In the nineteenth century Europe’s key cultural impact on China has probably been its influence in modernizing the Chinese state. In the 1870s and 1880s, Chinese engineers who visited Europe realized in no time that Europe’s successes were not just due to technological advances but were more deeply rooted.
One returning scholar was Yan Fu, who translated the works of Montesquieu and Adam Smith, which introduced Western ideas to China and changed the way subsequent generations saw the world around them. Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics made the theory of social Darwinism popular. Although the writings of Bakunin and Kropotkin led some Chinese towards anarchism, the most influential streams of political thought among the elite were those of liberalism and socialism, which then made their way into the wider society through nationalism aimed at China’s modernization. Until the end of World War I the teachings of liberalism dominated public thinking, but the Treaty of Versailles sent China the message that the Western powers had exchanged their liberal worldview for the policy of force. In the post-war years, socialist ideas quickly caught on as they emphasized the common good and not the individual as the key motive of restructuring society.
The teachings of socialism and Marxism gradually became more widespread in China. It had been a widely held belief that these ideologies could only become successful in a developed capitalist country, but the Bolshevik revolution demonstrated that Socialist and Marxist ideas could release enormous energies from the tyrannized classes of underdeveloped Russia. One of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, Li Dazhao believed that since China was even less developed than Russia, its revolutionary potential was greater.
Europe influenced China in several other ways throughout modern history. China had to abandon its hopes of becoming a universal power and to settle for being just a state like any other, only bigger. This meant the acceptance of a Westphalia-type setup, which introduced the new concepts of sovereignty, territorial integrity and clearly defined borders.
The two key events of the post-World War II era that have left their mark on China’s view of Europe were the consolidation of the Communist regime in China and the process of European integration. Following the end of the Cold War, many Chinese scholars were convinced that the globe would be dominated by one superpower and several regional powers, which would eventually lead to a multipolar world order. Studies on Europe are usually based on this presumption, therefore Chinese analysts usually first discuss whether the European Union can be considered an independent international power, in particular whether it can act independently of the United States of America. Independence from the USA has become China’s yardstick of Europe’s place in the world.
There is no such thing as an independent approach to Europe’s role in today’s world. Chinese analyses of Europe’s place in the world often reflect their own preconceptions. Observations about Europe mostly reflect the hope that the international order is on its way towards a world in which there is not one single dominant power but several politically equal regional centers, a world with a culture characterized by diversity and an economy characterized by interdependence. Even though some Chinese authors do understand the complexity of decision-making procedures in the European Union, the difficulties of finding consensus in an enlarged Europe, and the traditionally pivotal role of the Franco-German axis, the majority of them more or less see the EU as a single actor on the global scene. Chinese are fully aware of Europe’s weakness on the international political scene, which is largely due to the Union’s cumbersome and non-coordinated foreign policy profile.
The Asia-Europe Foundation conducted a survey in 2006 on how the Asian media, the elite and the ordinary citizen saw the European Union. Three leading newspapers were observed for a full year for the frequency of EU-related news, their relative significance and themes. The biggest daily published about 60 pieces of news on the EU monthly, while the leading TV channel featured a dozen news items on the EU monthly in its evening news program. Most of these news items were not leading ones and were usually unaccompanied by any commentary. The researchers queried 400 ordinary Chinese citizens about their knowledge and opinion of the European Union. The majority of respondents said that China’s key partner was the USA, followed by the EU, and somewhat surprisingly adding that the EU was likely to take over America’s pole position at some time in the future. In links with the EU, trade and finance were considered the most important. Most respondents associated the EU with the euro and trade when asked the question: what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the term EU? There was a general consensus that the euro was the most important symbol of the European Union. The third part of the survey involved interviews with representatives of the Chinese political, economic and media elite as well as of civil society. 95% of the interviewees said that the EU was a major power, and they also agreed that the EU was one of China’s key partners alongside America and Russia. The opinion of the political elite was more positive than the economic elite’s: the latter gave an unequivocal answer, putting the USA as clearly the number one partner of China. However, to the question whether the euro would ever replace the dollar in international money markets as the leading currency, the economic elite gave a surprisingly open and positive answer: most respondents did not rule out the possibility of this scenario. Let us not forget though that this was before the Eurozone crisis. The opinion of the political elite differed: they believed that, due to America’s political dominance, the dollar would maintain its top spot. In general terms, the EU was considered most important by the political elite and the least important by the media elite, but all four groups expected the EU to take on a more important international role in the future.
