I cannot image this is going to happen, but there ought to be an independent inquiry into how the coronavirus pandemic started and got out of control. We could, borrowing from Adam Smith, call it ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Health of Nations’. People deserve an explanation. In its absence, it is hardly surprising that many believe the Chinese Communist Party should be held to account.
Yet, others insist the CCP should not be blamed, arguing that after early missteps and errors, China managed to control the virus, re-open its economy, supply needed global public goods and offer global governance which the US isn’t.
These two views mark out a new global geopolitical fault-line, which will outlive the worst of the pandemic, and in which narratives matter a lot.
China was rocked by the coronavirus outbreak. The CCP’s craving for stability and control, and its institutionalised demand for good news and suppression of discussion, lay behind decisions to cover up, mislead and deceive crucial information for 6-7 crucial weeks before ‘owning up’ to the crisis in late January. It carried on as normal before Chinese New Year, and allowed several million people to leave Wuhan, for example, for domestic and foreign visits, knowing that a new and dangerous virus was on the loose.
As the Western world succumbed to the virus, and poor or late decision-making, though, China seized the initiative to change the narrative, and launch a two-pronged diplomatic initiative.
One was to supply badly needed global public goods in the form, for example, of masks, medicines, ventilators and other equipment to various countries in Europe, including the UK and Italy, and the US. Many countries have welcomed them though some, including the Netherlands, Spain and the Czech Republic have complained of defective equipment. It also moved to organise crisis responses in several countries in western Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
The other was to step up to a global governance and leadership role in health, and other areas, exploiting the plight of the US and the political distancing of the Trump Administration from global bodies. China has long tried to ‘capture’ influence, in the WHO, doubtless helped by the White House’s recent abrupt decision to suspend funding. China has also been pressuring the UN to adopt its technical internet standards and protocols, as well as telecommunications technologies. It was recently elected on to a panel of the UN Commission on Human Rights. And had it not been for US intervention, it would have provided the head of the World Intellectual Property Organisation. The irony of having China play such prominent governance roles in these areas specifically in international agencies, is mind-numbing.
The diplomatic offensive has also extended to a more direct form of nationalism, in which the US and other nations have been accused of being incompetent or inferior in their Covid crisis responses, and in which Foreign Ministry officials and diplomats have engaged in ’Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy (named after a patriotic film in 2015 and 2017) to deflect western criticisms of China concerning management of the pandemic. They have even charged that the US military and Italy were responsible for the virus.
While China’s diplomatic initiatives have resonated for some, they are also encountering a lot of pushback. Much, as one might expect, is cross-party in the US where law-makers have sought to introduce various bills looking to sanction China’s leaders, launch formal investigations, remove China from US pharmaceutical supply chains, and pressure Beijing to change animal hygiene regulations. But there has also been pushback by France, Germany, the EU, Japan, India, Brazil, South Korea, Singapore, a score of African nations, including Ghana and Nigeria, and the UK.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, said there’s no going back to ‘business as usual’ (https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-no-more-business-as-usual-with-china-after-covid-19-crisis-warns-dominic-raab-11974398) and there have been reports that the government’s Huawei decision could be reversed (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-16/johnson-s-huawei-plan-at-risk-as-u-k-set-to-rethink-china-ties). The Henry Jackson Society (think tank) issued a report recently arguing that the Covid outbreak had cost the G7 countries over £3 trillion and for which China should be held to account.
A lot of the legal initiatives probably won’t fly, and there’s no way China will listen to, let alone, agree to compensation claims. The point, though is that China is now in a lot of people’s cross-hairs, not only for long-standing reasons to do with human rights, standards and values, but now also because of the CCP’s association with a pandemic that is not only causing a huge amount of personal distress to so many, but has also plunged the world into an unprecedented economic contraction which will reduce global GDP by hundreds of trillions of dollars.
Despite all this, some insist that China should not be blamed, and that the West would be better off trying to work with China to bring this awful pandemic under control and ensure it doesn’t happen again, and get the Chinese economy back on to a sustainable growth path to help the global economy recover. One such protagonist, the British think tank, Chatham House, published an opinion piece on its website last week called “Blaming China is a Dangerous Distraction’ (https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/blaming-china-dangerous-distraction). Another is Professor Kerry Brown of King’s College, who has also argued recently that we should engage with China rather than argue with it ( https://www.newsweek.com/china-hawks-are-calling-coronavirus-their-smoking-gun-dont-buy-it-opinion-1497753).
Some of these sentiments are fine. Who doesn’t think that collaboration in global health, or climate change, for example, is a good idea? And all but some supporters of Trump, think that America is handling its global role with diabolical ineptitude.
Yet, others play straight to the Beijing gallery. They depict a narrative that China is a significant force for good in the world, too big to ignore, and in an inevitable ascendancy. In this story, Western decline, intransigence and churlishness are at fault.
My response to this is, not so fast. China is unquestionably large and economically significant, and fully merits its place in the global system. Yet, it is not necessarily a force for good, or a likely leader in global governance, given its proclivity for secrecy, lack of transparency, and disdain for the rule of law and other values we hold dear. Yes, we should collaborate where we can when our interests are aligned, but trust relations have to work both ways, and right now China is deemed untrustworthy.
Nor is its ascendancy, or even primacy as some assume, inevitable. In a messy globalisation, post-Covid world featuring instability and flux, it certainly doesn’t follow that China’s authoritarian and rigid political system will perform better in a world that demands the kind of adaptability and flexibility to which messier but perhaps more malleable economies in the West might be better suited. Come the US presidential election in November….. but that’s another story that is yet to be written.