Relatively common as it has become, the notion that China has been better than Western societies at fighting Covid suffers from one problem: China is not playing the same game. While European countries or the United States regarded the pandemic as a public health crisis, for Chinese authorities it was always a national security crisis. It involved questions of existential importance: the international stature of China, the viability of its national plans and perhaps even the final survival of the regime.
Perhaps those authorities had no alternative. After all, many commentators in the United States reacted to news of the outbreak in Wuhan by placing it squarely as a national security crisis for Beijing. In the end, as a country in the middle of a swift ascent in the global power ranking, and the country where the pandemic originated, the stakes would always be precipitously higher in China than elsewhere.
Since the outbreak was regarded as an imminent threat to the status of the country and the survival of the regime, the measures adopted were drastic and absolute. Everything took second stage. A swift victory was the only scenario contemplated and the tools were commensurate to the task.
China did beat Covid, but remember that it was not playing by the same rules as Europe or the United States. The game was a different one
and therefore any comparison between the outcomes must be subtler than many increasingly assume.
It is because China was playing a different game that a clash of perceptions became inevitable. Chinese foreign policy has paid a heavy price as a result. Not diplomatic clumsiness but the opposition of intellectual frameworks explains why China’s image has suffered from what - on a different dimension - has to be described as an effective response to the pandemic. In Europe that opposition took dramatic tones: Europeans regarded Covid as a global health crisis, where cooperation across borders had a role to play, and were shocked to discover that Chinese authorities saw it as a unique occasion for intense global competition. The political consequences have become clearer and clearer in recent months: perceptions of China in Europe have taken a negative turn, helping shape a new approach to important policy decisions.