As coronavirus goes global, China touts its ‘strong’ leadership and challenges the West to match its resolve

February 28, 2020, 11:38 AM UTC

At first, the coronavirus was a China problem. As the cases of new infections skyrocketed in January and early February, the central government worked to contain the outbreak that started in the commercial center of Wuhan. It closed transport links. It locked down the city of 11 million. It built 1,000-bed hospitals in a matter of days. Beijing was caught on its heels, having to answer for why it didn’t do more sooner.

The rest of the world watched, responding with good wishes but harsh travel restrictions that largely isolated the most populous nation on Earth.

But now, the coronavirus has truly gone global, and other nations are experiencing what China lived through weeks ago. Some like South Korea and Italy are the new coronavirus pariahs, with their citizens banned from crossing certain borders. Still others are facing questions about preparedness and the likelihood of massive lockdowns.

All the while, China’s extreme measures in battling the coronavirus epidemic appear to be working; it seems to be winning its “peoples war” against the disease. On Wednesday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said more new cases of coronavirus were reported outside of China than within the country for the first time. Indeed, according to China’s official statistics, which continue to draw some skepticism, the spread of the disease has steeply declined in China, nearly grinding to a halt outside the coronavirus’s epicenter of Hubei Province.

In a matter of days, the coronavirus script has suddenly flipped, and some in China appear vindicated by the moment.

“Perhaps the whole world has underestimated COVID-19, which is a common enemy of mankind,” tweeted Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of China’s state-run Global Times. “Countries just cut off transportation with China but did little internally for epidemic control. There’re people who gloat over outbreak being…in China. But things are changing.”

At a press conference in Guangzhou on Thursday, Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese epidemiologist famous for discovering SARS who’s taken an active role in combatting the coronavirus outbreak, predicted that the virus will “basically be under control” in China by the end of April. He decried the “negative” coverage of China’s handling of the outbreak from foreign press and said that taming the virus was only made possible by the strength of China’s political system.

Videos of his press conference zipped around Chinese social media, with some users adding triumphant sound-effects to accompany his comments.

“It wasn’t easy, but China made it,” said a spokesperson for China’s embassy in Singapore on Friday. “Without a strong leadership and an efficient social system, this would be a mission impossible.”

This celebratory tone stands in stark contrast to earlier defensive remarks by Chinese authorities, who’d come under fire—domestically and internationally—for not raising alarm about the coronavirus early enough.

Propaganda sources and nationalistic outlets have struck a distinctly celebratory and defiant tone, says Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Some influential social media accounts have proudly claimed that other countries should now “copy China’s homework” in containing the virus, Fang said, while others have said it was lucky that the outbreak initially occurred in China because it’s handling of the outbreak has been so effective.

Beijing’s response to the virus still has plenty of critics, but as the COVID-19 disease spreads, there are real questions about how poorer or more democratic nations will attack the outbreak.

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