Covid-19 will permanently alter China’s relations with the world

As the novel coronavirus has spread from its original epicentre of Wuhan into a global pandemic, China’s ruling communist party is pushing a new narrative.

After some initial missteps by local officials, this narrative goes, the central government took charge and defeated the virus with tough, resolute measures. Western countries are now suffering because of their lax response and the inferiority of their cacophonous democratic systems compared with China’s one-party model. Other countries should learn from China’s success, and the Middle Kingdom is now generously sending expertise and badly needed equipment to the hardest hit places. China’s healthcare workers are heroes. And by the way, the virus may actually have originated with the US military, not in China.

It’s a message being slavishly promoted in the party-controlled state media, parroted by Chinese diplomats around the world, and perhaps even believed by a significant percentage of Chinese citizens subjected to decades of brainwashing by relentless propaganda and an education and indoctrination system that extols the virtues of party rule.

But around the world, this narrative is being met with derision and outright hostility.

The alternative narrative, gaining increasing currency, is that China’s central leadership in Beijing knew early on about the severity and extent of the mysterious new virus in Wuhan and lied to the world in a massive cover-up. In those early crucial days, China barred experts from the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Xi Jinping received a grim assessment on 14 January about the Wuhan virus becoming a pandemic, according to reporting by the Associated Press, but the public was not warned until a week later. The late January lockdown of Wuhan came far too late, after more than half the city’s 11 million residents were allowed to leave for the Lunar New Year holiday.

Even now, according to this view, China’s leaders continue to lie and to obfuscate. Many believe China’s death toll from Covid-19 is far higher than the country is willing to admit, and that people with virus symptoms are simply no longer being tested. Most new infections are being blamed on ‘imported’ cases from abroad, even though the vast majority are Chinese nationals returning home from overseas.

The deliberate implication is that foreigners are now carrying the virus, stoking Chinese nationalism, xenophobia and racism, evidenced by the sickening scenes of Africans in Guangzhou being forced from their apartments or locked into forced quarantine. Some restaurants, including McDonald’s, displayed signs saying black people would not be allowed inside.

The coronavirus controversy, and Chinese diplomats’ ham-handed triumphalist tone, now threaten to disrupt the world’s relationship with China for years to come, long after the immediate crisis has abated. The country’s carefully cultivated global image, backed by huge infrastructure projects like its Belt and Road Initiative, will take a heavy blow.

Leaders of countries long friendly to China because of economic concerns—and willing to turn a blind eye to its atrocious human rights record and abuses like holding a million Muslim Uyghurs in concentration camps—are demanding Beijing be held to account.

Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, called for an independent investigation into the Chinese origins of the virus and how it spread. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron called on China to be transparent about the virus.

In the US, President Donald Trump, already embroiled in a trade war with China, hinted the virus may have been spread purposefully while calling for a probe. ‘If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, then, sure, there should be consequences’, Trump said. He had earlier announced a suspension of US funds to the WHO pending an investigation of its dealing with the early stages of the outbreak, when officials praised China’s response and advised against travel restrictions.

In Africa, Obiageli ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili, a former vice president for Africa for the World Bank and a former Nigerian cabinet minister, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post demanding China pay compensation to African countries for the virus, including a complete write-off of US$140 billion in debt. ‘China should demonstrate world leadership by acknowledging its failure to be transparent on Covid-19’, she wrote.

This came after several African foreign ministers summoned the Chinese ambassadors in their countries to decry the inhumane treatment meted out to black Africans in Guangzhou, something that prompted a tough video rebuke to Xi from a former African Union ambassador to the US and a warning from the State Department to black Americans to avoid Guangzhou.

China has spent decades and billions of dollars developing its ties with Africa, and the hard work of that dollar diplomacy now seems upended by a virus.

Meanwhile in the US, the state of Missouri filed the first lawsuit in federal court against the Chinese government, accusing Beijing’s leaders of an ‘appalling campaign of deceit, concealment, misfeasance, and inaction’ over the coronavirus and claiming Chinese officials are ‘responsible for the enormous death, suffering, and economic losses they inflicted on the world’. Two Republican members of Congress have introduced legislation making it easier for private American citizens to file suits against China for deaths and economic hardship unleashed by the virus.

All of this comes without any evidence so far that the virus may have accidentally emerged from a virology laboratory in Wuhan, a suspicion initially embraced by conspiracy theorists.

Chinese officials have deflected the finger-pointing, blaming others for trying to ‘politicise’ the crisis and insisting that Covid-19 is a scientific and medical issue best left to the experts.

Beyond the blame game, the coronavirus crisis is likely to reorder global supply chains to China’s detriment. When China first began its lockdowns in January, multinationals—from South Korean car companies to American toy makers—were forced to halt or delay production because they relied on crucial components or parts from mainland Chinese factories. Many will not want to again be caught so dependent.

Countries worldwide now will become more cautious about allowing China to be their chief supplier of medical equipment like facemasks and pharmaceuticals. In the past, globalisation’s mantra was ‘build it where it’s cheapest’, and most often that was China. But post-Covid-19, for crucial medical supplies, the new motto is likely to be, ‘make it at home’.

There is little doubt the world is set for a reordering whenever the pandemic finally fades. China would like it to be one on its own terms, in the absence of American global leadership, where the country’s leaders can showcase the superiority of their authoritarian model.

But what seems more likely is a new world order with China increasingly cast as an international pariah, a regime that placed its own pride and prestige over transparency about a pending pandemic. The communist party’s cover-ups, suppression of information and dissemination of disinformation will likely have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and plunged the world into a colossal global recession. And its xenophobia and racism have been laid bare.

The virus will eventually be contained, either through a vaccine or more widespread infection that eventually builds herd immunity. But in the world’s post-pandemic relations with China, it will no longer be business as usual.