The EU became China’s leading trading partner in 2004, and China is now Europe’s second most important trading partner behind the United States. The total value of EU-China bilateral trade grew more than sixty-fold since 1978, and Europe has worked its way up to become China’s number one supplier of technology. Germany is China’s key European trade destination, absorbing a third of all Chinese exports to the continent.
To many Chinese authors Europe symbolizes the spirit of the modern age, all the more so as they see their own aspirations materialize in European policies. Chinese analysts agree that Europe is not only keen but increasingly manages to build a key international position independent of the USA since the end of the cold war. More and more Chinese academics realize that the EU not only talks about the necessity of an effective multilateral system but also puts those ideas into practice. Some believe that this European aspiration stems from Europe’s postmodern foreign policy orientation and the neoliberal school of international relations. One of China’s leading Europe experts, Professor Feng, is often heard saying that the majority of Chinese have an overly generalized and idealized view of Europe’s position in the global pecking order. Professor Feng argues that the EU lacks one of the key prerequisites for status as a global power –military power – but that what it lacks in military might, Europe makes up for in extensive economic and diplomatic relations. Accordingly, he considers the EU as an incomplete and unbalanced pole of power. Many analysts put the emphasis on cooperation in the framework of the European foreign and security policy. Some of them are convinced that both Europe and China wish to strengthen economic globalization and curb political globalization, i.e. American political and cultural hegemony. Moreover many in China believe that the Chinese economy is more open than the often protectionist European economy.
China does not see Europe as having a global strategic vision – primarily because Europe is divided internally hindering it to speak with one voice on the international political scene. Due to these internal rifts in Europe, apart from trade policy, Sino-European relations take place at the level of the member states and the Union as a whole. China – known to steer clear of sensitive issues during international talks – does support Europe’s soft-power policy on the surface, but in reality has always been avid for hard solutions. The failures of Europe’s foreign policy in the Balkans and the Middle East have exposed the weaknesses of the soft-power approach to China too.
The one area where Europe’s economic, political and symbolic unity is beyond question is the single currency, the euro. Having said that, China still has no idea whom it should negotiate with on international monetary issues. Europe’s institutional representation is muddled, unlike in the United States, where there is a Treasury Secretary (finance minister) and a Chairman of the Federal Reserve (central bank governor) and that is it. According to Chinese predictions, in 30 years’ time there will be three major currencies in the world: the yuan, the dollar and the euro.
China still has a rather haphazard and changeable view of the EU. In the 1970s, China saw the EU as the embodiment of the capitalist world, the state-monopoly and imperialism, a political union of Western imperialist countries. It speaks volumes about the age that, in the seventies, the Eastern European press commented on European integration in much the same way. The Chinese defined the European Union as an ally of the USA, as Washington’s instrument to control Western Europe and as a political formation born out of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States.
These beliefs were based on Lenin’s theory of imperialism and the Maoist “three worlds” concept. Back in those days, the popular Chinese line of thinking saw three reasons for the nations of Western Europe to create a European Union. Firstly, European integration was thought to be the upshot of the unbalanced development of capitalist politics and economics. America’s power was believed to be superior but provisional, which would gradually give way to a rising France, Germany and Italy. With this predicted shift of power, the Chinese thought that the aim of uniting Western Europe was to gain progressive detachment from the USA. Secondly, the European Union (the Common Market) was regarded as a product of the competition between Western Europe and the United States. With the spread of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence and the collapse of the colonial system, the West was no longer best placed to compete for the markets of the industrialized and developing world. The Chinese were in no doubt about the objective of the six founding members of the Common Market: to secure their grip on key markets. Thirdly, the Common Market was seen as an offshoot of state-controlled monopolist imperialism. Monopolization is one of the basic features of imperialism — Lenin tells us. The European Coal and Steel Community was the first step towards international monopolization and a logical continuation of the Italian, German and French monopolist economies’ post-war development. The EU symbolized the highest level of European monopoly, created between private and state monopolies.
