Wang Yong: The Impact of the Pandemic on China and Its Relations with the World


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Wang Yong: The Impact of the Pandemic on China and Its Relations with the World


By:Wang Yong   Source:Global Asia      Published:2020-09

The Covid-19 pandemic is perceived as the worst global crisis since 1945, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling it “the greatest challenge in the 75-year history of the United Nations.” In a telephone conversation with Guterres, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “the Covid-19 outbreak once again shows that mankind is a community with a shared future, and the international community must foster a sense of community, help each other, and work together to tackle risks and challenges to build a better home for the planet.”

In my view, the outbreak is the first major world crisis since globalization became a fundamental reality. The impact of the pandemic on the global economy is unprecedented, with some analysts viewing it as a mix of the 1929-1933 Great Depression and the 2008 global financial crisis. The pandemic has sent at least three shockwaves through the global economy: The first wave, the outbreak in Wuhan and China, caused disruption of global supply chains; the second wave, in Europe and the US, triggered the global stock market crash and broke the global supply chains on the demand side; the third wave has shocked the developing world, especially Brazil and India.

Four major reasons aggravate the impact of the pandemic. First, today’s world is highly interdependent and globalized, pulled together by the flows of goods, capital and people. It is now a “global village.” As South Korean President Moon Jae-in pointed out, China’s problem is South Korea’s problem and the pandemic must be addressed through co-operation.

Second, the public and political leaders have been slow to understand the virus, inhibited by habitual thinking. Covid-19 is subtle, with a long incubation period, and is highly contagious. In the West, the cultural resistance to face masks obviously exposed the public to infection, not to mention the fact that some people and leaders politicized the issue. The US is the prime example of this: the Trump administration initially played down the danger of the virus, and many people were negligent about taking the necessary precautions. Unfortunately, the time saved by the lockdown of Wuhan was wasted and lives were lost.

Third, the world’s two largest economies, China and the United States, became epicenters of the pandemic. The US is the world’s most important center for political, economic, technological and cultural exchanges, followed by China. The outbreak in China disrupted the global “real” economy and global supply chains, and then the epidemic in the US impacted the global virtual and real economy.

Fourth, the pandemic has exaggerated and politicized the strategic competition between China and the US. Obviously, some forces are taking this opportunity to push hard with their own agendas, decoupling the US from China and pushing the world into a new Cold War.

China’s Response to Covid-19

China was the first country to report cases of the new coronavirus. The source of the virus has become a controversial issue in international relations, as we witness different scientific reports pointing to different sources and timings of the first cases. The question of the source of the virus should be left to scientists to study, but unfortunately, it also has been highly politicized, affecting international co-operation in fighting the pandemic.

As for the way China handled the outbreak in January 2020, the lockdown in Wuhan was controversial at the time, but there now seems to be a global consensus that the lockdown was a necessary measure, although people’s normal lives were severely affected and the social and economic costs were high. China established the principles of medical treatment for Covid-19 at a very early stage, which was summarized as the “Four Earlys,” that is, early detection, early reporting, early isolation or quarantine and early treatment. The national standards for medicines were released and updated frequently. All the measures proved vital to stopping the spread of the virus.

The strong mobilization ability of the central government contributed greatly to the control of the pandemic. Medical teams from the military were dispatched to Wuhan and other parts of Hebei Province, preventing a collapse of the medical system. Two intensive care hospitals were built within 10 days, and many makeshift hospitals were also opened.

The experience of fighting the pandemic demonstrated the newly added power of scientific research and manufacturing: Chinese scientists were the first to publish gene-sequencing information and other papers to share with the world. 5G and other high-tech methods helped with remote diagnosis. In terms of epidemic prevention and control, Big Data, artificial intelligence, drones and mobile phones provided substantial assistance to anti-pandemic measures. Throughout the healthcare crisis, schools continued to teach via video conferencing.

Cultural Differences

Not everyone agrees with the idea that this public health crisis offers a chance to reflect on the differences in culture and governance systems between China and the US, and between Asia and the West. The responses of China and other Asian countries to the pandemic were in general better organized, exhibiting the authority of central governments, as well as the coherence of society and political unity.

More important, the government and the public respect the advice of professionals. In China, tying down the virus has been the collective work and achievement of the state, society and the market. On the other hand, the public in China watched how the West responded, in particular, the US. They were shocked to see the weak co-ordination in fighting the pandemic, the social unrest and tensions caused by race relations, the politicization of the issue and the scapegoating of China, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other countries for what were perceived as policy failures. In many people’s view, cultural differences explain much about the differing responses to the crisis and revealed the greater confidence the Chinese have in their country and system of governance.

Dangers of a New Cold War

The pandemic has changed the world, disrupted normal life and also made the relationship among nations more tense and anarchic. The global crisis requires a global response. Facing the first truly globalized public health crisis, the major countries did not unite the world; on the contrary, the outbreak prompted greater strategic competition and disagreements over ideology between the great powers.

In China, once the epidemic was under control the government immediately sent medical teams and materials to 90 countries, and donated funds to the WHO to help developing countries fight the epidemic. Beijing opened many platforms, mainly through video conferences, to share clinical experience with medical experts in many countries. These efforts were not to promote the China model, but about humanitarianism and international solidarity. The so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy is actually a response to the biased views toward China articulated by some Western media and politicians in the early stages of the crisis. Such biased opinions are not helpful at such a sensitive and fragile time.

