The results of a recent Pew Research Centre survey on the perception of China in 14 advanced democracies has predictably shown a sharp rise in negative perception and suspicion. At a time when the US and its allies are very publicly calling out China on everything from its human rights record to its aggressive debt-trap diplomacy and now the COVID-19 response, it is hardly surprising. Indeed, the Pew Research Centre survey is not the only one to confirm such a fact. Earlier this year, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations presented a report to the top brass of the Chinese Government regarding a dire fall in the public image of China worldwide. The report warned that China's global image was at its worst point in 31 years. Now, an escalating pandemic and a narrative of China supposedly dodging responsibility for concealing vital facts have once again resulted in a rise of general anti-Chinese sentiment. The report also apparently cautioned that in the worst-case scenario, China may have to engage the US in armed conflict. The nature of the Chinese state means that it is hard to exactly determine just how seriously Chinese leaders took such a report but their actions have indicated that this is no small matter for China. Early on, as China repeatedly rebuffed claims that it had delayed giving vital information to the world, it also simultaneously refused to allow any external investigation into the possible root of the infection. Indeed, Australia earned the ire of China by strongly suggesting that an independent international inquiry should be carried out regarding the origins of the pandemic. This ire took the form of punitive punishments that make use of China's considerable economic might in order to force compliance.
But it is worth noting that aside from a few fringe groups and US President Donald Trump, no one seriously spoke of China having to pay an actual compensation for all the losses caused globally by COVID-19. What mattered was perception. And so China pushed back. Starting with an aggressive campaign to bring the infection under control at home, China established itself as a sort of front runner in the global pandemic response. The Chinese model of pandemic control became a talking point the world over at a time when humanity as a whole was not taking the pandemic seriously enough. Even on the vaccine front, China made use of its headstart to rapidly push its vaccine trials into human testing phases at a time when many vaccine projects were no more than proposals. Later, as China was steadily reopened and life was shown to return to some semblance of normalcy, Wuhan City authorities called on many global business leaders and journalists to witness the Phoenix like rebirth of Wuhan from the ashes. A success story that tried to sell the image that Wuhan was safe for business, safe for tourism, for life. Indeed, the idea being sold was that Wuhan was safer than many cities outside in the world, places where masks could be 'optional'. As Reuters noted at the time, the wet market in Wuhan that supposedly sparked the outbreak was operational but entirely off-limits for the international press. This guided tour was part of a wider operation to gain the right optics. Still, even with a recovering economy, a pandemic situation that is supposedly under control and promising vaccine candidates, it was not enough. What was required was a bad example to draw a comparison from, an example that highlighted the efficiency and general logic of approach that China has over the country being compared to. What China needed, in short, was the US to mess up. Indeed, while the Pew Centre survey showed that in countries like Germany 78 per cent expressed a lack of confidence in Xi Jinping's actions on the world stage, a staggering 89 per cent said the same of Trump. As much of the higher Pentagon leadership and White House administration and staff goes into quarantine, this comparison can only tilt further in China's favour.