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The Battle of “Coronavirus Narratives”: Three Lines of Defence Against China

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, but the battle for “coronavirus narratives” is already in full swing. The front lines are the pages of newspapers and magazines, televisions screens and computer monitors, virtual seats at international organizations and online university lecture halls. Who is primarily to blame for the appearance of COVID-19? Which country and which system have been most effective in combatting the virus? Who has demonstrated the most compassion and empathy? Who has shown a willingness to selflessly help their foreign partners and even their strategic adversaries in the battle against the pandemic?

Common sense would suggest that it might be better to postpone any discussion of these and other similar issues until the global community has the spread of the virus under control. One way or another, victory over the coronavirus will be something that the global community can share. Let the epidemiologists, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, economists and other experts argue about strategy and the offensive and defensive tactics that needed to be adopted on various fronts. But no! There has been no ceasefire in the “battle of narratives.” Nor is there likely to be one. What is more, one gets the distinct impression that more energy is being put into this battle than into the fight against the coronavirus itself.

But this is hardly surprising. Because right now, literally in front of our very eyes, national and transnational mythologemes of the fight against coronavirus are being created – mythologemes that may end up being just as important as those about World War II or the Cold War. Like the numerous narratives of the past, the narrative that is being created today does not have to reflect the true situation. In fact, it could be entirely false. What is most important here is that the elites are able to convince their own societies of the truth of their version, so that the narrative will be accepted, supported and passed on to future generations. And then its significance as an integral part of national identity and an instrument of political mobilization will be difficult to overestimate.

Whose Narrative is Most Convincing?

Sooner or later, every country that has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic will have developed its own narrative about the fight against COVID-19. There will be heroes, villains, noble feats and tragic mistakes. But the truly era-defining war of “coronavirus narratives” is currently unfolding between China and the West, headed by the United States. The side that can convince the world that its strategy for overcoming the coronavirus is the most effective will at the same time stake its claim to global leadership in the post-corona world. And the side that gives off the impression that it is helpless in the face of the pandemic or has been slow to react to it will automatically be relegated to the position of outsider – a country that will not be able to cope with the challenges awaiting us as we move deeper into the 21st century.

Right now, the West as a whole, and the United States in particular, have been forced to fight a number of difficult defensive battles in the war of “coronavirus narratives.” The public is constantly reminded that COVID-19 did not originate just anywhere, but in China, and hinting at the possibility that the virus was artificially created couldn’t hurt, right? Then there is the argument that Beijing actively misled the international community about the origin of COVID-19 and silenced the doctors who discovered it. And we can blame the Chinese leadership for its massive human rights violations at the peak of the disease in Wuhan, for trying to bribe WHO officials and for various other wrongdoings.

But, as the Russian saying goes, “the winners are not judged.” The statistics are on China’s side, not the United States’. As of April 22, 2020, China had registered a total of 88,423 coronavirus cases and 4632 deaths, compared to 790,480 cases in the United States and 42,214 deaths. China is the most populous country in the world, yet only eighth in terms of the number of infected, far behind the United States and several other Western countries (Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom). As a side note, it is worth mentioning that the spread of coronavirus in the West has forced many to abandon the previously held propagandist theory that the course of the pandemic in Iran was indisputable proof of the complete failure of the country’s illiberal system to deal with the epidemiological crisis. Today Iran, just like China, compares favourably with most leading countries in the West in terms of both the number of infected and the number of deaths.

The discouraging statistics for the West make it difficult to build a reliable defence against the Chinese “coronavirus narrative.” But the West, particularly the United States, desperately needs an alternative narrative. And now more so than ever, as the outlines of a post-corona bipolar world are coming into sight. Observing this epic battle of narratives from the outside (as Russia does not really have a dog in the fight at this point), we can see that the West is building three lines of defence.

China Can Never Be Trusted!

The first line of defence is to try and discredit China’s official coronavirus numbers. The West has always been sceptical about China’s statistics on just about anything, but now this traditional mistrust has turned into outright rejection. Many point to “indirect data” (for example, the sharp decrease in the number of mobile network subscribers in the country) as proof that the number of infected was not in the tens of thousands, but rather in the millions. It thus follows that the number of deaths is also an order of magnitude (or even two) higher than official reports suggest. Moreover, certain voices insist that China is on the verge of a secondary outbreak (which may happen as early as this autumn), and if this is the case, then we may have been a little hasty in praising the effectiveness of China’s strategy in fighting COVID-19.

