China and the Geopolitics of the Coronavirus
Opinions Coronacrisis

China and the Geopolitics of the Coronavirus

26 Feb 2020 - 11:39
Photo: Lei Han / Flickr
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The corona-crisis presents a severe test for China, disturbing its trade exports and causing an internal crisis of political authority. Yet, the Communist Party has been in tighter spots since taking power in 1949. The longer story of growing Chinese global influence continues and the coronavirus will ultimately do nothing to halt the assertive moves of President Xi Jinping.1 

We all know the butterfly in Brazil that, according to chaos theory, can cause a hurricane in Texas. We may now have a bat in Wuhan that has triggered a deadly epidemic in China and a global shockwave. A minor event with major consequences, but how major?

The coronavirus presents the Chinese leadership with its biggest test since the revolt of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Once again it is a crisis of domestic authority, threatening to undermine the people’s trust in the Communist Party.

A supermarket in the city of Wuhan, almost empty due to the corona-crisis. © Studio Incendo/Flickr
A supermarket in the city of Wuhan, almost empty due to the corona-crisis. © Studio Incendo/Flickr

That in itself is bad enough for President Xi, but these latest events also affect China’s place in the global order. There too a loss of power threatens, although it seems likely that as soon as the worst of the catastrophe is over, the Party will learn lessons and take action to restore its position.

Economic interdependence with the outside world was the path chosen by China in recent decades as a route to prosperity and geopolitical power. It is by that same route that the coronavirus has now struck. All over the world, manufacturers of cars, electronics and countless other consumer goods are dependent on China for all kinds of components.

The longer the crisis lasts the greater the risk that Chinese supply chains will be shifted permanently

Now that supplies are beginning to dry up, they are looking for suppliers outside China. If the epidemic is brief these will amount to temporary solutions, but the longer the crisis lasts the greater the risk that supply chains will be shifted permanently.

Something similar happened to Europe after the First World War. Before hostilities began in 1914 the continent was the hub of the world economy. The fighting compelled many countries outside Europe to adjust their trading relationships. By the time the war ended in 1918, permanent links between traders on other continents were in place. Europe had been cut out.

Every extra day of corona-crisis strengthens the US in its conflict with China

The corona-crisis could accelerate an economic decoupling of China from the West – precisely what strategists close to Donald Trump have been hoping for. The outcome the Americans have strenuously advocated to their allies for some time – think of the 5G arguments over Huawei – has now been handed to them on a plate.

Every extra day of corona-crisis strengthens the US in its conflict with China. Troubling for Trump, however, is the fact that China cannot place its promised orders for American products to avert a trade war, something he will have to explain to his voters.

Chinese international influence
This is not the end of the story, however. China certainly feels exposed now in its geopolitical battle with the US, but in the longer term the Chinese government will see the corona-crisis as one more reason to strive for greater international influence.

The bloody suppression of the student protests of 1989 at the time led to much criticism from the outside world. China became internationally isolated. The experience motivated the leadership to get a firmer grip on attitudes to human rights worldwide.

The 'Tank Man' during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. © Michael Mandiber/Flickr
The 'Tank Man' during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. © Michael Mandiber/Flickr

China managed to acquire a strong position in the United Nations Human Rights Council, thereby reducing the likelihood of becoming isolated again in the future because of human rights violations. It influences decisions whether a violation has taken place and what the appropriate measures are. It also makes its weight felt in the one year of three when it does not sit in the Human Rights Council, as in 2020.

Given the important role reserved for the World Health Organisation in the corona-crisis, China will no doubt attempt to increase its influence there too. When a disease outbreak occurs, the WHO decides whether or not to declare a global health emergency and it can advise governments on the measures to be taken.

The crisis also encourages Beijing to become a bigger player in the international media landscape. There is a direct economic interest here. Shaping perceptions is crucial if China is to convince foreign companies that the crisis is temporary and that they can resume their activities as soon as the epidemic has passed its peak. A firmer grip on how the country is seen from outside its borders can be achieved by internationalising its own media, but also through investment in foreign media companies.

The corona-crisis will do nothing to halt the assertive moves that began when Xi took office in 2012

There are other international organisations and domains where, in light of recent events, China would like to have more influence. The corona-crisis will do nothing to halt the assertive moves that began when Xi took office in 2012.

China’s renewed resolve to gain more influence on the world stage over the coming years and decades will in turn serve to intensify American resistance, which has become palpable over the past two or three years. In short, the coronavirus weakens China temporarily but in no way curbs the forces that are gradually leading to a strategic confrontation between America and China.

Crisis of authority
Back to the acute internal crisis of authority. Here too, much depends on the outcome. After an embarrassing phase of denial, in late January the regime was briefly convinced it could make an impression with a resolute response to the disaster. Xi Jinping even received compliments from the WHO boss in Geneva.

But soon all too many stories of failure leaked out. The government had ignored signals and intervened far later than it might have done. The death of young doctor Li Wenliang prompted a torrent of public indignation, since stemmed by censorship.

Liberal democracies handle these things better

Many commentators rightly see in this a weakness of a repressive authoritarian system. Information does not circulate properly. Provincial governors send rose-tinted reports to Beijing in the hope of advancement and sweep problems under the carpet. Liberal democracies handle these things better.

Nevertheless, the Communist Party should not be underestimated. Since taking power in 1949, the Party has been in tighter spots. The Cultural Revolution, for example, when Mao’s revolutionary urges plunged the country into anarchy, violence and repression, after which a form of collective leadership was reinstated.

Chinese president Xi Jinping arrives at a meeting in Paris. © COP PARIS/Flickr
Chinese president Xi Jinping arrives at a meeting in Paris. © COP PARIS/Flickr

Time and again, the Party proved able to learn from crises, including the revolt of 1989. This time the result might be a greater urge to control, in line with Xi’s instincts, although it is also conceivable that on pragmatic grounds a degree of openness will be encouraged. Whichever way it turns, the Party will in future do all it can to prevent the failures that led to the epidemic.

Party leaders in Beijing are distancing themselves from the failures of local authorities

For the time being we are still in the phase of emergency measures focused on the survival of the Party. With the sacking of local functionaries – held responsible for the delayed reaction to the crisis – party leaders in Beijing are distancing themselves from the failures of local authorities.

Xi used a similar strategy in tackling corruption; he allowed the public to complain and then stepped in as their saviour. It is striking, however, that prime minister Li Keqiang has been given the task of getting the corona-crisis under control, not Xi Jinping as supreme leader. This indicates uncertainty among the leadership as to whether it will soon succeed in preventing the epidemic from spreading. If it fails, Li will have to take responsibility, not Xi.

Severe test, but the story continues
There are now two groups of citizens in China: people in Wuhan and the rest. With the large-scale quarantine of Wuhan and several other cities, the government is protecting the second group against the first. The intention is to keep the rest of China open and connected to the outside world. Chinese airlines are continuing international flights. What is happening in Wuhan is out of sight and perhaps, as one resident claims, 'far worse than we get to see'
.

During the Cold War, when there was a real danger of an American nuclear attack on China, party leader Mao Zedong let slip that ‘a hundred million dead’ would not be a deathblow to China. The political leadership would withdraw into the interior, wait for the nuclear cloud to blow over, and start building up its power again.

China has time on its side as much as ever. Xi has given the country until 2049 to become at least the equal of any other world power. Corona represents a severe test but the longer story continues. The bat will not fell the Chinese dragon.

 

Authors

Frans-Paul van der Putten
Senior research fellow bij Instituut Clingendael
Luuk van Middelaar
Professor at the Europa Institute of Leiden University