U.S. Says Virus Can’t be Controlled. China Aims to Prove It Wrong.

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The United States is hitting records in daily coronavirus cases. But China, the country first afflicted with the scourge, is having a different experience.

Unlike the Trump administration, which has said it is prioritizing opening the economy while essentially giving up on controlling the pandemic, China moved aggressively to stop the virus. The result: China’s economy is growing and life there is returning to a semblance of normal, while the United States is struggling with a third wave of infections and the prospect of new restrictions.

Economic growth in China has surged, hitting 4.9 percent in the latest quarter, and consumer spending has slowly started to recover. Residents are once again flocking into malls, bars, concert halls and hair salons, while schools, subways and offices are crowded.

China has effectively sealed off its borders from the outside world and doubled down on efforts to eradicate the virus. When a crop of cases emerge, the government swiftly shuts down vast areas and quickly tests millions of people, to help keep local transmissions near zero.

As with much in the Covid era, the normalcy comes with an asterisk. Mr. Xie said he rarely goes on work trips anymore, instead speaking with clients by video. He said people had largely grown accustomed to wearing masks on subways and buses, even though Hangzhou has not had a coronavirus case in months.

“It has become a habit,” he said. “It’s just part of life. People accept it.”

China’s success would have seemed improbable when the virus emerged in the central city of Wuhan late last year.

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The Chinese government was denounced for trying to initially cover up the virus and to silence those who tried to warn about the outbreak. The decision to lock down Wuhan, a city of 11 million, for 76 days was widely criticized as inhumane and damaging to the livelihoods of ordinary families.

For months, President Trump has been one of Beijing’s fiercest opponents. He has railed against the “China virus” on Twitter and has made attacks on the Chinese Communist Party a centerpiece of his campaign.

But China now represents the extreme, Communist version of a highly managed, scientifically backed approach that has worked in South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan and other democracies. To varying degrees, they are emphasizing the collective good over personal freedoms, a formula that has allowed them to keep cases relatively low.

In these places, people take heed when officials mandate masks and impose social distancing restrictions, even if sometimes begrudgingly. They put up with mandatory quarantines and invasive government tracking efforts. They support closing the borders and limiting entry, in most cases, to residents only.

“In China, a word from a superior can be heard immediately and implemented quickly,” Ms. Gao said. “It’s the difference between individualism and collectivism.”

The distinction between the two countries has fueled a propaganda frenzy, with officials highlighting the surge in cases in the United States to tout the strength of China’s authoritarian system and deflect attention from domestic problems.

The Chinese foreign ministry has said the pandemic has “torn the emperor’s new clothes” off American democracy. A recent commentary in Global Times, a brash tabloid controlled by the party, called the situation in the United States a “huge human rights tragedy,” echoing language that American politicians often use against China.

The failure of many western countries to contain the pandemic has helped Mr. Xi bolster the party, which came under attack for its early missteps in handling the crisis.

“The message is, ‘Look at the way the United States and Europe are dealing with a simple matter of life and death — and look at how your government under the Communist Party and Xi Jinping have dealt with the exact same issue,’” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Mr. Tsang said the party’s success in handling the pandemic would strengthen Mr. Xi’s grip on power, especially if the Chinese economy continues to outperform other countries. “It will simply reinvigorate him in his efforts to tighten up control of society,” he said.

China, though, can’t declare outright victory.

The economy remains in a precarious position, and its strength depends in large part on whether the party can maintain a sense of confidence among the public. With a vaccine still many months away, business owners worry the virus could resurface and once again bring life in China to a standstill.

Jane Shao, president of Lumière Pavilions, a Chinese movie theater chain, said sales had largely recovered since last year because customers believe they can be safe in public. The widespread use of apps in China that verify people’s health has helped reduce fears about the virus, she said.

“We don’t know when they’ll allow us to reopen, but right now, we can’t do any business,” he said in a telephone interview. “We can’t go out. We can’t go anywhere.”

Amy Chang Chien and Albee Zhang contributed research.



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