How strong is this line of defence? The design looks flimsy and unreliable. Naturally, Beijing manipulated the statistics from time to time and the accuracy and completeness of official data on the pandemic are probably questionable. But surely only the most hardened Sinophobe would entertain the notion that the actual numbers of infected and dead are several times higher than the officially reported figures. The reality is that it is impossible to hide the real numbers in today’s transparent and interconnected world – even in a totalitarian and completely closed country like North Korea, not to mention China, which is deeply integrated into the global economic and political system. Attempts to destroy the Chinese narrative by reference to Xi Jinping’s statistical gymnastics can be likened to Lord Cardigan’s hopeless Charge of the Light Brigade on the fortified positions of Russian troops during the Crimean War.

It’s All Trump’s Fault!

The second line of defence is a classic example of ad hominem fallacy. That is, in this case, reducing all of the West’s problems in the fight against coronavirus to the subjective miscalculations of individual statesmen and politicians. The primary culprit is, of course, President of the United States Donald Trump, although fingers are certainly being pointed at European leaders too, from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to his Spanish opposite number Pedro Sánchez. The basic premise is that western healthcare, just like the western socio-political system, is far more effective “in principle” than that of China. Unfortunately for the West, however, the countless managerial missteps of certain individuals and the inconsistencies brought about by the belief in their own infallibility have cancelled out any objective advantages that the West may have had over China. People in the West caught a “bad break” when, at a crucial moment in history, their leaders turned out to be wholly incapable of meeting the challenge before them.

There are gaping holes in the second line of defence as well. It is difficult to find a convincing argument that would explain why such different leaders (in terms of their political views, professional experience, management style and even age) have done about as poorly as each other in their response to the coronavirus in the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. Let us not forget that the population of these countries is several times lower than that of China, yet the number of infected exceeds the Chinese figures significantly. If the Western political system continues to put incompetent and inadequate in positions of power, then perhaps the problem is not the people themselves, but the system as such!

Back to the Roots!

The third line of defence is the willingness to acknowledge the serious systemic imperfections of modern capitalism without touching upon the fundamental principles of political liberalism. In this case, it is not so much Donald Trump and Boris Johnson who are to blame, but rather Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The argument here is that many Western countries made the fatal mistake in the late 1970s and early 1980s of privatizing numerous industries and stimulating economic inequality. What is more, the state started to reject its traditional social obligations. Not only did this result in the degradation of national healthcare systems, but it also led to increased social and political polarization and a general distrust of state institutions and of other people. This all came to a head when a real test in the form of the coronavirus appeared. For example, in the United States, not only did the Republicans and Democrats not rally together in the fight against the pandemic, but they also turned COVID-19 into another reason to step up interparty hostilities.

The conclusion can thus be made that, in order to successfully fight the pandemic and overcome the various other challenges that await humanity, the West needs to return to the historical fork in the road, as it were, where the wrong choice was made. The proponents of this argument point to the relatively successful strategy of the Scandinavian countries in fighting the coronavirus, where social interaction remains high, the state never abandoned its social obligations and the government, opposition, trade unions and employer associations have come together to fight the pandemic.

There is, of course, a logic to this approach. However, the first thing that we should point out here is that the success of the Scandinavian countries in fighting coronavirus has been mixed thus far. As of April 23, 2020, Finland had 3868 registered cases, with 98 deaths (2.5 per cent), compared to 14,777 and 1580 (10.5 per cent), respectively, in Sweden. This can hardly be seen as an unequivocal success for the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven. Secondly, some doubt if the Scandinavian models of the social state can be interpreted as a consistent implementation of “true capitalism at all.”

What if the Defence Falls?

As we can see, holding these lines of defence requires huge resources and casualties from the West. At the first line of defence, the question simply comes down to increasing the effectiveness of propaganda and counterpropaganda and enhancing the West’s intelligence and analytical potential in the name of winning the information war against Beijing. At the second line of defence, at least some of today’s leaders, as well as members of their inner circles, will need to go. And holding the third line of defence will take more than simply removing individual figures from the political scene, no matter how influential they may be. Substantial reforms of the political and socio-economic models of leading Western nations are what is needed here, with all the costs that this will entail for the current elites.

Let us say that there is enough determination and political will in the West to make these sacrifices. Will this be enough to guarantee victory over China in the “battle of narratives”? And what if the third line of defence is breached? Such a breach would represent a direct or indirect acknowledgement that the relative failures of the West and the relative successes of China in the fight against coronavirus are not down to Beijing manipulating the statistics, the inferiority of certain leaders in the West or the departure of leading Western countries from the traditional foundations of the capitalist system.

The failure of the third line of defence would demonstrate that the failures of the West are rooted in the very principles of political liberalism, which is losing all credibility in front of our very eyes through its inability to respond in an effective manner to the challenges of the 21st century. And we are not talking about losing a battle here (even a major one) – we are talking about losing the war.

