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Why Xi Jinping Can't Escape His Failures On COVID

Like unpopular leaders in democracies, Chinese President Xi Jinping has decided recently to increase his trips abroad to project an image of power and distract from the ills at home. But the debacle of the country's strategy on the pandemic is not going away, and there may be real long-term consequences.

Why Xi Jinping Can't Escape His Failures On COVID

At a demonstration outside China's embassy in London

Dominique Moisi


At the end of 2022, building new alliances around the world seems easier to the Chinese government than convincing its own population that Chinese vaccines will prevent a new surge in COVID cases.

Or put another way: the Middle East and Africa seem to trust China more than Chinese people themselves. It looks like trust toward China increases only with distance. So, it's reasonable to ask if the Chinese leaders themselves are aware of this dual evolution.

It wouldn’t hurt Chinese leaders to give a read to that essay entitled “Foreign Policy Begins at Home”, written in 2013 by the Council on Foreign Relations’ President in New York, Richard Haas. The book’s thesis is summed up in its title.

Haas is convinced that making the necessary reforms at home, economically and socially, is a crucial objective in any foreign policy. Without those structural reforms, he explains, the United States won’t be able to face the world’s new challenges.

But now, can we also apply this thesis to China?

After more than two years of self-imposed confinement, President Xi Jinping has started to travel more around the world. But his own freedom of movement deeply contrasts with the common fate of the Chinese people today.

Does all this moving around mean that Xi only wishes to catch up on the past two years? Or is it mainly a desire to distract attention? Probably a bit of both.

Different images at home and abroad

He was in Riyadh a few days ago, and was received with great ceremony by the Saudi authorities. He previously attended the G20 summit in Bali, where he met with President Biden. And shortly before that, he was seen at the Samarkand summit, where he was able to have an exchange with Vladimir Putin.

Is Xi Jinping trying to reinforce his image abroad? An image that has been scorned within his own country, after the defeat of the the war he led against COVID? We thought that only democratic leaders had those kinds of wishes: the ones who are facing public opinion, to a free press, to free elections.

Did COVID reduce the structural differences that used to exist between autocratic regimes and democratic systems?

Still, the Chinese President seems to be looking to restore his public image in his own country by increasing his international exposure. And this strategy is not unlike President Macron’s. On one hand, there are demonstrators in China’s streets, who clearly wish for his resignation and the end of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power.

And on the other hand, there are Saudi private jets that formed his Honor Guard in the sky, before his plane landed in Riyadh. It seems that Xi is saying: “Alright, a tiny portion of irresponsible Chinese are criticizing me at home. But see how the Saudis are treating me! And through me, it’s China that they are honoring.”

Democratic vs. autocratic leaders

Maybe Chinese people are not sensitive to these kinds of considerations at a time when COVID measures are being dropped but cases are increasing. A very fine connoisseur of China that I know, however, reported to me that the brutal rebukes toward the Canadian Prime Minister, when the two leaders briefly met at the G20 summit, had been widely reported by the Chinese press.

And the Chinese people had apparently approved the news, as they like to see their leaders treat their Western counterparts with haughtiness. In the Chinese psyche, there is still a firm desire to see the past’s humiliations being washed out.

Did COVID reduce the structural differences that used to exist between autocratic regimes and democratic systems? It seems indeed that international visibility is sought by both democratic and autocratic leaders eager to compensate for how they're viewed at home.

There is still a major difference: autocratic regimes are first and foremost looking for some kind of “respect,” which goes along with a language of strength. Yet, democratic regimes put more emphasis on soft power, and are looking to find more international compromises.

Xi Jinping in Riyadh in early December with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz

Saudi Press Agency/APA Images/ZUMA

The power and the people

In the power balance between the power and the people, the new Chinese philosophy can be summed up like the following way: “I cannot guarantee you increasing economic growth, nor the best protection against COVID. Yet I can help you to recover your pride, as an empire and a civilization that is reclaiming their former and true place in the world: the first place.”

As a result, China’s soft power has been considerably weakened by the results of its “war against COVID.” Still, a crucial question needs to be asked: what about the people's trust in its ruling elites? Nearly 15 years ago, during the Summer Olympics in Beijing, China appeared like a dynamic, hopeful and relatively open country. Nowadays, however, despite the daily suffering endured by Kyiv’s inhabitants, this city seems more hopeful than Beijing.

Refusal of “foreign” vaccines

In this era of COVID and of Xi Jinping’s rule, there's a mixture in China of fear of the present and new doubts about the future. And this is a direct product of a growing distrust towards power. While the number of elderly people is increasing in China, the country’s best weapon against COVID would have been to ask for the mandatory vaccination of the most vulnerable.

The country is now facing a solid risk of seeing the pandemic grow

This policy has been followed by many prosperous and democratic countries with generally positive results, including in Asia. Such a choice would have prevented the crippling of the Chinese economy. It would have also prevented the spectacular restriction of civil freedom that occurred in the country, in the name of a strict but ridiculous “Zero COVID” policy.

But such a policy would have required more open posture towards “foreign” vaccines — the only ones that felt safe, according to the Chinese population. But China refused to be that open, and to depend on Western vaccines — something that would have felt like a humiliation for Beijing's government. And because of that, the country is now facing a solid risk of seeing the pandemic spread.

And all of Xi's foreign travels won’t make it go away.

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