In the Maoist “Three Worlds” theory, Western Europe was America’s ally but also China’s potential partner for a joint fight against the Soviet Union. Intriguingly, from an intellectual point of view, in the 1960s and 1970s China had a bigger impact on Europe than vice versa. Many Western European intellectuals and the student movements of 1968 saw their own aspirations – namely their rejection of the establishment – in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This only went to show how fragmentary their knowledge of the reality of the situation in China really was. Chinese analysts reckoned that the aim of the USA was to subdue Europe by way of its economic, political and military unification. When Europeans realized what the USA’s plans were, they brought into being their own Union in order to be able to counteract American and Soviet weight through economic and political unity. Nevertheless, in military terms, Europe needed America and NATO to protect it from the Soviet threat.
These rough-hewn theories were then replaced in the 1990s by a more sophisticated and better grounded view of the EU. From this point on European studies became more social science oriented in China, devoting more attention to how the EU and its policies work. Chinese academia changed its opinion and no longer believed that the European Union had been founded to counterbalance another economic or political world power. China now understood that the main motivation behind the EU was to secure the conditions for economic development and long-term peace through regional cooperation.
China began to study Europe and the EU methodically, dissecting it from an economic, political and cultural perspective. In the late 1990s, China recognized that Western powers were still members of the same family and that globalization only drew family ties closer. Hence, the main trend of development of international relations pointed towards a multipolar world rather than towards one without any poles. In such a world order the European Union’s mission would not be to simply act as one of the poles but to use its political and economic clout and become a key diplomatic player.
This Chinese fascination with European studies stems partly from the fact that they see Europe as a potential model for integration involving China and Taiwan or the Asian economies. The market economy reforms led not only to economic growth but also created new social problems in Chinese society, such as regional disparities, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, problems of public health and the mass influx of the rural population into cities. These problems generated a degree of social instability that could undermine the position of the ruling Communist regime. In response to these domestic social challenges, Chinese researchers started looking into the welfare and social security systems of European countries and into the regional policy of the European Union. It is significant that most of the Chinese scholars visiting Brussels came to study European social policy. This keen interest is attributable to the fact that China can only envisage a successful social security model with a strong state presence; therefore the Chinese are more curious about European achievements in this field than about the American model based on the idea of self-support. For some Chinese intellectuals, the model focusing on social equality and environmental friendliness instead of economic efficiency could serve as an example when implementing the long-cherished Chinese dream of “harmonious social order”. Just as European thinkers such as Voltaire or Leibniz once felt that another distant society was much closer to the ideal society, some Chinese may feel that way about Europe today.
The peaceful rise of China is the number one priority of the Chinese political elite, who collect all available analogies and lessons from around the world. China has several lessons to learn from the integration of modern Europe. European countries first fostered close links with one another and then extended various forms of cooperation to more and more areas on their way towards widening integration. The success of this process could serve as an example for the future development of an Eastern-Asian Community. On the other hand, while rising to the rank of a global actor through this process of integration, Europe was wise enough to maintain good relations with the USA within the framework of their political and military alliance. Thanks to the Atlantic alliance and their economic interdependence, the USA did not see Europe’s integration as a challenge to its dominance. The Chinese often refer to the USA-EU alliance as the “Western collective hegemony”, indicating the strength of trans-Atlantic ties. In parallel with its rise, the European Union commanded an increasingly important role in international institutions in the creation of which the USA had a decisive part. In fact, Europe became a major international player without becoming a competitor or challenger of the USA, and it did so by aligning itself to the international order built by the United States.
