Several countries have supported the Chinese position on the South China Sea issue. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea — a vast tract of water through which a huge chunk of global shipping passes. It has bolstered its claim by building artificial islands including airstrips in the area, some of which are suitable for military use. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have competing claims to parts of the sea, which is believed to harbour significant oil and gas deposits.
Not only is the South China Sea (SCS) a major shipping route but also a zone of high rich energy resources. Hence USA is also keen to intervene in the dispute. The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims. Hence there is tension in the region.
The Chinese government says more than 40 countries have offered support for its position, the latest being the African nations of Sierra Leone and Kenya. And China expressed thanks on June 14 for the dozens of countries it says have offered support for its position on a case brought by the Philippines over Chinese claims in the South China Sea, saying they are speaking out to uphold justice.
The Philippines is contesting China’s claim to an area shown on its maps as a nine-dash line stretching deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia, covering hundreds of disputed islands and reefs.
Despite China’s protestations it has no threatening intent in the South China Sea, it has bolstered its military presence there with an ambitious land reclamation programme that includes building airstrips for military use.
China refuses to recognize the case and says all disputes should be resolved through bilateral talks. China has stepped up its rhetoric ahead of an expected ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the Philippine case. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said certain unidentified countries had been trying to blacken China’s name over the South China Sea, confusing right for wrong and trying to control public opinion. “Once they’ve worked out the rights and wrongs and gotten the whole story, a fair few countries are willing to speak out from a sense of justice…We express appreciation and thanks for this. It shows that a just cause enjoys abundant support and people have a sense of natural justice,” Lu said. The Chinese government says a small number of countries wanted to blacken China’s name on this issue, they cannot be said to represent the international community.
Energy plus Zone
The South China Sea is dubbed by China as the “second Persian Sea.” The state-owned China Offshore Exploration Corp. planned to spend 200 billion RMB (US$30 billion) in the next 20 years to exploit oil in the region, with the estimated production of 25 million metric tons of crude oil and natural gas per annum, at a depth of 2000 meters within the next five years.
The SCS area may be rich in oil and natural gas deposits; however, the estimates are highly varied. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of China estimate that the South China Sea may contain 17.7 billion tons of crude oil (compared to Kuwait with 13 billion tons). However, other sources claim that the proven reserve of oil in the South China Sea may only be 7.5 billion barrels, or about 1.1 billion tons According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)’s profile of the South China Sea region, a US Geological Survey estimate puts the region’s discovered and undiscovered oil reserves at 11 billion barrels, as opposed to a Chinese figure of 125 billion barrels. The same EIA report also points to the wide variety of natural gas resource estimations, ranging from 190 trillion cubic feet to 500 trillion cubic feet, likely located in the contested Reed Bank”.
The Philippines began exploring the areas west of Palawan for oil in 1970. Exploration in the area began in Reed Bank/Table mount. In 1976, gas was discovered following the drilling of a well. However, China’s complaints halted the exploration. On 27 March 1984, the first Philippine oil company discovered an oil field off Palawan, which is an island province bordering the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. These oil fields supply 15% of annual oil consumption in the Philippines.
The nine-dotted line was originally an “eleven-dotted-line,” first indicated by the then Kuomintang government of the Republic of China in 1947, for its claims to the South China Sea. After, the Communist Party of China took over mainland China and formed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The line was adopted and revised to nine as endorsed by Zhou Enlai. The legacy of the nine-dotted line is viewed by some Chinese government officials, and by the Chinese military, as providing historical support for their claims to the South China Sea.
In the 1970s, however, the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries began referring to the Spratly Islands as included in their own territory. On 11 June 1978, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines issued Presidential decree No. 1596, declaring the Spratly Islands (referred to therein as the Kalayaan Island Group) as Philippine territory.
The abundant fishing opportunities within the region are another motivation for the claim. In 1988, the South China Sea is believed to have accounted for 8% of world fishing catches, a figure that has grown since then. There have been many clashes in the Philippines with foreign fishing vessels (including China) in disputed areas. China believes that the value in fishing and oil from the sea has risen to a trillion dollars.
The area is also one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. In the 1980s, at least 270 merchant ships used the route] each day. Currently], more than half the tonnage of oil transported by sea passes through it, a figure rising steadily with the growth of Chinese consumption of oil. This traffic is three times greater than that passing through the Suez Canal and five times more than the Panama Canal.
As of 1996, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and other countries asserted claims within the Chinese nine-dotted line The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into effect on 16 November 1994, resulted in more intense territorial disputes between the parties.
As of 2012, all of the Paracel Islands are under Chinese control.
Eight of the Spratly Islands are under Chinese control; Vietnamese troops control the greatest number of Spratly islands, 29. Eight islands are controlled by the Philippines, five by Malaysia, two by Brunei and one by Taiwan] In 2012 the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam, while expressing concern over rising tension in the area, said that 50 per cent of its trade passes through the area and called for peaceful resolution of the disputes in accordance with international law.
On March 17, 2016, in accordance with Memorandum Circular No. 94 s. 2016, President Aquino created the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, to secure the State’s sovereignty and national territory and preserve marine wealth in its waters and exclusive economic zone, reserving use and enjoyment of the West Philippine Sea exclusively for Filipino citizens
The South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Non-claimants want the South China Sea to remain as international waters, with the United States conducting “freedom of navigation” operations.
