Photo by KOBU Agency
A recent article in this magazine addressed the ongoing debate around the merits of liberal democratic regimes in contrast to authoritarian ones, following China’s dramatic successes in battling the pandemic. While I agree with author Sukhayl Niyazov’s analysis, I believe he is wrong to frame China’s success within the context of the authoritarianism–liberalism debate. The reason why the Covid-19 pandemic will ultimately give way to a Chinese victory on the global playing field lies not within these dichotomies, but in the fact that China is strategizing to win a game that we in the west don’t realize we’re playing. We don’t understand China, but China understands us.
We could begin with the fact that Chinese state media correspondents assigned to the west, like Tan Yixiao, speak impeccable, flawless English, while British state media correspondents in China speak Mandarin at a level that would make any native cringe. We could talk about the fact that virtually no one in western countries who is not of Chinese descent is functionally literate in Chinese, whereas China designates English a “required school subject from third grade through college and graduate school” and has hundreds of millions of citizens capable of reading a philosophy book in English. Instead, I’m going to begin by talking about two universities, and how they mislead us into thinking we know more than we do.
Let’s start with Cambridge University—a crown jewel among western academic institutions. Travel to the idyllic city that bears its name and you will find no shortage of statues. The leering faces that peer at you from the walls of King’s College, carved from magnificent Northamptonshire sandstone, reflect the men and women whose legacy gave the university the fame it still enjoys. But go down to what is called the backs, where the river Cam flows behind the walls that divide it from the central street called King’s Parade, and you will find the statue of a man who never went there at all. His name is Confucius.
The Confucius statue in Cambridge was made by Chinese artist Wu Weishan, and placed there to celebrate the great philosopher and those who seek to understand him. But Wu’s work is deceptive—and not just because of the statue of Marx he suspiciously gifted to the city of Trier in Germany, whose eastern half was under communist rule for decades. Wu’s statue of Confucius in Cambridge is deceptive in that it fools us into imagining that we understand something about Confucius today, or about China more broadly. As a former member of Cambridge’s Chinese Studies department, I know better: despite being a paradigmatic figure in the history of Chinese thought and civilization, Confucius is barely studied even within the university that proudly displays his statue. This microscopic anecdote hints at a macroscopic problem: despite clinging to the icons and emblems of Chinese civilization, we neither study this civilization nor understand it. The truth is dire: we—meaning virtually everyone in the western world—have collectively failed to study China, to understand what it wants and to predict its behavior.
Go to Beijing and seek out the alma mater of Mao Zedong and you will find a statue that tells a very different story. There, within the high walls that enclose the campus of Peking University (China’s oldest and most prestigious modern university), you will find a statue of Miguel Cervantes, the medieval Spanish writer of Don Quixote and arguably the creator of the western novel. The impeccable bronze figure feels not at all out of place in the leafy green gardens of Beijing in springtime, and, in the evening, young couples can be seen stealing kisses under the statue, as if Cervantes himself were looking down in approval, like an old friend. This intimacy is no exaggeration—although few Chinese study Cervantes directly, not a single high school student in all of China graduates without extensively studying the western novel as a narrative genre, usually with primary source material in the original language. There is a deep familiarity with western civilization here. This is no deception at all.
That’s not to say that there’s never been deception by China, of course. When the coronavirus pandemic exploded into life in the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2019, China barely blinked. When, in January, it became clear that the disease had reached all major Chinese cities and left no part of the country unscathed, China told WHO that there was “no evidence” of human–human transmission by the novel coronavirus, despite knowing this was false. In February, when the death toll began to spiral out of control and the horrifying human cost of coronavirus began to become clear, Chinese diplomats urged foreign countries like the United States to keep their borders open to Chinese citizens, calling it a “test of friendship” between China and the world. In late March and April, when European countries like Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Austria started reeling under the impact of a virus whose damage they did not expect or plan for, China sent them hundreds of thousands of test kits that did not detect the virus and millions of masks that did not protect healthcare workers battling it on the front lines.
With stakes like these, we cannot afford to speculate. We must remind ourselves that there is no confirmed evidence yet that the Chinese government is directly implicated in the emergence of novel coronavirus. What we have, in many ways, is much worse. We have a country that fully understood that the democratically elected governments of the west are accountable to their publics, and would struggle to protect themselves ahead of time without honest and expedient information on the risks implied by the virus. Knowing this, the Chinese state decided to downplay and minimize these risks, to lie to the world and to allow the situation to develop into a perfect storm, which would inevitably shatter the fragile consumer economies of our entire civilization.