As China assumes a growing role in international organizations it can rely on the EU’s effective doctrine of multilateralism as a model to follow, as opposed to the USA’s unilateral approach. So a proper management of relations with neighboring countries, key global powers and the international community is a key factor. The ongoing enlargement of the Union is seen in China as proof of the fact that the EU is an attractive club that more and more countries wish to become members of, which in turn further strengthens its international clout. The 2004 Big Bang enlargement of the European Union – the reunification of Eastern and Western Europe – confirmed that Chinese conviction. Nonetheless, some of the ramifications of this last round of EU enlargement make China somewhat anxious. Most of the new member states had been liberated from Communist rule only a decade or so earlier, and with the Soviet Union now gone and consigned to the history books China remains the only major country governed by a Communist party.
Some in Europe have the belief that Europe could become China’s “tutor”, introducing this vast country to the world of fundamental European values such as soft power, consensus-based foreign policy, multipolarity, a social model built on justice and solidarity or environmentally-conscious living and business. But China has a different view. No doubt that China is sincerely interested in, studies and uses the achievements of the West and of Europe, but the idea of Europe becoming China’s tutor is mere fantasy. Nevertheless there is a middle ground how one can approach this issue. Continuing intensive exchange of views and structured dialogue at different levels, reinforcing institutionalized political and academic contacts to enhance the depth of Chinese knowledge about Europe’s values and achievements would definitely be beneficial for both of us.
Through a series of future papers focusing on some selected aspects of potentially relevant fields of EU know-how transfer (regional policy, social policy and the issue of multilateralism) the author proposes a modest contribution to the above objective.
From China, A Plan For The Future
On October 26, the fifth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China opened in Beijing, with the ambitious goal of defining – after months of preparation and four days of debate behind closed doors – the strategic policy lines of the 14th five-year plan of the country, which – unlike the rest of the world -went practically unscathed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The plan – designed to cover the 2021-2025 five-year period – has the meaningful title of “Vision 2035”, aimed at underlining its potential medium-term impact on China’s economy and its international relations. The US economic agency Bloomberg called the plan a “Warning Shot”, a “five-year warning shot to the United States”.
In fact, as Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out, “Vision 2035” aims at making China a “moderately prosperous country” and redefining its economic (and hence geopolitical) relations on a global level.
Before examining the broad policy lines of the 14th Five-Year Plan, as announced by the Chinese media in recent months, it should be stressed that the Chinese leadership of the third millennium is profoundly different from the Maoist one. In the days of the “Great Helmsman”, five-year plans were dictated by the most integralist ideology and often did irreparable damage to China’s economy and society.
In 1958, the second five-year plan, defined by Mao Zedong as “The Great Leap Forward”, tried to transform the Chinese economic and production system from rural into industrial with an attempt at a huge forced reconversion that wanted to turn farmers into workers and cultivated fields into manufacturing industries by decree.
The attempt failed miserably and the famine that followed due to the abandonment of the rural areas caused over 20 million deaths.
Post-Maoist China learned from previous mistakes and it shifted from rigid and obtuse ideological beliefs to scientific pragmatism, with the result that today China is on the way to gaining the leadership of the world economy.
The last five-year plan, i.e. the 13thone for the 2016-2020 period, aimed at “replacing unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable growth” with innovative, coordinated and environmentally-sensitive measures for inclusive growth capable of establishing a new “moderately prosperous society from all viewpoints”(which remains the same objective as the new plan).
The basic goal was to make GDP grow by up to 6.5% per year, an objective that has almost been achieved despite the Covid-19 epidemic, thanks to the results reached in the first three years, a period in which the growth of Western economies -ranging from the United States to Germany -recorded levels three times lower than China’s. Once overcome the pandemic crisis last March, in the third quarter of 2020 China’s GDP reached 4.9% compared to the previous year and all economists, not only the Chinese ones, are convinced that it is destined to grow further by the end of the year.
A concrete goal achieved was to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 12%.According to the Chinese leadership, this augurs well for achieving zero emissions by 2030, thanks to the total abandonment of the use of fossil fuels in energy production.
In China the “green shift” – so dreamt of by the European institutions – has been started concretely while results have been significant also in the fight against poverty: the 56 million “absolute poor” (people with an annual income of 335 dollars) surveyed in 2015 rose to 5.5 million in 2019. In the same period, the housing crisis was tackled with the building of 10 million social housing units that replaced thousands of slums.
