COVID-19 and Public Opinion Warfare between the U.S. and China
[Current Issues and Policies] No. 2020-02 (February 26, 2020)
Dr. LEE Seong-hyon
Director of the Center for Chinese Studies
A global epidemic offers room for countries to
cooperate each other. That doesn’t seem to apply to Washington and Beijing. The
U.S. and China are currently engaging in a fierce “public opinion warfare”
surrounding coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The U.S. is trying to weaken
the Communist Party leadership of China and its authoritarian system by
highlighting the China’s governance model, as well as China’s attempts to cover
up and control public opinion. Meanwhile, China has been putting its utmost effort
to contain the rising civic discontent.
The U.S. has defined China as a “strategic
competitor” and has been curbing China’s rise. For Washington, the most ideal
strategy is to thwart Beijing’s ambition without using any kinetic means, such
as a war. COVID-19 is clearly an unfortunate plague, but given the stark
reality of the realpolitik of international relations, such an epidemic could
be a strategic opening for a country competing with China. History has shown a
plague can topple a dynasty.
The following elements may suggest a future
prospect of the outcome: △ how much the circumstance revolving around COVID-19
poses a threat to Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China (CPC), △ whether
and how much the U.S. will be able to utilize the occasion from strategic
perspectives, and △ how effectively and how soon the CPC will contain a
possible civic uprising due to discontent.
The U.S. has been marshalling a robust public
opinion warfare, underscoring the internal resentment from the Chinese public.
China, at the same time, is experiencing negative situations throughout the
state. Specifically, China is facing high social instability due to the death
of Li Wenliang, a medical doctor who first disclosed a possible outbreak of
COVID-19, inadequate medical response system, a lack of masks, prolonged
quarantine of residents, distrust of the government, and severe decline in
In short, the U.S. strategic concern rests
with how serious a threat the situation poses to the communist regime. However,
the CPC has also initiated its tactics of △“hierarchical legitimacy” and △“hero
making and scapegoating.” A tentative prognosis, as of this writing, states
that the coronavirus epidemic isn’t likely to measure to a “meaningful”
challenge to the CPC in the short term, which could be roughly earmarked by the
end of March with a clear sign of downward trajectory of new infections.
※ Translator’s note: This is a summarized
unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All
references should be made to the original paper.
※ This article is written based on the
author’s personal opinions and does not reflect the views of the Sejong