There are disputes concerning both the Spratly and the Paracel islands, as well as maritime, areas near to sea, boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin and elsewhere. There is a further dispute in the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands. The interests of different nations include acquiring fishing areas around the two archipelagos; the potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas under the waters of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes.
The Shangri-La Dialogue serves as the “Track One” exchange forum on security issues surrounding the Asia-Pacific region, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific is the “Track Two” forum for dialogue on security issues.
In February 2016, President Obama initiated the US-ASEAN Summit at Sunny lands for closer engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea were a major topic, but its joint statement, the “Sunnylands Declaration” called for “respect of each nation’s sovereignty and for international law”. Analysts believe it indicates divisions within the group on how to respond to China’s maritime strategy.
China claims almost all of the energy-rich South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of maritime trade passes each year. USA is major user of the sea route mainly for trade purposes.
China’s construction activities and military preparatory actions have drawn criticism from the USA. The United States is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute but says it has an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.
China questions American surveillance activities and other military activities over the South China Sea.
The United States and the European Union have called on China to respect the ruling from The Hague. The court has no powers of enforcement and its rulings have been ignored before.
The United States and China are currently in disagreement over the South China Sea. This disagreement is exacerbated by the fact that the USA is not a member of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Nevertheless, the USA has stood by its maneuvers, claiming that “peaceful surveillance activities and other military activities without permission in a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), is allowed under the convention. Additionally, a South China Sea free to access is in the USA’s economic and geopolitical interests. In relation to the dispute, the then Secretary Clinton voiced her support for fair access by reiterating that freedom of navigation and respect of international law is a matter of national interest to the United States Her comments were countered by China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as “in effect an attack on China,” who warned the USA against making the South China Sea an international issue or multilateral issue.
Clinton testified in support of congressional approval of the Law of the Sea Convention, which would strengthen US ability to support countries that oppose Chinese claims to certain islands in the area. On 29 May 2012, Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed concern over this development, stating that “non-claimant Association of South East Asian Nations countries and countries outside the region (USA) have adopted a position of not getting involved into territorial disputes. In July 2012, the US Senate passed resolution 524, initially sponsored by Senator John Kerry, stating the United States’ strong support for the 2002 declaration of conduct of parties in the South China Sea, reaffirms the US commitment to assist the nations of Southeast Asia to remain strong and independent, and supports enhanced operations by the USA armed forces in the Western Pacific. USA resents the Chinese domination in the region and wants India and many others to back it.
In 2014, the USA responded to China’s claims over the fishing grounds of other nations by saying that “China has not offered any explanation or basis under international law for these extensive maritime claims. The Chinese Foreign Ministry asked the United States to maintain a neutral position on the issue. In 2014 and 2015, the United States continued freedom of navigation operations, including in the South China Sea. Sources closer to Pentagon have also said that the US administration is planning to deploy some naval assets within the 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands. In response to this announcement, Beijing issued a strict warning and said that it would not allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters in the name of “Freedom of Navigation”.
On 27 October 2015, a US destroyer USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles reclaimed land in the Subi Reef as the first in a series of “Freedom of Navigation Operation”. This is the first time since 2012 that the USA has directly challenged. On 8–9 November 2015, two US B-52 strategic bombers flew near artificial Chinese-built islands in the area of the Spratly Islands and were contacted by Chinese ground controllers but continued their mission undeterred.
China is deeply concerned about Indian naval presence and oil exploration effort in the region with tricky US backing.
On 22 July 2011, the INS Airavat, an Indian amphibious assault vessel on a visit to Vietnam, was reportedly contacted 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the disputed South China Sea by a party identifying itself as the Chinese Navy and stating that the ship was entering Chinese waters. But the INS Airavat proceeded on its onward journey as scheduled. India seeks freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law.
In September 2011, shortly after China and Vietnam signed an agreement seeking to contain a dispute over the South China Sea, India’s state-run explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) said that its overseas investment arm, ONGC Videsh Limited, had signed a three-year agreement with Petro Vietnam for developing long-term co-operation in the oil sector, and that it had accepted Vietnam’s offer of exploration in certain specified blocks in the South China Sea.
ASEAN leaders in China
Meanwhile, Countries in Southeast Asia have serious concerns over recent events in the disputed South China Sea, an unusually strongly worded communique issued by their foreign ministers in China said on June 14. In a rare diplomatic slap in the face for Beijing — issued on its own territory — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) offered a sharp rebuke over China’s actions in the waterway. It’s communique said without mentioning China by name that recent and ongoing developments have eroded their trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.
The ASEAN statement emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea. “We stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” “We articulated ASEAN’s commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes,” the statement said.
The bloc’s finger-wagging, after a Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Kunming, comes as the region braces for a ruling by a UN tribunal on a claim brought by the Philippines against China. China does not recognize the arbitration and has reacted angrily to the Philippines’ legal efforts over the Beijing-controlled Scarborough Shoal, which sits just 230 kilometres off the main Philippine island of Luzon.
USA and regional powers are awaiting the official response to the tribunal court ruling so that they could react. But Beijing is firm in its stand.
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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