It is on the basis of these results that President Xi Jinping has dictated the guidelines of the new five-year plan on which, in these days, the discussion of the Party’s Central Committee is focused.
The central focus of the 14th Plan is “dual circulation”, a strategy that aims at making both domestic demand and foreign investment in consumer goods and technology grow, with a “dual” and coordinated approach of great potential impact on the living conditions of the Chinese population and China’ international relations.
Morgan Stanley’s economists estimate that China’s GDP will grow by 5.5% per year until 2025, a conservative estimate which, however, is considered sufficient to significantly increase people’s income and domestic demand, to attract significant foreign investment and increase China’s ability to invest abroad, both in financial markets and in industrial and technological markets.
According to Liu Peiqian, a Chinese economist working in Singapore (interviewed by Bloomberg), “in view of 2025, China’s policy is becoming increasingly focused on long-term goals, while investors can expect more continuity and certainty from China’s economic policy over the next 15 years”.
The Economist‘s financial analyst Yue Sue, interviewed by CNBC, said that “she expects the five-year plan to focus strongly on supporting technology and energy security based on diversification of energy sources, rather than relying on increased oil imports, while food security will be looked at carefully in view of possible tensions in relations with food exporting countries (first and foremost, the United States).
The decisions taken at the end of the four days of discussions on the 14th Five-Year Plan will only be made public in March next year, but economists are certain that, all things considered and given President Xi Jinping firm and authoritarian leadership, all what anticipated so far by the State media will be implemented to the letter.
Whatever the final decisions may be, it is certain that the “warning shot” to the United States, about which the Financial Times has talked, will influence – probably in a further negative way – US-China relations in the coming years.
In fact, despite the huge differences existing in domestic policy between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, both candidates in the next US presidential elections are quite in agreement with specific reference to relations with China, as they are both oriented to continue the policy of ongoing confrontation-clash between the two countries.
For this reason, it is easy to predict that whoever wins the race for the White House, Sino-American relations on the political and economic levels are not bound to improve in the short and medium-term.
Considering the undeniable success of the previous one, the 14th five-year plan will mark a further step forward for the Chinese economy and, if it does not produce positive effects on relations with the United States, it will produce positive effects both on the domestic front and on the global arena.
China has emerged in good condition from the coronavirus epidemic, whose effects, instead, are being felt heavily in Western societies and economies. However, faced with the guidelines dictated by the new Chinese five-year plan, this reality opens up an extraordinary “window of opportunity” for the European and Italian production sector. The “dual circulation” envisaged by the plan opens up huge opportunities for European and Italian companies that want to take advantage of the opportunities offered by China’s economic growth and its increasing financial resources.
Working in effective synergy with Chinese partners is not difficult if you have good professionals, skilful technicians and workers, as well as innovative ideas based on sound scientific foundations.
I can give the example of a reality I know personally: TRAFOMEC, an Italian company established in 1981 by a brave group of engineers, which over the years has become a leader in the production of current transformers and alternators, for industrial and domestic use, as well as in the manufacturing of electrical panels for trains and ships and in technology linked to the development of alternative energies.
After building its production plants in Italy and Poland and setting up joint ventures in India, Poland and China, Trafomec merged with its Chinese subsidiary Indu-Tek in 2016, thus creating a production reality with a dual centre of gravity: in Europe (Italy and Poland) and in China – a reality that has been further enriched thanks to the collaboration recently started with Eldor Corporation, a leading multinational company in the automotive sector and partner of the world’s leading car manufacturers, present in Italy and China.
I have given this example to demonstrate the huge growth potential for Italian companies that will develop forms of collaboration with similar Chinese companies or that will decide, thanks to the opportunities offered also by the 14th five-year plan, to enter the huge Chinese market. Trafomec has grown and will grow also thanks to this challenge that – possibly with the intelligent support of the Italian government and the European authorities- can be taken up also by other Italian and European companies, thus contributing – thanks to the opening of a “new Silk Road” – to the economic recovery of our country, debilitated by the pandemic, in an optimistic vision of the future taking into account an historical fact: after the plague of 1300, Renaissance blossomed in Italy.
