Communist China sneezed and the world got sick
17 March 2020
Just as many countries are going into lockdown due to Covid-19, the number of cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan, in Hubei province, are seemingly under control.
According to the authorities, the virus has peaked in the Middle Kingdom and its progress has slowed significantly. News reports seem to confirm this, although Wuhan is still on tenterhooks and everything isn’t close to being back to normal. However, this peak is partly the reason why several South Africans have opted to stay in China when the South African government recently evacuated some 180 people.
People tend to forget that this virus originated in China (its exact origin remains a mystery) and despite some swift and seemingly effective action to combat it (like erecting hospitals), China’s principal culpability in the rise of this pandemic is undeniable. Covid-19 has demonstrated how mighty China has become, but it simultaneously shows what a bane and threat its political system is.
According to a recent report by PwC on Covid-19 and its economic impact on South Africa, China accounted for 9% of global GDP in 2009 when swine flu became a pandemic. It now accounts for a whopping 17%. It is increasingly integrated with the world economy through its so-called Belt and Road Initiative (which aims to connect vast swathes of Asia and other developing regions through infrastructure to China) and existing trade.
However, this trade openness has not been matched by a more open society. And there is no better proof of the failure of its secrecy, health practices and authoritarianism than Covid-19. Not only did thousands of people become infected and die in China, but the virus will infect at least hundreds of thousands more and cause many deaths in other countries. To be sure, it will stymie China’s own economic growth and so too the global economy and virtually every country’s growth.
Instead of being forthright and candid about what was happening, China’s Communist Party took a hard line against those that spoke up. This dearth of transparency allowed the disease to spread inside and outside China and cause enormous harm.
All the while, the Chinese government were placating the world and subjecting millions of Chinese to harsh testing and quarantine measures following the outbreak and spread of Covid-19 – thus, acting firmly after causing a problem. These were also the only way China could stem the flow and for all its much-vaunted innovation, it couldn’t come close to developing a vaccine or even establishing where it started. American scientists are now testing an experimental vaccine to stem the infection rate.
As Tom Rogan recently wrote in the Washington Examiner: “The Party's response to the epidemic has been one of denial and deception, marked by the littered bodies of the people. Those who raised the alarm were imprisoned then left to die. And the world, for all the insufferable idiocy of many Western writers, was refused the most basic information on the virus outbreak — information that might have prevented this, now, global pandemic.”
In light of all of this, it is right to be sceptical about the latest assurances by the Chinese authorities that everything is under control. The Economist recently expressed these reservations and fears perfectly: “In a victory lap, President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan, where the pandemic first emerged. Yet uncertainty persists even in China, because nobody knows if a second wave of infections will rise up as the quarantine eases.” This comes despite the full-throated praise heaped on the government’s handling of the situation by Chinese state media, while deflecting all blame to the West and more specifically, America.
To the Chinese leaders the deaths in their country are worth it if the Party and country’s prestige remain intact. See, under communist rule people’s lives are expendable. Individual and minority rights are supplanted in favour of the State’s interests and its pernicious ideology. Just ask the targeted Uighur community and political dissidents who languish in re-education and detention camps.
We have gotten so used to thinking about China as a gargantuan country with an admirable culture that we tend to forget that its government remains a repressive and odious regime. So, as many developing countries attempt to mimic the communist China model to spur their development efforts, this crisis and China’s role in it should not be forgotten. It may be the second largest economy in the world, but it achieved this over the last four decades thanks to capitalism and trade, and notwithstanding its corruption and pervasive totalitarian political practices at home and abroad.
Dr Brink is a strategist and political analyst.