But Mousie, you are not alone,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Often go awry,

And leave us nothing but grief and pain,

For promised joy! [1]

Sometimes things just don’t go as planned. It’s a fact of life, as true for Robert Burns’ “Mousie” in 1785 as for us creatures and peoples populating the earth today.

China is no exception. From the 40th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, through to the 70th anniversary of the PRC’s founding, 2019 was supposed to be a year of celebration. What’s more, it would be the culmination of a decade in which China became the world’s largest economy (by some measures), and significantly grew in stature as a global power, all under a resilient Communist Party leadership considered to be the most powerful in a generation.

But those 'best laid schemes' went a bit awry and, as it turned out, the end of the last year and decade could not have come soon enough for China’s political leaders. Just consider some of the major, mostly unexpected challenges they had to deal with in 2019:

  • Mass protests that engulfed the Hong Kong SAR for over six months
  • International backlash to the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang
  • A persistent trade dispute with the US (still China’s largest trading partner)
  • A swine fever outbreak that killed almost half of the country’s pig population
  • Growing global concern and debate over China’s overseas activities

From this series of issues gushed forth a slew of negative international news flows, making it a tricky twelve months for the PRC’s PR machine. And despite far-reaching media and influence work, the administration of paramount leader Xi Jinping found it increasingly hard to steer the global narrative on China in the direction it so desired. 2019 – the Year of the Pig – ended up (please forgive me ) being a “pig” of a year. The question is, why?

Fighting a Losing Battle

One thing the Chinese certainly cannot be accused of is lack of effort or investment in its international public relations. In 2019, Beijing expanded its overseas media operations, opening a state-of-the-art London production centre for state broadcaster CGTN, one which can accommodate up to 300 staff.[2] It also increased its use of foreign commentators and influencers, deploying ambassadors as media spokespersons (a move that contrasts starkly with the PRC’s previously low-profile diplomatic approach).[3] The Chinese foreign ministry even opened its own Trump-style Twitter account (@MFA_China), despite the microblogging platform being blocked in mainland China.

But the effectiveness of such propaganda measures is questionable. If anything, they have merely further underscored Beijing’s frustration with what it views as an inherently biased global media environment, one that supposedly threatens the country’s “national interests” and limits its chance of heeding Xi’s call to “tell the world a good China story” (向世界讲好中国故事). This is understandable: the commercial news media industry in the West operates very differently to China's heavily-censored, semi-commercialised environment for public information. And there has undoubtedly been a rising discourse of demonisation towards China projected by major media outlets and political parties, particularly in the US.

Upon this increasingly challenging landscape, it should be unsurprising that China has adopted a more assertive global communications strategy. There is little evidence, however, to suggest that it is working. In fact, it seems China has been fighting a losing battle, where whatever steps it takes are almost always criticised as either too much or too little.

The result is that global perceptions of China have gotten worse year over year, particularly in North America.[4] And such negative China sentiment appears to be hardening among elite politicians, academics and journalists, many of whom have turned distinctly more hawkish.[5] At best, China’s state-led media machine may only be reinforcing an existing pocket of support among a relatively tiny minority of the global audience. And that clearly falls well short of Beijing’s hopes to grow its international soft power.

Un-Happy New Year

So, to 2020 – a new year, a new decade and a new zodiac cycle. In short, an opportunity for the Chinese government to start afresh, overcoming challenges and rebuilding its damaged international brand. Initially, things were looking up for Beijing, including:

  • The successful signing of a phase-one trade deal with the US
  • Optimism for better-than-expected economic growth, benefiting from central policy support [6]
  • Evidence of vastly improved air quality in China’s major metropolitan areas
  • Reports of booming Belt and Road trade, following the largely successful 2019 BRI Forum
  • Rumours that Huawei will get the controversial UK 5G contract, a major win for China Inc.

Meanwhile the West was poised to self-destruct as Trump played with fire in the Middle East and Beijing looked on from an apparently higher moral ground. So far, so good then for China’s renewed image offensive at the start of the Roaring Twenties.

Or so it seemed until around mid-January, when reports emerged of a dangerous new viral outbreak in central China. It soon became clear that people were dying from this novel, pneumonia-inducing coronavirus, and that it was spreading quickly inside and outside of Wuhan – a city the size of London and one of China’s major transportation corridors. To make matters worse, it all unfolded on the eve of the world’s largest annual human migration, the Lunar New Year holiday. Thus, once again, Beijing's best-laid plans had gone horribly awry. [7]

Needless to say, this bug has put a downer on festivities, with millions cancelling travel plans and staying indoors over the week-long break. In Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province – which houses a population roughly the size of England! – such measures have been forced upon residents under an official lockdown. Medical workers and services personnel nationwide have been called back from vacation and redeployed to the virus-stricken region. It is the Chinese equivalent of cancelling Christmas, and people’s disappointment and anger have been visible on social media, with the local Wuhan government and mayor the principle targets for criticism.

