Throughout 2020, as divisions between China and the United States deepened far beyond trade issues, so did the perception among Chinese that the US system of government and its global influence are on the wane.
The large number of Americans killed in the pandemic, the invasion of Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, and the racially motivated protests and riots were catalysts for the establishment of a narrative that has been constructed by the Communist Party of China – for quite some time now – that the United States is deteriorating its power at home and abroad.
This is what researchers Jude Blanchette and Seth G. Jones, from the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), pointed out in a recent analysis of several texts published in Chinese in the press. They identified three main axes that make up this narrative:
- The United States’ democracy and its political system stopped working.
- The American conception of “universal values” only retained global appeal because it was backed by US power, but as US strength wanes, so do the values they promote.
- The world is moving towards multipolarity; the East is growing, the West is declining.
This is far from new in China. Mao Tse-tung wrote in 1956 that “when viewed in a broader perspective, as a whole and from a long-term point of view, [os EUA] they do not have popular support, their policies are not appreciated by the people, because they oppress and exploit them”.
While anti-American discourse was tempered after Mao, with China’s insertion into the global economy, the rhetoric that the US model is unsustainable became more prevalent after the 2007 financial crisis, according to CSIS researchers. It provided ammunition for criticisms of Western capitalism, while also motivating the exaltation of China’s model of state capitalism. According to Blanchette and Jones, the financial crisis and the construction of the narrative around it made China more confident on the international stage.
Events that have taken place over the past year – pandemics, protests in the US and accusations of election fraud by former President Donald Trump – have added strength to the narrative. An example: the phrase “The East is increasing, the West is declining” became much more frequent in Chinese publications from 2020, according to the CSIS survey.
Invasion of the Capitol
The invasion of the Capitol by Trump supporters and the scenes of violence inside and outside the Congress building were portrayed by Chinese analysts in the country’s press as a sign that American democracy is unstable and violent.
In an article for the state-run People’s Daily, scholar Li Yunlong wrote that “this violent attack on Congress exposed the myth of ‘American democracy’, proving that the United States is not a democratic Garden of Eden.” “This ‘American democracy’ that incited protesters to attack Congress and broadcast it live around the world proves that elections may not guarantee the peaceful transfer of political power,” he wrote in January of this year.
In another text, Zhang Jian, director of an institute of international relations linked to the Chinese government, pointed out what he considers a contradiction in the American press when it classifies “Hong Kong rioters as ‘democracy heroes’” while calling “the supporters of Trump, who took the Capitol, from rioters”. He further concludes: “The social and political problems of the United States are deeply entrenched, and the country may no longer be able to lead the West in the future, let alone dominate the world.”
The large number of deaths by Covid-19 in the US was also considered a sign of weakness in the US system compared to the Chinese – although many Chinese analysts sweep under the rug the government’s own mistakes during the pandemic and the lack of transparency in relation to the data and the origin of the disease.
“The poor performance of the US government in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic proves once again that ‘American democracy’ cannot lead to effective governance,” Yunlong wrote. According to CSIS researchers, the idea of comparing US and Chinese data during the pandemic has become central to the Beijing narrative, seeking to “forge a new framework for popular legitimacy that extends beyond the ability to oversee highs rates of economic growth”.
In an article about Trump’s presidency, Wu Ximbo, dean of a Chinese university, wrote that “Trump’s massive failure to respond to Covid-19, serious racial and social conflicts, hopeless political polarization and confrontation, unprecedented disputes over the results of the general elections and so on also created holes in the myth of the superiority of American morals and institutions.”
US espoused values such as freedom, democracy and human rights are also under attack in the Chinese narrative. That’s because they are seen as a threat to the Chinese system of government – the 2019 protests in Hong Kong could serve as an example.
“The values espoused by the United States have not been able to guarantee good economic and social effects, and its model and influence in the world have drastically declined,” Zhang wrote in an article for the Guangming Daily. “The polarization between rich and poor and the consolidation of classes in the United States has become more pronounced,” he continued. Obviously Zhang did not mention social inequalities in his own country.
For him, “the reason American values have been able to dominate the world for a long time is not because of their so-called universality, but because of the strength of the United States, especially its economic and technological prowess.”
According to Jude Blanchette and Seth G. Jones, there is less and less room for this narrative of American decline to be challenged in China, a country where the press is largely state-controlled.
But they also claim that the more this view becomes official dogma, the more likely Beijing will overestimate the decline of the US and be overconfident, which could lead to a more confrontational international stance, which has already been noted in diplomacy. Chinese last year.
“A China that overestimates its own strength while underestimating the strength of the United States is a worrying combination, as it could lead Beijing to miscalculate in one of several geopolitically important areas, the most worrying being the issue regarding the Strait Taiwan’, wrote the researchers.