What prevents Japan from ratifying the recently assented Nuclear Ban Treaty?
With the ratification of Honduras, a Central American country, on 24 October 2020, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted in 2017 by the UN General Assembly, crosses the ’50 ratifications’ mark required for its entry-into-force, and is set to become effective on 22 January 2021. But, interestingly, how come Japan, the world’s only nuclear-attacked country, not among the 50 ratified states?
History remembers Japan as the only country in the world falling victim to a nuclear attack that happened 75 years ago, when the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked using air-dropped atom bombs by the United States with the aim of forcing a surrender from the then Empire of Japan in World War-II.
The U.S. factor in Japan’s security policy
Post-war era saw Japan evolving as a strong U.S. ally, including getting security protection under U.S. nuclear umbrella, a hard fact that prevents the Asian economic powerhouse to ratify the Nuclear Ban Treaty, often abbreviated as TPNW, recently assented for entering into force in January, next year.
Despite calls from anti-nuclear activists and Hiroshima-Nagasaki survivors, both living within the country and around the world, Japan’s ruling establishment faces a big conundrum, but limited in decisional autonomy with regard to a matter involving the United States.
A politician representing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said that even though his party share the idea behind the treaty, it would be too unrealistic to move in the direction of ratification, hinting at Japan’s difficulty to handle how US would perceive such a move that can translate into an open disregard for US-led security arrangements in the region.
Moreover, the perceived threat from across the Sea of Japan, arising from a dictator-ruled, nuclear-armed Pyongyang and a recently more assertive Beijing looms over the island state, something that naturally brings Japan closer to the US.
Moreover, for decades, the security alliance with Japan has been a significant factor in US foreign and defence policies in East Asia, and the wider Asia-Pacific region.
Japan’s post-war security arrangements with the United States
Signed in 1951, the early ‘US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty’ was a ten-year, renewable pact that envisaged how Japan would allow U.S. forces to remain on Japanese soil after the country regained its sovereignty, in light of a new pacifist constitution.
This pact combined with the ‘Yoshida Doctrine’, a postwar policy attributed to Shigeru Yoshida, former Prime Minister of Japan, which stipulated Japan’s reliance on the US for its security needs so the government could focus on economic re-building.
The 1951 agreement was revised in 1960, granting US the right to establish military bases on Japanese islands in exchange for a renewed commitment to defend Japan in the event of an attack. These bases gave the US its first permanent military foothold in Asia.
In 1967, PM Eisaku Sato unveiled the ‘Three Non-Nuclear Principles’ (no possession, no production, and no introduction)to cool down tensions surrounding nuclear arms on US bases in Japanese soil. Since then, Japan has relied on the US nuclear umbrella for deterrence capabilities.
Today, according to a US-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, there are more than 80 US military facilities in Japan, including key ones in Okinawa and Yokosuka. More U.S. service members are permanently stationed in Japan than in any other foreign country.
The aforementioned close security ties of Japan with the United States act as a barrier for the island state to ratify the Nuclear Ban Treaty.
What does the TPNW entail?
The treaty is going to be the first legally-binding international pact to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons, with the ultimate goal of total elimination.
As it was agreed upon, in 2017, when at least 50 countries ratify the treaty, it will qualify for entering into force within the next 90 days i.e. 22 January, next year.
Many international security analysts, however, questions the efficacy of the treaty as an instrument of war-prevention and disarmament as it does not involve any of the strongest, five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P-5), namely, the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China, all of them nuclear states along with India, Pakistan, North Korea, and sometimes ambiguously, Israel too.
However, over a quarter of local assemblies across Japan have adopted a written statement demanding that the national government should sign and ratify the TPNW, a difficult choice for Tokyo.
Meanwhile, the United States has been urging countries not to ratify the Treaty, and stated that itself and all the other NATO allies will stand unified in their opposition to the potential repercussions of the TPNW. Washington has also sent letters to the countries that have ratified the treaty, requesting their withdrawal from it.
TPNW requires that all ratifying states should never under any circumstances develop, test, produce, acquire, or possess nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. It also bans any potential transfer of nuclear materials among each other.
