Ever since he assumed the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping has repeatedly announced the Middle Kingdom’s intention to occupy a position of global influence by the middle of the century. Over the past eight years, China has steadily manouevered itself into leadership positions in international institutions, has deepened its stranglehold over global supply chains and has animated old and new geopolitical conflicts. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan and China’s domestic and international response to this pandemic has forced the world to confront the grim realities of Chinese leadership.
Research indicates that had China taken proactive measures to contain and suppress the pandemic earlier in December 2019, the number of #Covid19 cases could have been mitigated by up to 95 per cent. We now know that the opposite happened: local authorities in China suppressed information about the outbreak, even destroying proof of the virus sometime in December. Official censors scrubbed social media posts from medical professionals warning of a new “SARS-like” disease. And as late as mid-January, Chinese authorities denied evidence of any community transmission, allowing the lunar new year celebrations to proceed despite having known about it for at least a month.
As a political regime centred around the absolute inviolability of the Communist Party, China’s domestic reaction should surprise nobody. In many ways, the CPC’s international response reflected the idiosyncrasies of its domestic politics. China delayed notifying the WHO and in permitting it to inspect the situation in Wuhan; released vital genetic information to the international community a full week after it was isolated; and allowed millions of individuals from Wuhan to leave the city unscreened, many of whom then travelled the world. Countries which received much of that traffic are now grappling with more deaths than they can handle.
We know that China was certainly aware of the scale of the health crisis: in the early days of the outbreak, General Secretary Xi was conspicuously missing from state media reports, despite claiming to have addressed the Party about the outbreak in early-January. This would have happened only because of the uncertainty surrounding China’s efforts to contain the virus. He was made the focal point of the response after his ‘Ides of March’ visit to Wuhan when the CPC was confident that it had the situation under control.
On cue, China’s international response changed gears. The prevailing theme that now dominates Beijing’s state-controlled media is one of China “buying time” for the international community to react—a claim that attempts to deflect attention from the CPC’s and the Chinese State’s failings. Laughably, Chinese officials now appear to be engaged in an authorized and concerted misinformation campaign, with several diplomats and even the MFA spokesperson ludicrously claiming that the US Army was responsible for smuggling the ‘Virus’ into Wuhan.
Beijing’s industrial prowess and control over critical supply chains, including medical supplies, have also added a geo-economic element to the pandemic. It has raced to be seen as providing public goods when other powers are faltering. Like the proverbial Fifth Horseman who is hard to please, past experience informs us, however, that aid and largesse from China is highly contingent on limiting criticism of China and refraining from trying to hold it accountable, leave alone answerable for its many sins of omission and commission. The Belt and Road formula has gone viral – literally.
To put this in context of the Covid19 outbreak, China’s ambassador to the Philippines threatened to retaliate by cutting imports if Manila did not lift its travel ban in early-February, despite an overwhelming global consensus that restricting travel would contain the spread of the virus. In March, a Xinhua editorial loudly hinted that China may withhold life-saving medical supply chain ingredients from the US amidst the deadly outbreak should political tensions rise.
Barely three months into a new decade, the international community is now confronted by a prolonged public health emergency whose contours and impact are not even vaguely known at the moment. An equally paralysing and fearful consequence is the global economic slowdown as a direct result of China’s irresponsible domestic and international behaviour. A less than inspiring response to the outbreak in the US and much of Europe will likely whitewash China’s offences against the international community in the short term, but the long term implications will last.
After China’s entry into the WTO, scholars asked whether China would be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. While the answer has been definitely negative for some time now, China remains well-positioned to claim leadership over the forces of globalisation and the norms and institutions to manage a new wave of connectivity. The right question to ask now is: Can China be a responsible hegemon?
The US was confronted with this question as well in the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War. The international order Washington built and sustained with its allies was certainly not equitable or just. But it was organised around the basis that the common interests of the American people were dependent on the well-being of the international community. It could be argued that the US too was a hegemon and the world lived under American hegemony. Yet it was an accountable hegemon, constrained by American democratic traditions and open to corrective pressure at home and abroad. Its democracy in the words of some was allowed to be penetrated by others including foreign interests and its policies were shaped and sometimes gamed by external actors who could lobby the Congress, engage with its media and be part of the academic and research ecosystems.
China’s global interests, like its domestic interests, stem from a primal survival instinct: preserving the legitimacy, upholding the authority and ensuring the continuity of the omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent Communist Party. The global outbreak of the made in China novel coronavirus irrefutably demonstrates that the CPC is more than willing to endanger the health of the international community to promote Beijing’s irresponsible hegemony.
As the world irrevocably drifts towards isolationism as an instrument of survival and the Iron Curtain makes a reappearance rebranded as ‘Lockdown’, there couldn’t be a more dismal and grim start to a decade that will increasingly be defined by China’s amoral leadership.
The author is president, Observer Research Foundation (India). Views are personal.
The article originally appeared on the ORF website.