By Jean-Guy Carrier Source: Chinadaily Published: 2020-02-19
The aftermath of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2002-03 signaled, in many ways, China's return to a central position in the world.
After performing an economic miracle since launching reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, China became a member of World Trade Organization in 2001 after 15 years of negotiations. Which inspired pride in the Chinese people, as I discovered during my travels there as a staff member of the WTO. I met everywhere people who saw China's entry into the WTO as proof that their country was stepping out into the world, and that the world was turning increasingly toward China.
But events took a surprising turn when the SARS epidemic broke out in China in November 2002. By early 2003, the SARS virus had spread to 17 countries. It would eventually kill 774 people, mostly on the Chinese mainland and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region before it was contained.
The outcome of the coronavirus outbreak is likely to be the same as that of the SARS epidemic. The difference is not with the coronavirus so much as it is with the reality of China's return to the global stage and its influence as an engine of the global economy. That was only beginning to happen when the SARS epidemic occurred in 2002.
My son was a teacher in China's eastern region at that time. Like everyone outside China, we were concerned for his health and safety. The reports we received were often alarming. The small city where our son lived and worked was quarantined like many other places in China. He was unable to work or travel.
But the family of one of his students invited him to their home at that time, like a lonely son in need of company. It was during this period that our son discovered the structure and beauty of the Chinese language. As he described it, "a light went on" and he understood the workings of the language, largely thanks to the generosity, warmth and openness of the family which took him into their modest home.
Today he speaks Mandarin fluently. So do millions of other non-Chinese who have been impressed, inspired and have often found careers because of China's extraordinary economic development. It is precisely this Asian miracle which made a huge difference in how the world reacted to SARS.
Yet there is a lack of generosity expressed in criticisms from outside China about how the Chinese people and governments are responding to the coronavirus epidemic. Stories of effective measures and containment are accompanied by others that raise the specter of secrecy, censorship and even repression.
My son and his Chinese wife were in some place in Northeast China to celebrate the Lunar New Year when the coronavirus outbreak intensified. But despite being frightened and concerned, they and their Chinese family and friends celebrated Spring Festival, as they do every year.
Much has changed since China was welcomed to the international community. Sanctions and punitive tariffs, trade wars and bitter spats between governments have turned admiration for China's miraculous rise into raw envy at its new wealth by governments which see China as a security threat.
The coronavirus epidemic will inevitably abate and disappear. What should be dreaded most is the persistence of a view of China as a threat, a source of deadly viruses, dangerous technologies and ideas.
The family which took my son into its home during the SARS epidemic celebrated the advent of the Year of the Rat with my son and his wife in their home. That family has prospered thanks to China's economic rise. Their son is a PhD candidate in a US University. He speaks fluent English and as an educated, well-travelled Chinese national, he has also become a citizen of the world.
Returning home in Paris after celebrating the Spring Festival in China, my son and his wife found the streets devoid of Asian tourists. There was also in the air and in the media a suspicion and fear of anything Asian, as if a dangerous virus was lurking even in Chinese restaurants.
My son and his wife promptly went about collecting face masks to send to China, where a shortage was reported. Small gestures of kindness and understanding are taking place by the millions in the face of this new crisis, between people in China and outside China who are aware of their responsibility as members of the international community.
The simple wisdom of such kind gestures will be remembered long after the virus has disappeared. The Year of the Rat marks the start of a new 12-year cycle in the Chinese zodiac. It is a symbol of hope and a new beginning for all of us who believe that friendship and renewal are the most effective vaccines against fear and hostility, everywhere in this small world.
The author is a non-resident senior fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.