China, the West and Covid
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China, the West and Covid

It is hard to believe the world will easily forget China’s governing system allowed Covid to get out of hand and spread to the four corners of the Earth.

Originally published in The Australian.

Coronavirus is shifting the patterns of international life, including the roles of China and the West. Covid is like an X-ray. It shows up the healthy and unhealthy parts of the body politic. In the case of China, Covid has revealed both the strengths and the weaknesses of China’s authoritarian system.

We don’t know exactly how, where and when the virus originated. We believe it probably originated in China in November or December 2019. In his New Yorker article, The Plague Year, Lawrence Wright reported several phone calls between Robert Redfield, director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and his Chinese counterpart, George Fu Gao. On January 3, 2020, Gao told Redfield they had come across an unidentified virus but there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. On another call a few days later, Gao began to cry and said, “I think we’re too late”.

They were indeed too late. On January 23, China declared a lockdown in Wuhan. By this time, cases had already been detected outside China, including in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the US. My Lowy Institute colleague, Richard McGregor, has argued that the delay in openly acknowledging the virus was spreading among the population, and introducing emergency measures to stop it, represented a system failure by China. Remember: after SARS in 2002-03, Beijing had spent years preparing a rapid response to a new pandemic breakout. Yet when one arrived, the political system failed to respond in a timely manner.

These failures reflect poorly on the Chinese system. Information and time are invaluable assets during a pandemic. If the lockdown had been declared earlier, it would have given the world more time to react and prepare for what lay ahead. Such a lack of transparency is, of course, baked into the operations of the party-state. This contributed to the spread of the virus from Wuhan to the world.

On the other hand, once the central government was seized of the threat posed by COVID, it was remarkably effective in containing the spread of the virus at home.

This involved drastic measures. Police welded buildings shut in Wuhan to enforce a lockdown. All 11 million residents in Wuhan were tested for COVID within 19 days, for example.

China’s approach yielded impressive results, especially compared to the horrors we’re seeing in India, where the deadly second wave of COVID is engulfing the other Asian superpower. India is literally gasping for air. The virus revealed the Chinese system at its worst and its best. The party-state does not like to be seen at its worst. China has reacted very poorly to scrutiny of its COVID record. Australia was the first nation to call for a coronavirus inquiry, in April 2020. You might think an inquiry into the origins of a global pandemic is a good idea. However, China has responded to this, and other supposed Australian provocations, by imposing sanctions on our exports, including barley, wine, cotton, timber, and coal.

Successfully containing the virus has allowed China’s economy to rebound quickly. Economics is the engine of international relations. Wealth enables you to buy things, develop capabilities, attract friends. We have seen during the pandemic that China’s offerings have proved attractive to many around the world. Yet it is hard to believe the world will easily forget China’s governing system also allowed the virus to get out of hand and spread to the four corners of the Earth.

America’s comeback

How has COVID affected the West, starting with America, the leader of the free world? Last year, COVID-19 made the US look seriously unwell: febrile, weak and disoriented. During the pandemic, president Donald Trump flailed around like a fool.

The broader US response to the coronavirus pandemic was also unimpressive, exposing frailties in the US system, including poor state capacity, excessive individualism, the lack of universal healthcare and the hyper-partisan political culture.

But it is always unwise to count out the US. There are so many instances in which America has recovered from adversity, including the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, and 9/11. America is good at confounding its critics. At the election in November, the US course-corrected and elected a new president, Joe Biden. The Biden administration is off to a confident and composed start.

Within two months of Biden taking office, the congress passed a $US1.9 trillion stimulus and the administration met its goal of administering 100 million vaccine doses in 100 days.

Nearly half of American adults have now received at least one vaccine dose. Biden has announced a goal of providing 70 per cent of American adults with at least one vaccine dose by the Fourth of July.

America’s economy has begun bouncing back from the pandemic. It is not growing as fast as China, but it’s a good start.

So the US started poorly but is recovering strongly. We have seen a similar pattern in Britain.

In 2020, the once reliable British state floundered. Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially refused to implement a lockdown, arguing in a speech in February 2020 that to do so would cause “unnecessary economic damage”.

