Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, China faced the worst possible international environment since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. Long isolated by the Western powers, China fought a brief, bloody border clash over Zhenbao Island with the Soviet Union in 1969, prompting international concerns of a new World War involving nuclear weapons. To prepare for the worst-case scenario, China’s leader Mao Zedong called on the masses to “deeply dig tunnels, extensively store grain, and never seek hegemony”. Beijing’s rising fears of Moscow had led Mao to shift China’s global strategy and seek to mend ties with its long-time enemy the United States , paving the way for China’s eventual return to the international community. Now 50 years later, the circumstances have changed dramatically. China and Russia give the appearance of being best buddies even though they are not yet allies. Relations between Beijing and Washington , meanwhile, are going from bad to worse. But Mao’s famous slogan still resonates in Beijing’s corridors of power and is worth revisiting if one tries to understand how China views the fast-changing international dynamics hastened by the coronavirus pandemic . As the great powers including Beijing and Washington manoeuvre for a post-Covid-19 world of rising uncertainties, the line of thinking that China will emerge stronger from the crisis and try to fill the global leadership void left by a retreating US has gained credence among analysts and commentators. On the one end of the spectrum, that view is put forward by Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and an influential thinker, who recently argued in an article for The Economist magazine that the pandemic could mark the start of an Asian century led by China. He compared Asian countries’ efficient handling of the outbreak and effective governance to the incompetent response of the West. China can turn the tables on the US with a science-led probe into Covid-19’s origins On the other end of the spectrum are right-wing commentators in the US like Tucker Carlson of Fox News, who claimed Beijing had taken advantage of the chaos to advance its plan to “rule the world”. He too said the disaster could herald “a new Chinese century”. In the month since China lifted the lockdown of Wuhan early last month, the original epicentre of the outbreak, state media has ramped up propaganda to praise the Communist Party’s leadership and institutional strengths. In particular, the media has praised the mobilisation of national resources to contain the spread of the deadly virus in less than three months and the party’s efforts to help other countries by sending teams of medical experts and vast amounts of supplies overseas. Every night, national news bulletins broadcast interviews with foreign officials and commentators, particularly from those countries which have received Chinese aid, heaping praise on China as a responsible world power. But beneath the exuberant rhetoric, however, lies a grim assessment of domestic and international landscapes among Chinese officials and analysts. Even on April 8, when China eased the lockdown of Wuhan, the party’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest governing council, was taking a much more sombre tone on the international challenges posed by the pandemic. President Xi Jinping said that the global spread of the outbreak had brought greater downward risks to the world economy and led to a significant increase in destabilising factors and uncertainties. “We must get ready for the worst-case scenarios, and be mentally and professionally prepared to address the changes in our external environment over a fairly long period to come,” he said. That was not the first time Xi had urged officials to be “mentally and professionally prepared for the worst-case scenarios”. In January last year, Xi issued a similar warning to all leading central and local officials during a major gathering in Beijing to discuss unexpected “black swan” and highly probable but ignored “grey rhino” threats. That meeting took place against the background of a slowdown in the China economy, a ratcheting up of Donald Trump’s trade war and the sanctioning of Chinese tech companies, including Huawei . All this shows that Chinese leaders have a clear view of the challenges despite the over-the-top and nationalist-driven propaganda aimed at the domestic audience. A global backlash is building against China as the country faces the most hostile international environment since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. A contrarian view on why not all hope is lost for US-China ties Since the pandemic began, Xi has held phone calls with more than 40 heads of foreign governments, urging international cooperation and offering support with medical supplies. But China is neither equipped nor ready to step up to global leadership at this time of international crisis, even as the US retreats further from the world stage, leaving its Western allies disappointed. Washington is widely seen as politicising the pandemic by pushing to punish China and deflecting blame for its own weak response. Even after Washington halted funding to the World Health Organisation , a decision which shocked global health officials, Beijing donated a mere US$50 million in two tranches to the WHO’s critical efforts to contain the pandemic, particularly in vulnerable developing countries. By comparison, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, has pledged US$305 million, including money earmarked for the WHO, to battle the pandemic through his foundation and said in a recent interview that the foundation would “end up spending a lot more”. On May 4, the European Union co-led a virtual summit to raise US$8 billion to develop drugs and vaccines to fight the pandemic, drawing leaders from Germany, France, Britain and Japan. While the US was notably absent, which dismayed health officials, China merely sent its ambassador to the EU and did not make any financial commitment. Much has been written in the international media about how China tried to create a narrative around its international leadership through its so-called mask diplomacy, in which it shipped massive amounts of medical supplies and teams of experts to countries around the world. The effort has won praise and goodwill but it should not be seen as an attempt to seek global leadership, not least because, as the workshop of the world, China is duty bound to ramp up production to meet the needs of the international community. More importantly, it is what a responsible country should do, particularly after China received generous help from the international community when the outbreak was first reported in Wuhan. Moreover, many analysts have cautioned Beijing against excessively praising its own success in battling the pandemic at a time when the virus is still ravaging economies and lives around the world. Such propaganda risks inviting dismay and grievances from those countries still bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Beijing’s unwillingness to step up is partly because of its limited capacity, resources and experience but also because of an internal debate over China’s own priorities. Chinese leaders have long maintained that no matter how complicated the international situation has become, China must manage its own affairs well. This is particularly true at this time of crisis. China’s economy has taken a massive hit and the damage is extensive, despite reports that the country’s overall return-to-work rate has passed 80 per cent. A majority of international and domestic economists now expect the world’s second-largest economy to grow around 3 per cent this year at best, even if the government’s economic stimulus accelerates and bears fruit in the second half of the year. However, China’s spending is constrained by its already very high debt levels, accounting for over 300 per cent of GDP. At the upcoming annual session of the National People’s Congress, starting on May 22, China is expected to drop its economic growth target for this year because of the pandemic, the first time it has done so since 1985, when it began announcing annual targets. This means China will fail to meet one of its key benchmarks of doubling GDP and per capita income by 2020 from the 2010 levels. Even Xi’s top priority of eradicating absolute poverty in China by the end of the year has been hampered by soaring unemployment, despite Xi having repeatedly vowed that the target would be met whatever difficulties were encountered. To save US lives, Trump must learn from China, not fight it Next year marks the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and the party’s high-stakes 20th congress will take place in 2022 when Xi is expected to stay on as the country’s leader. All this suggests it will be important for Chinese leaders to emphasise domestic stability and reforms over struggling for global leadership. Already, there are calls among Chinese analysts for China to scale down its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative because of the drastic changes in the international environment and spending priorities. As worldwide lockdowns disrupt global food supply chains and raise concerns over a food crisis, Mao’s slogan and its implications are still very relevant today. ■ Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.