economically disruptive measures targeting China.

The bilateral feud escalated to a full-fledged cold war only in the spring of 2020, when Trump’s calculations changed dramatically as his mishandling of the pandemic darkened his re-election prospects. He pivoted cynically and furiously to blaming China and gave the hawks in his administration carte blanche to punish it accordingly. Xi’s imposition of the national-security law in Hong Kong not only played into their hands, but also gave them much-needed ammunition to convince wavering U.S. allies that they must join forces to confront an aggressive and untrustworthy neo-totalitarian empire.

As 2020 drew to a close, China’s relations with the United States were teetering on the brink of total collapse. And, given that suspicion of Xi’s China in the U.S. is a bipartisan phenomenon, Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in November’s U.S. presidential election may not boost prospects for salvaging bilateral ties. At the very least, Biden’s administration is unlikely to restore the status quo ante in the years ahead.

Once again, Chinese political decisions have reset the country’s ties with the West. But whereas Deng’s reform and opening in 1979 heralded the start of a cooperative and fruitful relationship, Xi’s policies in 2020 are far more likely to lead to decades of hostile confrontation.

Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. © Project Syndicate, 2020.

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