The Return of Convergence Theory?

iberal political systems assume a degree of external and internal openness. As a rule, liberalism promotes the idea of the free movement of goods, services and people around the world. While people in China saw the closing of the country’s borders as a natural measure for preventing the spread of the coronavirus, similar steps in Western countries were met with fierce criticism from the political opposition. And this is understandable, as a person in a liberal society is first and foremost a “citizen of the world,” rather than a citizen in an authoritarian society. Inside one’s own country, the former enjoys more professional, social and geographical mobility than the latter and has a much wider network of social and professional contacts. This is precisely why a liberal society is, by definition, a more fertile environment for spreading COVID-19.

Liberal societies are far more resistant to attempts by the state to interfere in the private lives of their citizens, be it monitoring smartphones to identify people with whom an infected individual may have had contact or restricting the movement of the population. It is more difficult to place limits on household consumption in liberal societies, even when such restrictions are necessary to prevent panic buying, artificial scarcity and price gouging. Similarly, the liberal economic model is not as effective as the authoritarian model when it comes to mobilizing productive resources in times of war, natural disasters and other difficult times.

None of this necessarily means that authoritarianism will always triumph over liberalism. Even the most effective forms of authoritarianism (as displayed by the Chinese model) have their obvious flaws and imperfections. But if China scores a resounding victory in the battle of “coronavirus narratives,” then much will surely change in terms of what we consider the most desirable future for humankind.

After all, COVID-19 is not the last pandemic that the world will have to face. And let us not forget about climate change, the increasingly frequent natural disasters, possible resource shortages and other emergency situations which, unfortunately, are becoming part of the “new normality.” People across the world want to be free. Freedom is still valued highly. But what if we put the question rather coldly: Would you prefer to survive in an authoritarian Wuhan or die in a free New York?

In the middle of the last century, several prominent thinkers, including Pitirim Sorokin and John Galbraith put forward the idea of converging two opposing socio-economic systems. The so-called convergence theory gained popularity in the 1960s–1970s, even though it was heavily criticized in both the East and the West. The implosion of the world socialist system at the end of the 20th century meant that everyone simply forgot about it, condemning it to the scrapheap of human errors. Perhaps now is the time to revisit the idea from a 21st-century perspective?

From our partner RIAC

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All eyes on China’s post-lockdown Twin Sessions

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Even though parts of the country are still battling a minor rebound of Covid-19 cases, the general message is clear: China has emerged from the abysmal months of lockdown and is ready to resume business. This was made clear to the entire nation on 29 April with the announcement of new dates for the “Twin Sessions” meeting, the country’s most significant annual political and legislative affair, involving the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Starting from 21 May, thousands of legislators and political advisors will gather in Beijing’s Hall of the People to discuss and vote on pressing issues facing the country. The gathering, which should have happened in early March, was postponed for more than two months this year due to Covid-19. Now its restart, reportedly cut short from a two-week event to just one week, is widely considered a reflection of the top leadership’s confidence that a level of normalcy can be restored in Chinese society.

Despite the reassuring symbolic meaning of the Twin Sessions, the social and economic landscape is bleak as China begins its slow recovery from Covid-19. The country’s economy shrank 6.8% in the first quarter of 2020, and a full recovery is far from a certainty given the ongoing nature of the global pandemic. The unemployment rate has risen in the same period. The world will be watching how the Chinese government addresses these challenges through the outcomes of the annual conference. Measures will not just shape the trajectory of the Chinese economy but also global objectives of economic recovery, fighting climate change and achieving long-term sustainability. Here are a few key items to watch for at the Twin Sessions.

Economic growth target

At every year’s Twin Sessions, the Chinese premier will make a formal report to legislators about the government’s work in the past year and, more importantly, lay out key economic and social development targets for the coming year. These targets include rates of GDP growth, unemployment, Consumer Price Index (CPI) change reflecting inflation, and poverty reduction. By the end of the meeting, legislators will vote to adopt those targets to make them binding for the executive branch. That is the order of business in a normal year.

In a year of pandemic, the severe disruption to economic and political processes have made setting the 2020 targets a contentious business. Now all eyes are on Premier Li Keqiang’s Report on the Work of the Government as the country enters the last week of May without a clear idea how the central government plans to set the speed for the economic engine this year.

This is a year of paramount importance for the Party. By the end of 2020, the country’s GDP is supposed to achieve a doubling from 2010 levels, a key political commitment made by the Party to Chinese society. The growth rate needs to hit about 5.5% this year to secure the objective. But Covid-19 has knocked the economy off track by a wide margin.