The other treaty to keep checks on horizontal spread
Year 2020 also marked 50 years since another pact aimed at preventing the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons entered into force, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or NPT, in 1970.
While Japan has managed to ratify the NPT in 1976, six years after signing the treaty in 1970, its decisional autonomy with regard to TPNW is much more complex.
Do not panic, we are Chinese: China’s response to the pandemic
In Europe, in the United States and in South America, the feared second wave of Covid-19 epidemic is spreading. It is generating not only panic among the public and the institutions, but it is beginning to put health systems and economies under stress. They were starting to recover with difficulty after the impact of the first wave of the epidemic which, between the winter and spring of this year, made the pace of industrial and manufacturing production and productivity rates in the trade, tourism and catering sectors plummet globally, with figures suggesting a decidedly dark future.
In Italy, faced with the increase in infections which, however, does not mean an increase in the number of sick people, the Government has decided to delegate to the Regions’ Governors the power to implement measures to limit individual and collective freedom in the name of a “state of emergency” which has been going on since last March and seems bound to accompany us also in the coming months. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, an ominous and worrying word, “curfew”, has reappeared in official communiqués and news reports.
Over the next few days, in the Campania and Lombardy Regions, it will be forbidden to circulate in the streets from 11pm to 5am, while the purchase of alcohol and the opening hours of shopping centres, bars and restaurants will be restricted. Just to complete an increasingly tragic scenario, on October 20 last, the Italian Health Minister, Roberto Speranza, urged Italians to “stay at home as much as possible” with a voluntary lockdown that seems to be a prelude to the adoption of measures that could bring us back to the situation of last spring with incalculable social and economic damage.
Curfews, lockdowns, targeted or generalised closures are now common practice also in France, Great Britain, Ireland and Spain which, like Italy, have suffered the devastating economic impact of the first wave and could be brought to their knees by the new pandemic emergency.
At this juncture we have to ask ourselves a question: what happened and what is happening in the country where it all began? How are things going in China that in our media, obsessively focused on domestic troubles, is mentioned only superficially and in passing?
“China is Near” was the title of a 1967 movie directed by Marco Bellocchio, that evoked the unstoppable expansion of the Maoist thinking. Today we must say that “China is far away”, encapsulated in the stereotypes developed by Western culture, which prevent us from seriously analysing its political, economic and social evolution and, above all, from drawing lessons from the political and health model that has enabled China to come out of the Covid-19 emergency with its head held high.
On September 22 last, in a blunt speech – as usual -at the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump accused China of being responsible “for spreading this plague throughout the world” and – to further underline the concept -he dismissed the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus”. In the same forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping soberly urged all countries affected by the epidemic to follow his country’s example and “to abide by the indications of science without attempting to politicise the problem”.
Figures clearly demonstrate that the Chinese model is important and worthy of attention. In China, where it all began in December 2019, out of a population of about 1.4 billion inhabitants, the Covid-19 epidemic has so far caused 4,739 deaths out of 90,604 sick people. In the United States, over the same period, out of a population that is about one fifth of China’s, 7,382,194 cases of infection were recorded that led to the death of 209,382 people (data provided by the English medical journal, The Lancet, October 8, 2020).
Great Britain, with a population twenty times smaller than the Chinese population, had to deal with five times more infections than China and ten times more deaths.
These are the figures of October 20 last, referring to the whole of China: 19 cases of illness, all imported from abroad. 24 asymptomatic infections and 403 cases testing positive kept under observation. All, except one, imported from abroad(!). Figures which, as you can see, are globally lower than those recorded since the beginning of the emergency in one single Italian region!
Faced with these figures, it seems difficult to shirk a simple, dual question: how could China fight the epidemic and keep it under control? Hence why do we not follow its example by drawing on its experience?
China was accused of responding late to the first outbreak of the epidemic in December 2019 and notifying late the World Health Organization (WHO) of a new outbreak. Both accusations are completely false.
After the outbreak of the new virus in late December, Chinese scientists isolated and identified the genome sequence of Covid-19 on January 10, 2020 and a few days later, after alerting the WHO, the authorities started to take countermeasures.
