The Battle of “Coronavirus Narratives”: Three Lines of Defence Against China

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, but the battle for “coronavirus narratives” is already in full swing. The front lines are the pages of newspapers and magazines, televisions screens and computer monitors, virtual seats at international organizations and online university lecture halls. Who is primarily to blame for the appearance of COVID-19? Which country and which system have been most effective in combatting the virus? Who has demonstrated the most compassion and empathy? Who has shown a willingness to selflessly help their foreign partners and even their strategic adversaries in the battle against the pandemic?

Common sense would suggest that it might be better to postpone any discussion of these and other similar issues until the global community has the spread of the virus under control. One way or another, victory over the coronavirus will be something that the global community can share. Let the epidemiologists, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, economists and other experts argue about strategy and the offensive and defensive tactics that needed to be adopted on various fronts. But no! There has been no ceasefire in the “battle of narratives.” Nor is there likely to be one. What is more, one gets the distinct impression that more energy is being put into this battle than into the fight against the coronavirus itself.

But this is hardly surprising. Because right now, literally in front of our very eyes, national and transnational mythologemes of the fight against coronavirus are being created – mythologemes that may end up being just as important as those about World War II or the Cold War. Like the numerous narratives of the past, the narrative that is being created today does not have to reflect the true situation. In fact, it could be entirely false. What is most important here is that the elites are able to convince their own societies of the truth of their version, so that the narrative will be accepted, supported and passed on to future generations. And then its significance as an integral part of national identity and an instrument of political mobilization will be difficult to overestimate.

Whose Narrative is Most Convincing?

Sooner or later, every country that has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic will have developed its own narrative about the fight against COVID-19. There will be heroes, villains, noble feats and tragic mistakes. But the truly era-defining war of “coronavirus narratives” is currently unfolding between China and the West, headed by the United States. The side that can convince the world that its strategy for overcoming the coronavirus is the most effective will at the same time stake its claim to global leadership in the post-corona world. And the side that gives off the impression that it is helpless in the face of the pandemic or has been slow to react to it will automatically be relegated to the position of outsider – a country that will not be able to cope with the challenges awaiting us as we move deeper into the 21st century.

Right now, the West as a whole, and the United States in particular, have been forced to fight a number of difficult defensive battles in the war of “coronavirus narratives.” The public is constantly reminded that COVID-19 did not originate just anywhere, but in China, and hinting at the possibility that the virus was artificially created couldn’t hurt, right? Then there is the argument that Beijing actively misled the international community about the origin of COVID-19 and silenced the doctors who discovered it. And we can blame the Chinese leadership for its massive human rights violations at the peak of the disease in Wuhan, for trying to bribe WHO officials and for various other wrongdoings.

But, as the Russian saying goes, “the winners are not judged.” The statistics are on China’s side, not the United States’. As of April 22, 2020, China had registered a total of 88,423 coronavirus cases and 4632 deaths, compared to 790,480 cases in the United States and 42,214 deaths. China is the most populous country in the world, yet only eighth in terms of the number of infected, far behind the United States and several other Western countries (Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom). As a side note, it is worth mentioning that the spread of coronavirus in the West has forced many to abandon the previously held propagandist theory that the course of the pandemic in Iran was indisputable proof of the complete failure of the country’s illiberal system to deal with the epidemiological crisis. Today Iran, just like China, compares favourably with most leading countries in the West in terms of both the number of infected and the number of deaths.

The discouraging statistics for the West make it difficult to build a reliable defence against the Chinese “coronavirus narrative.” But the West, particularly the United States, desperately needs an alternative narrative. And now more so than ever, as the outlines of a post-corona bipolar world are coming into sight. Observing this epic battle of narratives from the outside (as Russia does not really have a dog in the fight at this point), we can see that the West is building three lines of defence.

China Can Never Be Trusted!