Prominent Chinese economists have weighed in. Justin Lin, a top economic advisor and former Chief Economist at the World Bank, recommended a moderate target of 3% to avoid maxing out China’s monetary and fiscal policy tools. As the economy shrank in the first quarter and is only mildly recovering in the second, China needs to achieve a 15% growth rate in the second half of 2020 to maintain the 2020 “doubling” goal. Lin argues that even if China is able to stimulate economic expansion to that level, it should opt for a slightly lower target to save some ammunition for next year. “It is totally acceptable to defer the (doubling) goal to next year,” he told the audience of a Peking University webinar on 15 May.

On the other hand, Ma Jun, chairman of China Green Finance Committee and a member of the People’s Bank of China’s monetary policy committee, has advocated for an outright abandonment of any economic growth target for 2020, citing concerns that chasing unrealistic targets will lead to massive stimulus measures in debt-driven infrastructure building that is often short-sighted and ill-considered.

A 13 May article by He Lifeng, the head of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic policymaking body, indicates that the government may still choose to adhere to its original economic goal. “We should make sure we complete the task of building a moderately prosperous society,” he wrote. Doubling GDP by 2020 is a key component of that vision.

Stimulus package

The growth rate target is closely linked with how China determines the size of its economic stimulus package. According to the 2015 Budget Law, key components of the fiscal toolbox, including quotas for central government and local government bond issuance, must be approved by the National People’s Congress.

Liu Yuanchun, vice president of Renmin University, told Caijing magazine that to create 1% GDP growth, fiscal spending should reach 1.2-1.4 trillion yuan (US$170-200 billion).

By the end of April, the Ministry of Finance had front-loaded the local government bond issuance quota to the tune of 2.29 trillion yuan (US$320 billion), and before total annual quotas could be approved at the Twin Sessions. The majority of local government special bonds go into infrastructure projects such as railway construction and public transportation, whose carbon footprints will have implications for global efforts to address climate change.

Green legislation and planning

Covid-19 has triggered a national conversation about the relationship between humans and nature, as scientists have linked the novel coronavirus to human contact with wild animals. The conversation was quickly followed by legislative actions. On 24 February, the NPC Standing Committee passed a decision banning consumption of wild animals for food, leaving only limited exemptions for certain species commonly bred in captivity. The national legislature is expected to revamp the Wildlife Protection Law following the decision. According to a legislative plan released by the NPC Standing Committee, the law revision process will likely culminate in 2021. Therefore, this year’s Twin Sessions probably won’t see definitive progress on the Wildlife Protection law, even though legislators may use the platform to submit proposals and recommendations.

Meanwhile, deliberations on the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025) will start in earnest this year, ready for its delivery to the next Twin Sessions in 2021 for final approval. According to schedules released by national authorities, draft versions of sectoral 14th Five Year Plans (such as for renewable energy) should be available for comment in late 2020.  

In a critical year for China’s political and economic calendar, the pandemic has created unprecedented disruption. The coming week will demonstrate how China plans to pull itself back on track, with outcomes that will have far-reaching global consequences.

From our partner chinadialogue

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Covid-19 pandemic: Legal, political and environmental questions for China

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The outbreak and worldwide spread of COVID-19 is bound to raise questions about where and how the infection originated and turned into a global pandemic, what legal and political implications this may have and how a recurrence can be prevented.  Despite the rather farfetched allegation that “the US army might have brought the epidemic to Wuhan” and the sobering assertion that “we may never know where this deadly coronavirus originated,” there is general consensus that the disease originated in China where it had been confined to animal hosts before turning into a human killing pathogen.

The actual mode of spread of the disease has been in dispute with prominent figures in the American administration claiming incompetence in ensuring safety in a Chinese virology center. The least contentious view, however, is that the initial medium of transmission was contaminated flesh of wild animals sold for human consumption in a wet market in the city of Wuhan in central China.

This is not the first zoonotic epidemic to surface in China and spread to other parts of the world. Although never before on such devastating scale, previous epidemics were also serious enough to prompt warnings about causing “significant public health concern” and “considerable socio-economic problems globally”.  It is for the World Health Organization (WHO) as an independent international body entrusted with protecting the health of the world population to investigate and ascertain the origin of the illness and its human outbreak. If necessary, the organization should be expected to advise and intervene in order to prevent a repetition.

Doubts have also been cast on the reliability of official Chinese reports of the time of the outbreak of the illness, its progression into an epidemic and the extent of the ensuing infection and fatality in that country. It has also been suggested that the reporting may not have been entirely transparent, and this may have adversely affected preventive planning by other countries.