The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the overall competition between China and the US and increased the risk of a new Cold War. There are significant differences in the ways and effects of responding to the crisis. China’s aid and co-operation with other countries and organizations was criticized by some US politicians as promoting the China Model and ideology, a view that might be shared by some in other developed countries. They invented many notions to demonize China’s policies and efforts, including referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus” and peddling the theory that the virus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory or was actually developed by Chinese scientists. Some even called for China to pay compensation for spreading the virus.

China hawks in the US are clearly trying to launch a new Cold War and to push for a comprehensive “decoupling” between China and the US. They launched a war of public opinion at home and abroad, mobilizing propaganda resources and means similar to what was seen during the Cold War, using the pandemic to stoke hatred against China and divert domestic attention away from the Covid-19 disaster in the US itself. At the same time, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other issues were used to launch propaganda campaigns against China. A Pew poll found that 73 percent of the US public have a negative view of China, a result of the propaganda war. This “smearing” of China’s ideology and political system was aimed at forcing other countries from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region to take sides.

While waging a propaganda war, the US government also stepped up its technology war against Chinese companies. China hawks are taking advantage of US power in different areas to push for the exclusion of China from the global system, including the dollar, the Internet and so on.

The position of the Chinese government is very clear. It rejects the new Cold War and the idea of the decoupling of China and the US. As the world’s two largest economies, both have special responsibilities for maintaining global peace, stability and prosperity. The rationale for launching a new Cold war is outdated. It will harm the interests of China and the world and will ultimately harm the interests of the US.

China and the US have different political systems, ideologies and development models, and these differences are now heightened by strategic rivalry and the pandemic. These differences are not new, and they will not end soon. The competition will continue to exist, but the core of the challenge is how to handle the tensions in a smart way, and how to base relations on a practical and realistic foundation.

Dealing with an Uncertain World

Due to the impact of Covid-19 and great power competition, the future world is full of uncertainty. Thomas Friedman argues that the world will be divided into a pre-epidemic and post-epidemic era. Some analysts are also debating whether the coronavirus is “China’s Chernobyl moment” or “America’s Suez Canal moment,” harkening back to the crippling crisis suffered by Britain over the Suez in 1956. The notions reflect the worry in the minds of many people.

Currently, three uncertainties dominate the world. The first is when the global pandemic will be brought under control and effective vaccines can be made available worldwide. The second uncertainty involves the impact of the pandemic on the global economy, including whether systemic financial risks will occur, how long the global economic slowdown will last and how deep it will be. The third uncertainty has to do with what direction the global order will take. Statements such as “the virus has caused a great change not seen in a century” and “a small virus has caused a great change in the world order” need careful observation.

On the other hand, some developments can be predicted: First, public health will be seen as a national security issue and will be an important focus of public policy in the future.

Second, global supply chains will be reshaped around national security and public health security. The outbreak of the epidemic from China to Europe and the US to the vast number of developing countries has exposed the inherent vulnerability of global supply chains. Developed countries are calling for “public health” as a goal of their national security strategies, and there are increasing calls to adjust and restructure supply chains with the aim of reducing over-reliance on Chinese-made medicines and medical protective supplies.

Third, the relationship between the state and the market and between the state and society will undergo considerable adjustment. Great changes will occur in value preferences, the state’s intervention in the economy will rise and the influence of the Chinese model will continue to increase. The state-led “mixed economy” model, represented by China, compared to the economic development model called “state capitalism” by Western media, has shown stronger resilience and adaptability in the face of major crises. The development model of “free trade” and “free markets” on which economic globalization depended, has been challenged. The contradictions and competition between these economic and governance models are important factors in the conflict between China and the US and between China and Europe. Related to this change, the application of advanced technologies such as Big Data, artificial intelligence and 5G reinforce the Western media’s concern about the so-called “surveillance state” model, although Western countries must do the same in order to ensure public security to some extent.

Fourth, strategic competition, ideological competition and geopolitical competition among major powers will intensify under the new global situation after the pandemic.

In order to cope with the uncertainty of the future international order, humanity needs to learn from the Covid-19 crisis. Unseen viruses teach us the following lessons:

Lesson 1: Pandemics prove that the world is interdependent. We are in the same “global village.” Fire in a neighbor’s backyard can easily pass to other houses in the neighborhood.

Lesson 2:Non-traditional security threats such as pandemics can be more dangerous and costly than major power conflict. It is a wake-up call to the security hawks obsessed with US-China and US-Russia great power competition. In today’s world, the US should be the country best prepared for this kind of public health crisis. After all, it does drills every year and invests greatly in this area. While people blame China for mishandling the outbreak and the slow pace with which it passed along information, they must also think of how China later dealt with the crisis compared with other developed countries, especially the US. Cool-headed media and political leaders will resist the meaningless game of blaming others.

Lesson 3: How important the co-operation is between the US and China. To some extent, the pandemic is the outcome of the breakdown in collaboration between the two countries in the field of public health. We have seen the shrinking of US staff and budgets, and training programs, in China, stimulated by a strong sense of competition with China aimed at limiting benefits to China. The crisis has proven how short-sighted these “no co-operation” policies are.

The world needs to co-operate to tackle the Covid-19 crisis as soon as possible, and major countries need to mend relations to create a win-win future for the whole world. The most important thing for China-US relations is to increase strategic consensus and political trust.

The key is to re-recognize the common interests of the two countries and the shared responsibility to the world. We need to respect each other’s cultures, and be humble about different values and systems, and conduct dialogue on governance and civilizations to learn from each other. The people of the two countries will benefit and the world will benefit.

Wang Yong is a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, and the Director of the Center for American Studies there. He is also a regional editor for Global Asia.

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