Blessing in Disguise?

At the time of writing this blog, a lot remains unknown regarding the new coronavirus – catchily named "2019-nCoV", at least for now – and the ultimate impact it will have on the Chinese and global economies. But one thing’s fairly certain: the efficacy or inefficacy of the steps China takes could either make or break its year. If Beijing fails to adequately contain, prevent and treat the spread within and beyond its borders, then the reputation of the country and its top leadership could suffer immensely, both at home and abroad.

On the flip side, if Xi and his crisis response group manage to alleviate the virus early on, limiting the number of cases and deaths, then it could prove to be a blessing in disguise. China would revel in a major triumph, both in terms of disaster management and political PR. The world will say how amazing it is that China can build hospitals in a matter of days and quarantine country-sized regions. And the Chinese state media will not shy away from pointing out such achievements. For businesses trading with and investing in China, this will almost certainly have a positive effect, increasing confidence in a region and authoritarian system under heavy fire in recent years.

Positive sentiment aside, the fundamental benefits of China’s ability to lead on global crisis management could also be hugely consequential. This is especially true at a time when the world is already facing the beginnings of a climate catastrophe and its associated humanitarian events. Not to mention that the existing global superpower, the United States, is being run by an unpredictable president seeking to increasingly withdraw the country from a position of outsize responsibility. If China can lead the world to humanely manage and overcome large-scale disasters – while working alongside other international partners, including (or perhaps chiefly with) the US – then that can only be a positive thing.

From Pig to Rat to Bull

The last Rat Year was 2008 – remembered in China for the momentous Olympic games in Beijing, but also for an earthquake in its southwestern Sichuan province that killed over 70,000 people. In Western countries, that same year is largely remembered for the darkest days of the global financial crisis, particularly the downfall of US investment bank Lehman Brothers.

There is also a belief, held either rightly or wrongly, that the Chinese economy did not suffer as much in the financial crisis as its Western counterparts, supposedly thanks to Beijing's more effective government intervention. In any case, China led the way in launching a major fiscal stimulus, which was then followed in similar fashion by Europe and the US, in what became something of a worldwide comeback tour for Keynesian economics.[8]

If indeed this does end up being another bittersweet year for China, but one in which the country and its leadership ultimately emerge stronger, then it would likely spur a strong vote of confidence in the Chinese system, particularly its approach to crisis management. But 12 years on from 2008 – and in a context of much greater global awareness of and influence by the PRC – the global implications of a successful Chinese-managed crisis would be all the more significant. And who knows, maybe it will set the stage for a new bullish period of growth and prosperity starting next year (which like 2009 is, quite aptly, the Year of the Bull).

Anyway, this is all getting rather speculative and astrological... So I shall end this post as I began, with a truism: only time will tell. Or, to use the more poetic words of Burns to Mousie:

Still you are blessed, compared with me!

The present only touches you:

But oh! I backward cast my eye,

On prospects dreary!

And forward, though I cannot see,

I guess and fear!


[1] From To a Mouse by Robert Burns, the poem from which John Steinbeck took the title of his 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men. Incidentally, the birthday of Burns (celebrated as Burns’ Night in the British Isles) coincided with the first day of the new lunar Year of the Rat, January 25.

[2] This followed a delay of about a year, due to various legal and regulatory issues, as reported by the FT. See also this 2018 Times of London article.

[3] As explained in this SCMP commentary.

[4] According to a study by Pew.

[5] For example, these comments by scholar Arthur Waldron, who I had previously considered to be fairly moderate. He now describes China as "the world’s most evil regime since the Nazis". This is quite a claim considering some of the grossly inhuman acts committed by other regimes over the years, and most recently in Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Russia...

[6] As explained by the Standard Chartered chief economist David Mann in his FT piece.

[7] In fact, the CCTV evening newscast on the lunar new year's eve boasted about the impressive achievement of a record three billion journeys taking place over the holiday period, with only a short report allocated to the virus situation. I have heard people grumble this about online and in private conversations, seeing it as insensitive and even misleading.

[8] See this glowing assessment of China’s post-crisis policies by economist Barry Naughton.