Despite sings of diplomatic reticence in view of China’s upper hand in supplying medical materials needed by other countries to combat COVID-19, allegations have been made by the US Secretary of State that “China didn’t report the outbreak of the new coronavirus in a timely fashion to the WHO” and that “even after the CCP did notify the WHO of the coronavirus outbreak, China didn’t share all of the information it had” (Pompeo, 24 April 2020). As regards information supplied by the Chinese, too, suspicion has been voiced by France’s President Macron that “there are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about”.

In response, the Chinese authorities have vehemently denied any coverup and have even offered additional explanations about the apparent discrepancies between the impacts of the virus there and in other countries. To resolve the conflict and provide a clear picture, it is again the responsibility of the WHO, as an impartial institution in charge of international exchange of vital medical information, to investigate these allegations and if verified, decide on the appropriate response.  

From the legal point of view, too, there is the need for expert opinion on whether there should or should not be international consequences for China if the country is proven to be the origin of the pandemic. Assuming that the source of the infection was contaminated meat, it has to be ascertained whether the meat was on sale in an authorized and regulated market in Wuhan, in which case Chinese officials in charge of food hygiene and consumer safety may be liable for criminal negligence. Or, as suggested by some sources, it had been smuggled and sold illegally, which would intimate professional incompetence on the part of the country’s law enforcement agencies.

It is up to international lawyers and legal entities to determine whether either or both cases constitute grounds for domestic and/or international litigation against the Chinese state or its functionaries, as was, for example, in the case of the contaminated blood scandal of 1980s or are only matters for internal disciplinary action for the Chinese government to pursue.

Less urgent, but perhaps more significant implication of the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 for the future of international relations are possible reasons behind the Chinese government’s long-running neglect of the need to take serious action to stem the insalubrious trade in wild animals, including endangered species. In a country where the state keeps a watchful eye on citizens and has firm control over many aspects of their lives, lax attitude of the officialdom toward the destruction of wildlife cannot be put down to lack of information or want of power to intervene. Rather, it has to be seen as part and parcel of politics in a country where political development has lagged far behind the impressive transformation and colossal progress of the economy.

Before the People’s Republic of China gradually opened its economy to the outside world from late 1970s, the country was under an ideological regime obsessed with economic autarky and political regimentation at home and a belligerent, isolationist stance in foreign relations. Thanks to two decades of ideological compromise over the economy, China entered the 21st Century as a fast-growing economic power and has remained the singularly most impressive example of success of an emerging economy.

What has changed little over these decades has been a totalitarian, one-party political system that “sees human rights as an existential threat” and denies the citizens many of the rights and freedoms taken for granted in democratic countries. The Chinese officialdom may present the ossified one-party rule in the People’s Republic of China as essential for “political stability” but in fact, not only it is no guarantee against internal political instability, it can pose a serious threat to world economic and political security.

It is natural to sympathize with people living under totalitarian regimes as victims of tyrannical rule, but in a wider picture, authoritarian rulers themselves are unwitting victims of their own tyranny. Of course, it is they who deprive their citizens of basic human rights and political freedoms because they are conscious of their own lack of political legitimacy and consensual authority and live in constant fear that without political and social control, the undercurrent of public discontent and frustration may erupt into open rebellion and subvert the regime.

Yet, by suppressing freedom of expression and repressing open dissention, the authoritarian state fosters a political culture of disingenuous acquiescence and false conformity which deprives the rulers of reliable means of identifying and responding to people’s expectations and grievances and assessing their genuine opinion of the actions of their government. Moreover, unlike democratic countries where people assume ultimate responsibility for the actions of the state by virtue of the right to elect and dismiss their government, the authoritarian regime alone bears the blame for failing to recognize and respond to people’s expectations, legitimate and rational or otherwise.

In this atmosphere of mutual fear and distrust, state politics and policy is governed by a bizarre rationale. Having deprived citizens of many of their legitimate rights and freedoms, the authoritarian regime is reluctant to put into effect measures that are likely to add to limitations already imposed on people’s lives even if such limitations are clearly in the public interest. In choosing between restrictions that protect the regime against public frustration, and those that serve public interest, the authoritarian ruler prefers to forgo the latter because of the fear that people’s limit of forbearance may be reached and the fragile veneer of political and civil compliance give in to conflict and confrontation.  

The Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 epidemic reveals the mindset of a political establishment fearful of further antagonizing a nation that lives under controlling, authoritarian rule. It is alleged that official acknowledgement of the outbreak was delayed because the state did not wish it to interfere with public celebration of the Chinese New Year.

The tendency to understate the extent of the fatalities, in contrast to largely transparent public awareness campaign by democratic governments, can only point to a regime that is wary of citizens’ accusing fingers even in the case of a natural disaster. The whole episode is symptomatic of a regime uncertain of its popular-based legitimacy and suggests a fundamental rift and lack of understanding between state and citizen in the People’s Republic of China.    