The first line of defence is to try and discredit China’s official coronavirus numbers. The West has always been sceptical about China’s statistics on just about anything, but now this traditional mistrust has turned into outright rejection. Many point to “indirect data” (for example, the sharp decrease in the number of mobile network subscribers in the country) as proof that the number of infected was not in the tens of thousands, but rather in the millions. It thus follows that the number of deaths is also an order of magnitude (or even two) higher than official reports suggest. Moreover, certain voices insist that China is on the verge of a secondary outbreak (which may happen as early as this autumn), and if this is the case, then we may have been a little hasty in praising the effectiveness of China’s strategy in fighting COVID-19.

How strong is this line of defence? The design looks flimsy and unreliable. Naturally, Beijing manipulated the statistics from time to time and the accuracy and completeness of official data on the pandemic are probably questionable. But surely only the most hardened Sinophobe would entertain the notion that the actual numbers of infected and dead are several times higher than the officially reported figures. The reality is that it is impossible to hide the real numbers in today’s transparent and interconnected world – even in a totalitarian and completely closed country like North Korea, not to mention China, which is deeply integrated into the global economic and political system. Attempts to destroy the Chinese narrative by reference to Xi Jinping’s statistical gymnastics can be likened to Lord Cardigan’s hopeless Charge of the Light Brigade on the fortified positions of Russian troops during the Crimean War.

It’s All Trump’s Fault!

The second line of defence is a classic example of ad hominem fallacy. That is, in this case, reducing all of the West’s problems in the fight against coronavirus to the subjective miscalculations of individual statesmen and politicians. The primary culprit is, of course, President of the United States Donald Trump, although fingers are certainly being pointed at European leaders too, from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to his Spanish opposite number Pedro Sánchez. The basic premise is that western healthcare, just like the western socio-political system, is far more effective “in principle” than that of China. Unfortunately for the West, however, the countless managerial missteps of certain individuals and the inconsistencies brought about by the belief in their own infallibility have cancelled out any objective advantages that the West may have had over China. People in the West caught a “bad break” when, at a crucial moment in history, their leaders turned out to be wholly incapable of meeting the challenge before them.

There are gaping holes in the second line of defence as well. It is difficult to find a convincing argument that would explain why such different leaders (in terms of their political views, professional experience, management style and even age) have done about as poorly as each other in their response to the coronavirus in the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. Let us not forget that the population of these countries is several times lower than that of China, yet the number of infected exceeds the Chinese figures significantly. If the Western political system continues to put incompetent and inadequate in positions of power, then perhaps the problem is not the people themselves, but the system as such!

Back to the Roots!

The third line of defence is the willingness to acknowledge the serious systemic imperfections of modern capitalism without touching upon the fundamental principles of political liberalism. In this case, it is not so much Donald Trump and Boris Johnson who are to blame, but rather Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The argument here is that many Western countries made the fatal mistake in the late 1970s and early 1980s of privatizing numerous industries and stimulating economic inequality. What is more, the state started to reject its traditional social obligations. Not only did this result in the degradation of national healthcare systems, but it also led to increased social and political polarization and a general distrust of state institutions and of other people. This all came to a head when a real test in the form of the coronavirus appeared. For example, in the United States, not only did the Republicans and Democrats not rally together in the fight against the pandemic, but they also turned COVID-19 into another reason to step up interparty hostilities.

The conclusion can thus be made that, in order to successfully fight the pandemic and overcome the various other challenges that await humanity, the West needs to return to the historical fork in the road, as it were, where the wrong choice was made. The proponents of this argument point to the relatively successful strategy of the Scandinavian countries in fighting the coronavirus, where social interaction remains high, the state never abandoned its social obligations and the government, opposition, trade unions and employer associations have come together to fight the pandemic.

