COVID-19 & China: A View from Asia

This week’s note is from George Yeo, Brunswick Geopolitical Principal and former Singapore Cabinet member for Health (1994–97), Trade and Industry (1999–2004) and Foreign Affairs (2004–11). This article represents his own personal views.

At 10am on Saturday April 4, which was Qing Ming or China’s All Souls Day, sirens rang across the country for three minutes. The entire country paused to mourn all those who succumbed to COVID-19. It was a moment of national solidarity after a terrifying experience which seared the collective memory. According to official figures, over 3,300 Chinese died out of a total of over 83,000 infected. A few western reports have cast doubt on these numbers much to the indignation of Chinese authorities. Even if there were significantly more infections and deaths, it does not change the overall picture.

China’s leaders took the fateful decision of locking down Wuhan, a city of eleven million people on January 23, two days before Chinese New Year. All modes of public transportation suddenly ceased operating - airport, train station, metro, river ports. By the afternoon, highways leading out of Wuhan were sealed off. Within a few days, the sixteen cities of Hubei Province with a population of almost sixty million people came under quarantine. By confining the main epidemic to Hubei province, China was able to prevent other major outbreaks of the epidemic in the country. For two months, the people of Hubei endured varying degrees of hardship, Wuhan the worst. Help poured in from the rest of the country. Within ten days, two special hospitals were built with a total of 2500 beds. Tens of thousands of healthcare personnel were dispatched from other provinces and the People’s Liberation Army to reinforce a public healthcare system that would otherwise have collapsed from the sudden increase of critically ill patients. The Central Government ensured that every city in Hubei had a major province to lean on for general support. In gratitude, Hubei residents came out to the streets in large numbers to send off these ‘foreign’ contingents when they finally left Wuhan and other cities a few weeks ago.

Imagine if China’s Central Government had dithered. The internal debate must have been ferocious. Wuhan is a major hub in China for air, rail, road and riverine transport. During the war against Japan, Wuhan was Chiang Kai-shek’s temporary HQ after Nanjing fell. Great battles were fought to defend Wuhan while Chiang evacuated his administration to Chongqing which was upstream of the Yangtze River gorges and therefore much less accessible. Perhaps no other city is as well-connected to all of China than Wuhan. It has the biggest student population of any city in China with large numbers from other provinces. During the week-long Chinese New Year holidays, Chinese people go back to their hometowns for family reunions. The annual Spring migration in China is the biggest movement of human beings on earth.

Looking back, if Beijing had not taken this decision to confine Wuhan, the COVID-19 epidemic would have spread to all corners of China within a week. The World Health Organisation described the action as ‘unprecedented’ in the history of public health. There could easily have been fifty Wuhan outbreaks and the Chinese Communist Party would have been shaken to its core. At that time in late January, the nature of COVID-19 was still poorly understood and even today is still not well understood. Chinese authorities made serious mistakes in December and January including the persecution of whistleblowers by local officials. (Key provincial leaders involved in the early coverup have since been removed including the Party Secretaries of Hubei Province and Wuhan City.) But, on the most critical decision, China’s Central Government made the right call. That saved China and bought the world precious weeks which unfortunately were not put to good use despite repeated alarms by the World Health Organisation.

For a few weeks, many people thought in their hearts that COVID-19 was a virus that mostly affected Chinese people and other East Asians, like SARS. That fueled conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus. As the number of infections and deaths rose day by day in China, the reaction of the external world was mixed. Some showed sympathy and extended help. Others sneered. Anti-China and anti-Chinese sentiments infected large parts of the world affecting not only Mainland Chinese but East Asians generally. Beijing took careful note of these different reactions. When the Wall Street Journal described China as ‘the real sick man of Asia’, it caused considerable offense among ordinary Chinese. In contrast, the modest donation of masks by the Vatican was applauded.

 

China, which once had to appeal for supplies from the rest of the world to supplement its own inadequate production, is now the principal supplier of such lifesaving material to the world. 

Since then, the tables have turned dramatically. China has succeeded in bringing down the number of new cases to less than a hundred a day, the majority of them imported. The country remains dead scared of an epidemic rebound and has put in place comprehensive safeguards. Instead of the world locking in China, China is now locking out the world. Particular care is taken to protect Beijing. International flights to Beijing must first land in one of twelve provincial cities so that every incoming passenger is carefully checked and quarantined if necessary. At the same time, the Central Government has progressively relaxed controls on normal economic activities. All indicators (highway traffic, consumption of luxury goods, housing sales, coal consumption, air pollution etc.) show the economy quickly reviving. China’s GDP is likely to register positive growth this year. The export sector remains badly affected of course but China’s dependence on it is not as large as before because of the size of its internal market. China is the most vertically integrated economy in the world. Last July, McKinsey published a report that while the world’s economic exposure to China is growing, China’s exposure to the rest of the world is reducing.

In the meantime, COVID-19 has spread with a vengeance to the rest of the world on a scale much bigger than that which affected China. The economies of US and the EU are almost in free fall as priority is rightly placed on measures to control what has become a pandemic. Unemployment rates have shot up and national governments are spending trillions of dollars to help struggling businesses and individuals stay afloat. Masks, protective clothing and respirators are in woefully short supply. In some cities in Lombardy and Spain, a system of heart-wrenching triage was in place to decide who were more deserving of lifesaving treatment. China, which once had to appeal for supplies from the rest of the world to supplement its own inadequate production, is now the principal supplier of such lifesaving material to the world. China’s factories operating 24/7 now make 200 million masks a day, much of which for export.

We do not know how long it will take for Europe and the US to get out of the current situation. COVID-19 is such a contagious virus, no country is safe until all countries are safe. Even after Europe and the US have contained the virus, its spread to other parts of the world (Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America) will make it a recurrent threat to everyone until good vaccines are found to inoculate entire populations. What China has done, no other country can do. China’s uniquely centralized system has deep roots in Chinese history and is not peculiar to the People’s Republic. For over two thousand years, the ideal in the minds of ordinary people is of a well-functioning centralized system with good and wise leaders at the top. Great walls are repeatedly built to protect the country from baleful external influence. This is China’s great strength but also its great weakness.f

The immediate impact of COVID-19 is to public health. The longer-term impact of COVID-19 is on the global economy and geopolitics. More than ten years after the Global Financial Crisis, another downturn is perhaps due. Some fear that this time it will be much worse. Governmental attempts to inject liquidity and suspend contractual obligations can only provide temporary relief. Eventually, the problem of excessive debt, caused in no small part to unprecedented infusion of liquidity into the global system since the Global Financial Crisis, will have to be resolved one way or another. As companies collapse with cascading knock-on effects on other companies and creditors, sorting out the financial mess may take years. With so much human suffering, affecting disproportionately those who are poorer off, existing political systems and structures will inevitably be called into question. In some countries, there will be social upheaval. What is weak will collapse and become history. What is strong will become stronger and built upon. In global politics and economics, the league table of leading countries and companies will change again.

In the US, the mixed response to COVID-19 is becoming a key issue for the coming elections. New leaders are being thrown up. In the EU, COVID-19 is testing European solidarity to its elastic limit. If COVID-19 becomes much worse in India, its rambunctious democracy will come under severe stress. In China, what began as a threat to the Communist Party has become vindication of its leadership, at least for the time being. Chinese history goes through long cycles. Every schoolboy in China is familiar with the opening lines of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms: In the great affairs of men, long disunity leads to unity and long unity leads to disunity.

China is now in pole position to lead the world out of global recession.

Provided it can prevent a second round of the epidemic, China is now in pole position to lead the world out of global recession. It is now the only tunnel with bright light at the end of it. China’s leaders will naturally want to turn this to political advantage. Already we see how China doles out masks and other material (either by outright donation or through export licenses) to foreign countries based on political considerations. As its economy recovers, we can expect China to offer preferential access to its domestic market to friendly countries along the Belt and Road. For the US and Europe, China will try to make use of its current advantage to blunt anti-China sentiments and build long-term relations.

Anti-China sentiments in the west have gone from bad to worse in recent years caused partly by fear of a rising China and party by a clash of civilizational values. Even among those who admire China’s success in overcoming COVID-19 there is antipathy towards China’s authoritarian ways. When the Central Government shut down Wuhan, the people of Wuhan had no say in the decision. When President Trump considered shutting down New York City, Government Cuomo objected furiously. In China, national interest comes before human rights. In the liberal west, there is continuous tension between the two which is the source of western creativity from the time of Greece and Rome. It is interesting to compare the national reaction to two whistleblowers - China’s Dr Li Wenliang who first sounded the alarm in Wuhan and Captain Brett Crozier who publicized the deteriorating situation onboard USS Theodore Roosevelt. Both men came down with the virus. In Dr Li’s case, he has been officially vindicated after his death and the dossier is closed by central edict. In Captain Crozier’s case, the debate will never cease whatever the White House might say. China and the US are built on different foundations, each having the weakness of its strength. Global cooperation requires each to accept the other for what it is.

Provided China does not overplay its hand this round, it may emerge a big winner out of the COVID-19 pandemic. It must curb the tendency of its officials to be overly truculent in their defense of China’s position or condescending in their treatment of lesser powers. It will do well to heed Winston Churchill’s wise words: In defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity; in peace, goodwill. At the recent Extraordinary G-20 Leaders Summit conducted through videoconference, President Xi Jinping called for greater international cooperation to fight the pandemic and to revive the global economy through coordination of macro-economic policy and facilitation of trade.

China is likely to convene the twin meetings of the National People’s Congress and the National People’s Political Consultative Committee soon. They had been postponed because of COVID-19. How China adjusts its domestic and foreign policy - economic and political - will be of interest not only to China but also to the world. COVID-19 is a global tragedy but it is also a historic opportunity for China and the world to reset course, rebuild trust, work together more and bring about a safer world. The alternative is a tragedy much worse than the pandemic.