This atmosphere of mutual mistrust must also be blamed for the Chinese government’s failure to prevent this global tragedy in the first place by persistently turning a blind eye to the harm done to wildlife by a section, perhaps only a small section of its population. These are people who continue to kill even rare species not to satisfy their hunger, but to gratify antiquated gastronomic obsessions or practice superstitious pseudo-medical rituals. The Chinese authorities’ neglect of the need not only to strengthen and seriously enforce legislation on prohibition of consumption of wildlife but more importantly, their hesitation to take the necessary corrective cultural steps can only speak of concern about further alienating a people already deprived of many democratic rights and freedoms.

Today, China’s political stagnation can no longer be overlooked as an internal matter because it can have wide-reaching global consequences. An authoritarian regime is inherently unstable. Instead of free consensus of the people, its survival depends on successfully manipulating some into acceptance and coercing others into submissiveness. In this age of global communication and globalization of ideas, neither can ensure but a fragile existence.

The problem is that China is no longer a reclusive, isolated country on the fringes of world political and economic stage with a population on the breadline. As the rapid spread of COVID-19 outside China showed, the country interacts extensively with the rest of the world and has extensive worldwide connections and contacts. Political turmoil in a major economic and military world power and home to nearly one-fifth of humanity is certain to entail grave ramifications for the political and economic security of the world in the same way that its rich market for rhinoceros horn, tiger body parts, bear paws and elephant tusk can drive endangered species to the brink of extinction.

The Chinese rulers may consider it too costly and unsettling to set in motion the necessary political reformation in the interest of long-term national and international security, but they can act upon their declared commitment to wildlife and environmental protection  to redeem themselves.

The People’s Republic has the propaganda machinery to advocate faith in the blessings of single-party rule, the facilities to “re-educate” doubters and the apparatus to detect and suppress dissent. It is hard to accept that it is incapable of promoting universal values of the modern age among those in the population who are still unaware of their country’s newly gained international status and the responsibilities that go with it.

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China’s future political and economic moves

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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image source: Wikimedia Commons

On May 22, 2020 China will organize its largest institutional political assembly, the National People’s Congress. Institutionally, it should have been held on March 5, but it had been postponed to May 22.

 There are two obvious meanings underlying this political choice, which results directly from President Xi Jinping.

 The first and most evident is the return to full normalcy, after the now officialised end of the outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei and of the other minor ones. Secondly, it is the sign of a rediscovered political, organizational and economic operation, pending a confrontation between China and the United States that is expected to become ever less easy to resolve on both sides, but also strongly decisive for the new world geo-economic equilibria.

There will be about 5,000 delegates from all areas of the country representing the 56 constitutionally recognized minorities who,over a period of about ten days, will institutionally define the annual budget, the country’s annual and multi-year economic goals, as well as some important bills. It is a Congress that establishes China’s “global strategy”, albeit in a concrete and simple way.

Certainly there is still the block on the entry of Chinese coming from other countries, but workers have returned to factories and almost all schools and universities have been reopened, as well as shops, although there are signs of possible new spreading of Covid 19, which so far the Chinese government has not neglected at all.

The attention will be obviously focused on the Central Government’s Report, which in this case will certainly be needed to have the necessary consensus and support from all regions in the country, so as to avoid both the danger of factionalism, which is central to the CPC’s theory and practice, and above all to provide economic and organisational consistency and unity to all the work that peripheral areas shall carry out on their own.

 This is a typical mechanism of the Third International’s tradition.

I was once confidentially told by Deng Xiaoping, who also came from one of the recognised minorities, that they did not want Communism as it was achieved elsewhere, but just Socialism, albeit with Chinese characteristics.

 Without bearing this in mind, even today little is understood of the Chinese political system and of its medium and long term goals.

At economic level, in fact, in the first quarter of 2020 China’s GDP fell by 6.8% compared to the same period of last year.

 The sharpest economic downturn since 1976, when Mao Zedong died and the GDP decreased only in that period, and later started to always grow again by 1.6%.

A final important sign to Western analysts was sent by President Xi Jinping on May 18 last, at the Assembly of the World Health Organization.

Obviously the first signal follows the vast diplomacy of support and economic and health collaboration, which characterized China immediately after the outbreak of the Wuhan epidemic-pandemic.

 In other words, President Xi Jinping wants to eradicate the idea that the Covid-19 virus is only “made in China” – an idea that characterizes the great “fake news” that has alarmed the United States and so far collected 116 adhesions to the request – recently made by the EU – of an independent study on the virus origins and on the new ways of spreading among human beings it has shown.