There is, of course, a logic to this approach. However, the first thing that we should point out here is that the success of the Scandinavian countries in fighting coronavirus has been mixed thus far. As of April 23, 2020, Finland had 3868 registered cases, with 98 deaths (2.5 per cent), compared to 14,777 and 1580 (10.5 per cent), respectively, in Sweden. This can hardly be seen as an unequivocal success for the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven. Secondly, some doubt if the Scandinavian models of the social state can be interpreted as a consistent implementation of “true capitalism at all.”

What if the Defence Falls?

As we can see, holding these lines of defence requires huge resources and casualties from the West. At the first line of defence, the question simply comes down to increasing the effectiveness of propaganda and counterpropaganda and enhancing the West’s intelligence and analytical potential in the name of winning the information war against Beijing. At the second line of defence, at least some of today’s leaders, as well as members of their inner circles, will need to go. And holding the third line of defence will take more than simply removing individual figures from the political scene, no matter how influential they may be. Substantial reforms of the political and socio-economic models of leading Western nations are what is needed here, with all the costs that this will entail for the current elites.

Let us say that there is enough determination and political will in the West to make these sacrifices. Will this be enough to guarantee victory over China in the “battle of narratives”? And what if the third line of defence is breached? Such a breach would represent a direct or indirect acknowledgement that the relative failures of the West and the relative successes of China in the fight against coronavirus are not down to Beijing manipulating the statistics, the inferiority of certain leaders in the West or the departure of leading Western countries from the traditional foundations of the capitalist system.

The failure of the third line of defence would demonstrate that the failures of the West are rooted in the very principles of political liberalism, which is losing all credibility in front of our very eyes through its inability to respond in an effective manner to the challenges of the 21st century. And we are not talking about losing a battle here (even a major one) – we are talking about losing the war.

The Return of Convergence Theory?

iberal political systems assume a degree of external and internal openness. As a rule, liberalism promotes the idea of the free movement of goods, services and people around the world. While people in China saw the closing of the country’s borders as a natural measure for preventing the spread of the coronavirus, similar steps in Western countries were met with fierce criticism from the political opposition. And this is understandable, as a person in a liberal society is first and foremost a “citizen of the world,” rather than a citizen in an authoritarian society. Inside one’s own country, the former enjoys more professional, social and geographical mobility than the latter and has a much wider network of social and professional contacts. This is precisely why a liberal society is, by definition, a more fertile environment for spreading COVID-19.

Liberal societies are far more resistant to attempts by the state to interfere in the private lives of their citizens, be it monitoring smartphones to identify people with whom an infected individual may have had contact or restricting the movement of the population. It is more difficult to place limits on household consumption in liberal societies, even when such restrictions are necessary to prevent panic buying, artificial scarcity and price gouging. Similarly, the liberal economic model is not as effective as the authoritarian model when it comes to mobilizing productive resources in times of war, natural disasters and other difficult times.

None of this necessarily means that authoritarianism will always triumph over liberalism. Even the most effective forms of authoritarianism (as displayed by the Chinese model) have their obvious flaws and imperfections. But if China scores a resounding victory in the battle of “coronavirus narratives,” then much will surely change in terms of what we consider the most desirable future for humankind.

After all, COVID-19 is not the last pandemic that the world will have to face. And let us not forget about climate change, the increasingly frequent natural disasters, possible resource shortages and other emergency situations which, unfortunately, are becoming part of the “new normality.” People across the world want to be free. Freedom is still valued highly. But what if we put the question rather coldly: Would you prefer to survive in an authoritarian Wuhan or die in a free New York?

In the middle of the last century, several prominent thinkers, including Pitirim Sorokin and John Galbraith put forward the idea of converging two opposing socio-economic systems. The so-called convergence theory gained popularity in the 1960s–1970s, even though it was heavily criticized in both the East and the West. The implosion of the world socialist system at the end of the 20th century meant that everyone simply forgot about it, condemning it to the scrapheap of human errors. Perhaps now is the time to revisit the idea from a 21st-century perspective?

From our partner RIAC

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council.