Raining on China’s Parade

Sensing a unique opportunity to take a shortcut to the global top spot, China is putting in a sustained effort to turn tragedy into triumph and expand its standing and reach in the wake of the pandemic. The Chinese government is pretty pleased with its handling of the corona outbreak and now seeks recognition as a medical superpower and, more importantly, affirmation that the country’s societal model is superior to that of even the most advanced liberal democracies. However, if President Xi Jinping thinks that his government now sits at the top of the world, he has – as the saying goes – another thing coming.

Given the absence of US leadership and the unedifying displays of disunity in Europe, the ambitions of President Jinping are quite understandable and not at all unreasonable. However impressive its track record in defeating poverty and disease, the Chinese government lacks the self-confidence and inner strength necessary to provide any form of global leadership.

A country that feels the need to cow those less powerful into submission, cannot take dissent without suffering a bout of existentialist angst, and promotes alt-truths in order to hide its own failings, is not one the world can trust.

Last Saturday, The Guardian reported that Beijing has clamped down on the academic establishment and is taking research papers offline that paint a slightly different picture from the one broadcast by officialdom. Preliminary studies published by the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan on the origins of the corona virus have been deleted from the institution’s website and from a number of peer-reviewed fora used by academics to compare notes and critically examine the findings of colleagues.

In their attempt to control the narrative and exploit the pandemic to further the country’s own myopic interests, the powers that be do not tolerate any dissent. Scientific fact cannot be allowed to undermine the efforts of the state to prove the efficiency of its system in dealing with the pandemic. Rather than a sign of strength, the People’s Republic authoritarian posturing underscores the rather fragile nature of its government which is apparently unable to accept even the slightest form of criticism and instinctively represses anything and anybody not toeing the official line as drawn by those who know better.

Not only has China vastly underreported the number of corona dead, the country also flooded the world with shoddily made, and therefore useless face masks, it now silences scientists as well. If the world wants an example of how not to deal with a pandemic, it just need look at China.

Whilst the US government was painfully slow off the mark thanks to a peculiar president with a penchant for grandstanding, Washington does not suppress scientific research, has not muzzled the media, and continues to act within the boundaries of democratically established law. This perhaps helps explain why most Americans are tolerant of President Trump’s daily shenanigans: the vast majority of people still have a degree of trust in the state. Personal and collective freedom need not be limited either as most individuals and businesses know what is expected of them and act accordingly.

This is even more evident in Europe where governments experience no trouble at all whilst steering their societies in the sensible direction. Prime ministers and presidents are taking their cue from scientists, explain decisions in great detail, and keep parliaments in the loop. The press provides both context and constructive criticism which are widely considered to be helpful and even essential to the smooth functioning of democratic society. In order to command obedience, western governments must first earn the trust of their people. Transparency and accountability are key in liberal democracies.

In The Netherlands, the first stop in the ongoing debate about the possible usefulness of tracking technology in the fight against the spread of the virus was the decision to allow people to opt out of it. The government immediately recognised that forcing the Dutch to install a monitoring app on their smartphone would only have provoked a great many into civil disobedience. The second stop involved a decision to allow users of any future tracking app full control over their personal data.

Another consideration is that the Orwellian monitoring of citizens in China has probably not contributed in meaningful ways towards the containment of the virus – or at least not to the extent claimed by the country’s government which has made the suppression of bad numbers into an art form, especially when ‘national honour’ is at stake.

Strong empirical evidence gathered in Hubei Province, ground zero of the pandemic, suggests that China has severely underreported its death toll. However, it is not known how much of the data was fudged or how deliberate authorities were in juggling the numbers. Admittedly, the nature of the infection makes it hard to produce exact figures. Now that independent fact finding and scientific investigation have been outlawed, the true scale of the epidemic in China may never come to light.

China’s barely disguised schadenfreude at the apparent inability of liberal democracies to deal with the pandemic effectively is not only unseemly, but also misplaced. Because the country was slow to admit to the seriousness of the outbreak, and actively suppressed reports from Wuhan, it misled the global community by creating a false sense of security. Though the corona outbreak may not quite be China’s ‘Chernobyl moment’, the country’s claim to the superiority of its illiberal system looks tenuous, if not downright preposterous, and is unlikely to outlive the pandemic.

On the economic front, China can expect strong headwinds as the previously unstoppable march of globalisation slows down or shifts into reverse gear. The pandemic has laid bare the fragility of global supply chains, the silliness of just-in-time manufacturing processes, and the dangers of offshoring production. Moreover, the governments now shovelling vast amounts of emergency cash into their economy will expect to see some kind of return.

In order to speed up the post-corona recovery, and rebuild the economic resilience lost to globalisation, European governments are beginning to look for ways to onshore production, not just of medical supplies but across the board. Cruder forms of protectionism will be avoided but shielding domestic markets from predators who take but rarely give, of which China regrettably constitutes the prime example, is likely to lead the agenda. Even before the pandemic took hold, Germany, France, and others were already questioning the wisdom of allowing Chinese competitors near-unfettered access to their markets and technology.

In a way, China must come to accept that it has matured as a nation and has joined the ranks of the developed world: it is no longer a poor country looking for a break as it busily lifts millions out of poverty. No longer can Beijing explain away its authoritarian demeanour by stressing the need for political stability as it seeks to accelerate development and create prosperity. Should the Chinese government really wish to assume a global leadership role, it must find the self-confidence and courage to set both the economy and the people free.

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