The first information and economic goal pursued is to avoid – first and foremost – the worldwide defamation of China, of its economy and of its reliability, and also avoid having to pay large sums of money for repairing the damage caused by Covid-19, should some countries, just like the United States, want to resort to this legal-administrative and insurance instrument to achieve their real goal, i.e. preventing China from playing – for a sufficiently long time – its current role as global competitor at economic, political and military levels.

 Hence, as President Xi Jinping clearly stated at the WHO Assembly, China does not feel to be and is not responsible for any life lost in the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

President Xi Jinping also added that China reacted as quickly as possible – as opposed to the slowness of action in other Western countries – thus clearly perceiving the threat posed by the pandemic. The President also said that it was China that first spread the sequencing of the entire virus genome, through the usual procedures, i.e. the official transmission of data to the WHO.

Therefore, President Xi’s speech at the WHO is intended to reaffirm China’s centrality. This will certainly be reaffirmed also at the forthcoming National People’s Congress, but with another secondary objective, i.e. to underline the isolation of the USA and its “factionalism”, just when China is regaining – after the pandemic – the primary role it has played in recent years as the leading country of the new globalization, while Donald Trump’s “America First” policy is isolating the United States from the EU and from China itself and is reproposing an old “Cold War” tension with the Russian Federation, as well as finally rebuilding fences and spreading polemics in the Middle East and Latin America. Self-isolation or probably an old-style and “out of time” perception of the US global role, which is still inevitable but must be rethought without solemn and currently useless memories of the past.

This is the other communication, economic and political goal of China’s current and future actions, in this phase when the Covid-19 still appears to be retreating.

 Deng Xiaoping told me so very clearly.

He told me they wanted Socialism, not Communism. In Deng’s mind, in fact, Communism is Western stuff. Indeed, the Chinese Communists had rightly interpreted Marx, who did not want the transition to Socialism and the structural end of capitalism in the peripheries of the world but, if anything, in its evolved centre, namely Germany and Great Britain. According to the CPC’s documents, Togliatti and Gramsci – before him – had “made mistakes”.

 And certainly not out of servility towards the USSR that, at the time, was an unavoidable point of reference for the Italian Communist party (PCI).

Hence we should never think that the CPC stopped studying Karl Marx’s texts, albeit with creative intelligence.

Quite the reverse. Nowadays Marxism is often mentioned in China, as the theory for shifting – within capitalism – from the production of goods and services to mass financialisation that the Chinese government currently uses, above all, to propose – with extreme caution –  its entry into the world market.

 And Deng, who was always a dear personal friend, is now one of the two true historical references for President Xi Jinping, together with Mao Zedong.

Hence unification of China, together with the still necessary Great Modernization, in addition to those established by Deng Xiaoping at the beginning of post-Maoism, which was never real Communism, because it never set as its goal the transformation of the remaining global capitalist world, but its penetration, with Chinese and, above all, national objectives and styles.

Moreover, just to eliminate again this brand of “Made in China” virus and of adverse actions and hacking against the websites of Western research centres – which is an accusation made by the EU – President Xi Jinping has clearly stated that- when discovered and tested – the therapies should become “global public goods”.

Another strong signal sent by China to the West is clear: do not think you can make the usual big deal with the future anti-Covid19 vaccine because when we have it anyway – and we will probably have it before you – we will distribute it as free patent and we will not ask for additional costs or fees.

It is easy to imagine what could be the propaganda and geopolitical result for China in this case, which would find itself distributing modern and above all free anti-viral vaccines to all the regions, in Latin America, in Asia and in Europe itself, which have been radically and further impoverished by the pandemic.

What could Westerners say in this case? Could they say their vaccine is cheap, but better?

 It is easy to imagine the effects of this counterfactual propaganda.

 It is also easy to imagine the potential geopolitical impact of such an operation.

 At the next upcoming National People’s Congress another political and economic weapon of Chinese propaganda is and will be the reaffirmation of China’s political, scientific and financial contribution to the World Health Organization, just as the United States has declared that its contributions to the WHO have been frozen.

Where there is a “void”, the Chinese fill it. Westerners have left on their own, but they have lost both a possible ally and a major source of information. Bad choice. Opponents must be penetrated and not be cursed with a ritual that is very closely related to that of Protestant sects or American new religions such as Scientology. The eighteenth-century-style sectarianism is not a good way for spreading a political message – just think of the neo-evangelical sects that made Bolsonaro’s electoral fortune in Brazil.

Hence, for the Chinese, simultaneous implementation of Sun Tzu’s rules and the Thirty-Six Stratagems.

