Interview

China, America, & the 'Jaws Syndrome'
China, America, & the 'Jaws Syndrome'
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April 25, 2020

‘Both Trump and Xi have a fundamental political divide problem that the COVID-19 epidemic has exposed and made more apparent – and made substantially worse.’

Malcolm Riddell: ‘Why do think the Chinese government was late in addressing the COVID-19 crisis?

Bill Overholt: ‘Certainly the Chinese cover-up was terrible.’

  • ‘On the other hand, the Trump administration delays - and it was warned much better than the central Chinese government - was about as long as the Chinese delays.’

‘The reason is what I call it the “Jaws Syndrome.” ’

  • ‘You remember the movie “Jaws,” where local officials tried desperately to cover up the risk of a shark because they wanted the customers to keep coming to the beaches and buying ice cream and souvenirs.’
  • ‘It’s a statement about a universal issue. Officials will always try to cover up something and if there's a political or financial interest in doing so.’

Malcolm Riddell: ‘How do you see the impact on Xi and the Chinese communist party?’

Bill Overholt: ‘Well, it exacerbates Xi’s problems. Xi is in exactly the same position as Trump.’

  • ‘Like Trump, Xi has highly educated, alienated elite, who think he's taking the country backward and think he's mishandled a lot of the coronavirus problem.’
  • ‘Like Trump, Xi also has a less educated, massively nationalistic – you can't call it an underclass because it's large part of the population – group who supports him and buys into the argument that it's as foreign forces and stuff like that.’

‘So both Trump and Xi have a fundamental political divide problem that the COVID-19 epidemic has exposed and made more apparent – and made substantially worse.’

Malcolm Riddell: ‘What do make of China’s propaganda department’s handling of the situation?’

Bill Overholt: ‘Chinese propaganda department’s efforts to minimize the problem, to make China the savior of the world from this terrible problem and to try to blame the United States for the problem have backfired on China.’

  • ‘When they tried to blame the U.S., it makes people, people in America in particular - including me - quite angry.’
  • ‘It discredits China because everybody knows where this problem came from.'

‘And the Chinese have been very heavy-handed.’

  • ‘Their heavy-handedness in the process has been off-putting to people all over the world.’

‘Let me say also that both the early efforts by some of American scholars to blame this on the inherent defects of the Chinese communist system, and later, Chinese efforts to blame it on the inherent chaos of democracies have been totally wrong and totally counterproductive.’

Malcolm Riddell: ‘How would you compare the U.S. and Chinese leadership of the crisis?’

Bill Overholt: Both have been absolutely contemptible.’

  • ‘Trump's turning this into a partisan divide where, for example, he tries to mobilize demonstrations and potentially violence against governors who are trying to cope with this crisis - this is just the opposite of what the world needs.’
  • ‘The Chinese effort at home has not been quite so divisive, but the attacks on people like Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn about the virus early on, combined now with this nationalistic effort to mobilize forces to say that China's reaction has been wonderful - this too is exactly what the world doesn't need.’

‘Our only hope that both sides get leadership who don't play the game this way.’

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