The lockdown was not imposed until late March. In September, the government overruled expert advice and refused to introduce a second lockdown. That would have to wait until November. The pattern was one of underestimating the challenge and undercooking the response. In 2021, by contrast, the vaccine rollout has been a huge success. More than half the population has now received at least one vaccine dose.

Britain has led the world with its vaccine rollout. It is incredible to see the scale and speed of this exercise, and the community feeling it has produced. COVID-19 has shown up Western inadequacies — but also Western ingenuity.

A changing world

Finally, what can we say about relations between China and the West in the COVID era?

Since the accession of President Xi Jinping in 2012, China has moved away from its “hide and bide” strategy. Many analysts have pointed to the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017 as the moment when China shifted towards a much more assertive foreign policy. China has been more forward-leaning in the seas to its east and west, and in its relations with its neighbours and with distant countries.

Even before COVID, China was at daggers drawn with many of its interlocutors, including Australia.

Just under seven years ago, Xi addressed the Australian parliament to tremendous applause. Since then, the relationship has soured.

Analysts differ as to whose fault this is. In my view, the main reason our relationship with China has changed is that China has changed. Its foreign policies have hardened; the constraints on people within China have tightened; its willingness to accept criticism has disappeared.

Australia has taken a number of steps to protect its sovereignty, including banning Huawei from participating in our 5G rollout and introducing new foreign interference laws. For the Chinese, Australia’s call for an international inquiry was just the latest provocation. Seen from our perspective, these were all reactions to actions on China’s part.

Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen two important developments in relations between the West and China. First, there is an increased willingness by democratic nations to push back against China. We see formal declarations that China’s actions in Xinjiang towards the Uighurs constitute genocide. The British government offered a path to British citizenship to Hong Kongers. Increasing numbers of Western states are locking Chinese vendors out of their 5G networks.

Secondly, there has been a strengthening of ties between like-minded countries vis-a-vis China. Co-ordination between these nations is amping up.

There is much more interest from European governments and think tanks in Australia’s approach to China. We have seen the creation of an Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, comprising more than 100 MPs from 20 democratic countries.

The Five Eyes intelligence grouping has moved into the policy field, releasing a joint statement criticising the introduction of the National Security Law in Hong Kong.

There is also closer co-ordination among Asian democracies. Australia has thickened its relations with both Japan and India. The first leaders’ meeting of the Quad countries a couple of months ago was an important development.

For the most part, these developments are positive. China’s actions require reactions. Competition is good. We should not, however, allow our intertwined economies to slide from their present uneasy competition into confrontation. We should try to manage and contain our competition.

But make no mistake, we are in a competition of systems.

You can’t compete effectively unless you believe in yourself. Western countries have good reasons to be confident in their own systems of government. Contrary to some loose talk, the pandemic has not shown that authoritarian states work and democracies don’t. Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses in responding to emergencies. Both systems can succeed or fail.

One of the great things about democracies is they have an in-built mechanism for course correction. We saw this in the US in November. Course correction is a much harder trick for an authoritarian state to pull off. It’s very difficult for the Chinese Communist Party to admit error because it doesn’t have the pressure value of a free and democratic election leading to a change of government. It can never contemplate a change of government.

We should believe in our own democratic systems and work to improve them. We should be self-critical when self-criticism is justified. We should look after our most vulnerable people. We should demand effective governance from our leaders on COVID-19 and other issues and hold them to account when they don’t provide it.

We should also show solidarity with countries in crisis. The deadly second wave in India shows none of us will be safe from COVID-19 until we are all safe. We should provide vaccines and medical supplies to struggling countries, look at waiving the patents of vaccines as a way of making them more accessible, and send foreign aid to countries in crisis. Providing such assistance is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do. Doing good helps us to do well. If we hope to persuade the rest of the world about the strengths of our democracy, then we need to demonstrate these strengths.

Covid reveals. It sees through what nations say about themselves and reveals what they really are.

The virus has revealed both the capacities and incapacities of China and the West. We are in a period of increased competition between the two rivals; this competition will only get fiercer in coming years.

To acquit ourselves well in that competition, we should believe in ourselves and our democracy and seek to practise the values of liberalism and solidarity.

If Ralph Miliband and I were to agree on one thing, it would be the importance of solidarity. 

Michael Fullilove is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute. This is an edited extract of his Ralph Miliband Lecture to the London School of Economics on May 6.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions