The world should prepare for a pandemic. The coronavirus is already an economic pandemic. How can China, a nation that has been prosecuting its case as the benevolent and better choice of superpower, have let this happen? History offers an answer.
China shared the global power stage with the British, Russian, and Ottoman empires until the 19th century. Then came the Century of Humiliation. Mao Zedong ended this in 1949 when he committed to revive China’s status as a global power. He would do this with communism – at least that was the hope. When Mao died in 1976, China remained a backward country.
In 1978, China implemented market-oriented reforms. This was economically helpful, but not as much as its admission into the WTO in 2001. Nations everywhere began trading with China, secure in the knowledge that should it violate the rules of global trade, like theft of intellectual property, there was a place to settle disputes. In 2001, per capita incomes in China were $1,053, the 118th highest in the world. GDP was $1.4 trillion, the 6th highest. By 2019, China counted as the major trading partner to most regions of the world. Per capita income and GDP had increased 1000% and China had the world’s 2nd largest economy measured in nominal terms or the largest based on purchasing power parity.
In 2013, China was a quickly progressing economic giant and its new President Xi Jinping resumed Mao’s mission. The Chinese Century was declared. Xi was asserting China’s dominance at every turn, from politics to economics to military. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew (1959-1990) in 2013 said: “It is China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world.” It made sense. All former great powers want to return to the top, and China’s economic power and its increasingly educated giant population offered a solid foundation to seek the top spot. Xi though wanted to be the greatest power now.
One of Xi’s first initiatives was the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) with its grand objective to finance a modern-day silk road where all paths lead to China. BRI loan money is estimated at over $1 trillion and recipients are mostly developing nations. China’s lending practices have been described as predatory, lacking transparency, and encouraging unsustainable levels of debt. Debtor nations are vulnerable, and critics see China recreating vassals akin to its lost tributary empire. Still, China frames its intentions in benevolent terms. China sees itself as a good power. It did so similarly in history. It saw its psychological warfare as superior to western military power. Today, it hedges its bets. In the past decade military spending was up 117%.
Xi has succeeded in portraying China as the world’s greatest power — many already see it as such. This contrasts sharply with proudly calling itself the world’s largest developing country. How does one flaunt being a superpower and simultaneously brag about being a junior power at the WTO? Opportunism. China gets to play by different rules afforded to other developing countries, like nations struggling with basic necessities in Africa. The exploitation of these rules has greatly facilitated its quotient of global power. China can and has set higher barriers to entry for exporting to China, meanwhile it is the world’s largest exporter. Countries anxious to do business in China, have learned they need to be careful what they wish for. China has forced nations to share technology, only to find it stolen. Theft of intellectual property is thought to be measured with 8-9 zeroes. So, while China leverages its junior status at the WTO, and professes to be a benevolent power, it gives short shrift to WTO obligations to protect intellectual property. Of late the greatest, be careful what you wish for, for China’s trading partners, is the impact to global supply chains for companies that rely on Chinese suppliers. This impact has been summed up as creating an economic pandemic.
China is also one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council armed with the powerful veto. Historically, it reserved its use of the veto, but not anymore. It has leveraged its special powers to develop allies with developing country autocrats, like Syrian President Bashar Assad, and autocrats in the Middle East. Recently, fourteen Muslim-majority nations supported China’s unconscionable violation of human rights against its Muslim Uyghur population as an enlightened approach. Possessing this veto has also facilitated China’s annexation of sovereign lands in the South China Sea in violation of international law. China rejected accusations of theft by presenting a map with nine-dashed lines that purportedly validated its ownership under the long deceased Chinese Empire, and reaffirmed its status as a benevolent power. It also began building roads in the Indian state or Arunachal Pradesh, claiming that this too was part of China’s territory because at one point during two thousand years of expanding and contracting borders it was ruled by the Chinese Empire. Can you imagine if Britain claimed all the lands it ruled in its empire where the sun never set? Ironically, China was granted the right to veto UN resolutions, in part for its commitment to uphold the sovereignty of all nations.
Despite China’s claims of being a responsible global power, nations all over south and eastern Asia, many with former histories as tributes or colonies of China, have been defensively building up their military power and building new alliances. Horrors for China, the nation most actively solicited is Japan, the nation that inflicted the greatest pain during the Century of Humiliation. They may have been wise to also defensively prepare their supply chains for different scenarios, like another outbreak of a coronavirus, like SARs in 2002, or perhaps one more deadly and less easily contained like Covid-19.
With the grossly delinquent handling of the Covid-19 killer virus, China will have a hard time convincing the world that it is the benevolent responsible superpower. Still the propaganda persists. China insists it is doing everything, meanwhile it blames the “irresponsible” United States for spreading fear and not doing more to help. Help was initially rejected when it could have been most beneficial. But offers of help are really hard to accept, particularly from the United States, which China continues to paint as the alternative and bad superpower. But a truly responsible superpower would have immediately begun working with other global powers to control a deadly virus that nations all over the world are now having to prepare for. Most cannot deploy draconian measures, including restraining 500 million people, censoring even more, and tracking people’s movements.
China’s pervasive presence on the world stage can make it easy to miss that it is still a developing nation that is governed with a communist dictatorship. But this explains a lot, like the Chinese government unabashedly stealing intellectual property. Annexation of lands in the South China Sea. Leveraging power to sanctify human rights abuses, and to prevent sanctions against a tyrant using chemical weapons to kill his people. Labeling protests in Hong Kong as subversive activities by western powers. Then there is the heavy-handed treatment of a doctor who first detected the coronavirus. Just before Dr. Li died he said, “I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.” But China’s society has one voice, it’s called the Chinese Communist Party and it is not a healthy society. Healthy societies have freedoms and very importantly freedom of speech. China is a developing, dictatorial nation with super powers, that is hell bent on being the world’s greatest power. Being a benevolent, responsible power trying to get ahead doesn’t fit the real story.