China was ready for the emergency: since the SARS epidemic – a virus similar to Covid-19 – had caused just over 700 deaths in 2002, but very serious damage to the economy due to the stop of flights, tourism and exports, the government had given orders to prepare accurate contingency plans to be activated promptly in case of new epidemics. Those plans, which were not prepared and put in a drawer but updated and carefully tested, were activated immediately after the first alarm.
With its 12 million inhabitants, Wuhan – the epicentre of the first infections – was immediately imposed a total lockdown, while in the rest of the huge country the population was urged (without curfews or states of emergency) to follow the most elementary and effective prevention and self-protection measures: social distancing, use of masks and frequent hand washing. It has been said in the West that China has reacted so effectively because it is ruled by an authoritarian regime. Indeed, Confucius has counted much more than Mao for the Chinese. The Confucian social philosophy that not even 71 years of Communist rule have managed to wipe out, with its basic rules of respect for the natural hierarchical order, makes the Chinese a naturally well-behaved, orderly and obedient people. Suffice it to recall that since the beginning of the new pandemic emergency the protests in Hong Kong have decreased until disappearing, while in Europe we are witnessing massive demonstrations with diehard “no-mask” people.
It is, however, the quick response of the Chinese political and health authorities that is at the basis of the undeniable success in fighting the epidemic, at first, and later containing it.
As stated above, Wuhan was immediately isolated and subjected to total lockdown for 76 days, while targeted closures were imposed in the Hubei Province. Throughout the country, 14,000 health checkpoints were set up at the main public transport hubs and, within two weeks since the “official” outbreak of the pandemic, in the city of Wuhan alone 9 million inhabitants were tested.
As one of the main producers and exporters of health equipment, China was not caught unprepared in terms of hospital supplies and individual protection devices: in short, no mask crisis.
While in the United States and Europe, despite the lockdown, people did not seem to be inclined to wear masks (President Trump wore a mask in public only last September), the Chinese immediately followed the authorities’ guidelines with a great sense of discipline. All the municipal security cameras were “converted” to control citizens’ use of masks, while drones equipped with loudspeakers were flown over all areas of the huge country to check the inhabitants’ compliance with the rules. The Xinhua State agency released the footage taken by a drone in Inner Mongolia, showing an astonished Mongolian lady rebuked by the drone saying” Hey Auntie, you cannot go around without a mask. Put it on right away and when you go back home remember to wash your hands”. Probably media embroidered the episode a bit, but certainly in China they did not witness the summertime movida that took place in Rome, Naples or Milan, which is at the basis of the many troubles with which we are currently confronted.
On February 5, 2020 the first Fancang hospital was opened in Wuhan, a prefabricated structure dedicated to the treatment of non-severely ill people, while traditional hospitals were reserved for the treatment of severely ill people. The use of Fancang hospitals (dozens of them were built) made it possible to limit the staying at home of people with mild symptoms, but anyway sources of contagion, within their families – the opposite of what is happening in Italy where the people with mild symptoms are advised to stay at home -and prevent the quick spreading of the virus starting from families. The Fancang hospital network made 13,000 beds available and was dismantled as from May 10, 2020 when the first wave of the epidemic ended in China and was not followed by a second wave. To avert this danger, the Chinese authorities have relaxed “internal” checks and made the control measures for those coming from abroad very strict. At a time when in Spain and Italy the checks for incoming travellers are practically derisory, in China all those who enter the country, for whatever reason, are subject to tests and strictly controlled quarantine.
In essence, China has first fought and later controlled the spreading of the Covid-19 epidemic, with drastic but rational measures and above all understood and accepted by a population educated by Confucius to respect hierarchies and discipline. China can currently be an example for the rest of the world and it is there to testify that with strict, but intelligent measures even the most dangerous situations can be tackled successfully.
It is an example that should be studied and followed without the typical arrogance of the “white man”, also considering an important fact: while the economy of Italy and of its European partners is hardly growing, China’s GDP growth rate is 4.9% higher than last year.
There is much to learn from China both in terms of managing a health emergency and in terms of protecting the economic system.
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