Finally, however, President Xi Jinping has not rejected the idea of a “large world analysis” on Covid-19, but regarding the global responses to the pandemic, not only the vague theories on its territorial origin.

These are the guidelines that, in all likelihood, we will see in action at the forthcoming National People’s Conference.

 But there are two other essential political signs from China that we must consider: one is the core of the future Chinese expansion, which is still Africa – another great void of Westerners that China is filling strategically and economically – and the other is the new Chinese attention- and of President Xi, in particular – paid to the Great South of the world. A legacy of Mao’s Thought.

In the policy line, already established for the national People’s Congress to be held on March 5 last, there are some rather new aspects: firstly, the new deadline for the eradication of absolute poverty throughout the country, which has been postponed for the meeting to be held next Wednesday, while the deadline for China to become a leading nation in technological innovation is still 2035. The same holds true for 2050, the deadline for the project to turn China into a world leader.

In other words, to make Deng Xiaoping’s Fourth Modernisation, the military one, the axis of China’s real technological, civil and organizational transformation.

Throughout China, the Covid-19 pandemic has in fact stepped up processes that had already been defined in the past by the central Government: firstly, the acceleration of digitalization, which has obviously been favoured by the “lockdown” that China has adopted – as happened in almost all European countries and the United States, where the closure of companies and distribution has forced consumers to inevitably resort to e-commerce.

Obviously, also in China, as elsewhere in the world, greater attention has been paid to what is still called – who knows for how long – “national interest”.

 However, this has not happened in the EU countries on the verge of bankruptcy, such as Italy itself, where any aid provided by the other EU Member States is only for their own gain, since they are obviously just waiting to swallow up what remains of Italian SMEs, and the huge colossal private savings of Italians, to rescue their banks.

In Italy an incompetent ruling class is waiting for ambiguous aid such as the ESM or the future, equally ambiguous, slow, vague and unclear “Recovery Fund”, as it was charity, generous donations and gracious concessions from old friends.

Another structural factor of the Chinese economy triggered by the pandemic has been a greater level of technological and financial competition among the countries affected, and also among Chinese companies themselves in their domestic market, which has obviously grown in importance and has largely replaced reduced exports and also imports, actually blocked by the combination of the pandemic and the trade war between China and the United States.

Socialism that makes once again “substitution economy”, as was the case in the 1950s.

Another economic factor that the pandemic has reactivated or accelerated, in China as elsewhere, is the major role of the private sector and the no-profit sector.

This will certainly be at the core of the next National People’s Congress, which sees local, ethnic and political autonomies strongly represented. Nevertheless, it mainly represents – ina politically significant way – also some technical-scientific elites, fully integrated in the CPC, which, however, have a strong influence both on the Party and on the “inner circle” of President Xi Jinping.

President Xi wants to avoid China losing it dominant role in the world as a result of the now hopefully ended pandemic. Indeed, he wants to redesign it at a time when, due to past and present mistakes, the productive, social and healthcare system of the United States and part of the EU shows strong failures, which immediately spill over and affect what were once called the “productive forces”.

As President Trump said, the United States has harshly asked for a gradual “decoupling” – albeit fast and certain – of the American companies from China. Due to the very characteristics of the current Chinese economy, however, President Xi Jinping knows all too well that – whatever happens to the Chinese economy today and in the immediate future – the Global Value Chains (GVCs), on which China cannot but fully rely, are all semi-destroyed.

A few months ago, Chinese companies were among the largest companies in the world to applyfor “force majeure” certificates to terminate existing supply contracts in the world.

 Certainly, the real attack by Trump’s America on the Chinese economy will be launched through the new Global Value Chains, which, almost certainly, will now encircle China, but will no longer penetrate it.

China will play its cards which – as we will see soon – will also be played at the forthcoming National People’s Congress, with a network of probable internal Chinese marginal areas that will very fiercely compete with the new probable external pro-USA network of new CGVs which -we imagine – will pass through India to Vietnam, and through Taiwan, to India and obviously Japan. This is the reason for Taiwan’s recent “revival” as an unlikely geo-economic opponent of China, upon US clear indication.

 Another issue that will be surely well explored by the next National People’s Congress – with President Xi Jinping who will be able to strongly innovate the Chinese economy, even with a higher rate of liberalization – is that of strengthening the State, so as to make it ever more effective as a “power multiplier” and as developer of a national policy line, “with Chinese characteristics” – exactly as Deng Xiaoping repeated to me – which combines military, finance, productive economy, diplomacy and intelligence Services, with a view to winning the real war of China today, i.e. the war against the USA which, however, no one will ever fight on the ground and with the old means of “classic” military power.

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