Tens of thousands of civilians in western countries have already died of coronavirus, and the death toll will continue to rise over the coming year. We may never know how much this number will increase as a result of China’s having sent defective versions of the masks needed to protect healthcare workers, but the false hope of Chinese medical suppliers swooping in like Superman to save beleaguered European doctors has delayed European economies from putting funds into medical production facilities at home, and, in this way, the damage has already been done. Even if the true case fatality rate for patients were much lower than currently feared—something we cannot know because China isn’t telling—there will come a point at which the lack of access to medical care in our inundated hospital wards leads to a huge number of cases of diseases like cancer that will initially go undiagnosed, causing untold thousands to die unnecessarily. Economic damage caused by widespread unemployment, post-traumatic stress and social isolation may hurt us for decades to come, in ways we can scarcely even imagine. We cannot know whether China foresaw all these outcomes, and it is best for our sanity to assume that it did not. What we can know with certainty is that passing on a virus to an innocent bystander is not the conduct of a friend: it is something reserved for the very worst of arch-enemies.
There is an old adage: why assume malevolence when you can assume incompetence? In this case, the answer is simple: the Chinese government is anything but incompetent. Unless it is deliberately downplaying its success, the Chinese government has proven itself unbelievably competent in tackling the virus—something it achieved by implementing measures of social control and quarantine on a scale unlike anything before in human history. Even the UK, a country often criticized for being a “surveillance state,” cannot hold a candle to the bonfire of China’s control of mass media, its great firewall, its omnipresent video cameras automated with facial recognition capabilities and the tight grip on social media that prevented the truth from getting out earlier.
This competence extends to China’s expert understanding of the west itself. When Canada arrested Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou—whose firm sells personal electronics to western consumers, while maintaining deeply suspicious ties with Chinese military and espionage sectors—it sparked a diplomatic spat involving the US, Canada and China, and led to the arrest of two uninvolved Canadians in Beijing. When the Canadian government called for their release, ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye wrote an op-ed accusing Canada of “white supremacy.” By focusing his opposition on racism, a pressure point of Canada’s multicultural society, Lu was effectively calling on the ethnic Chinese minority to support his government against their own country. Lu’s cynical stroke of genius shows that Chinese diplomats are now actively exploiting our taboos and manipulating our values as part of their political strategy—something that ought to be deeply worrying during a pandemic, when economies grind to a halt and societies can fall prey to internal strife.
The west itself bears the responsibility for much of the current predicament. Rather than relying on China to provide information during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, we could have turned to our intelligence agencies to obtain a second opinion on the true state of affairs within cities like Wuhan. But the CCP saw that coming, and has worked arduously to dismantle foreign operations at home, killing or jailing over a dozen CIA agents between 2010 and 2012 alone. Even had accurate information been available, it would have been difficult to implement in the crucial stages of late December and early January, as, at that time, WHO continued to insist on China’s behalf that no evidence of corona transmitting between humans even existed. The mass flouting of quarantines in places like Australia’s Bondi Beach reveals the problem: social control measures in democratic societies require consensus to work properly, and, with the WHO denying that there was anything to worry about, there is little reason to believe that western populations would have accepted the preventative measures we needed. If not an outright enemy, China is at the very least our most dangerous friend.
“Know your enemy” is a proverb attributed to Sun Tzu’s Art of War. But, in its original form, the saying actually reads “Zhī bǐ zhī jǐ”—know your enemy and know yourself. Why did so many western countries cut back on producing essentials like medical supplies, and leave themselves helpless by outsourcing this to China? Why did the west blindly accept the authority of the WHO, an organization whose employees pretend that the Taiwanese state does not exist? Why was a Harvard nanoscience expert who received millions of dollars in research funding from the Department of Defense working in Wuhan illegally for the Chinese government? Why did western mass media continue to lie about the efficacy of masks and downplay their importance in preventing the spread of the virus at the same time as Chinese police were arresting citizens who left their houses without wearing them? Why do Chinese diplomats like Lu Shaye speak the language of the diversity agenda abroad, while praising their ethnically homogeneous country’s devotion to preserving its culture?
More than anything else, we need to ask ourselves whether the western mode of governance needs to adapt to match China’s. In a recent article entitled “Is China preparing for war?” Maajid Nawaz characterizes western strategy toward China as one of “miserably failed economic appeasement.” But rethinking these strategic failures requires us to go beyond the limited domain of foreign policy. In domestic terms, the pandemic has delivered us a much needed reality check, and shown how policies founded on neoliberal ideals like open borders, free movement and free trade can be a source of weakness rather than strength.
While China has a domestic passport system—the hukou—that limits freedom of movement internally, the entire European Union is linked by open borders that allow disease—and people—to spread rapidly and in an uncontrolled manner. Had we not palmed off crucial productive capacity of goods like medical supplies to China in the name of free trade, our doctors would not be getting killed by the very patients they are working overtime to save. The neoliberal ethos that has guided the western world since 1945 has long assumed that we are better off free, but we must now recognize that freedom comes with a heavy price tag in terms of the risks to which it may expose us. There are shortcomings to every political system, but, if emulating China’s economic nationalist model had immunized us from the worst aspects of this crisis, that is something we must begin to seriously consider.
Let’s return to Confucius and Cervantes and the statues in Cambridge and Beijing. When I visited Confucius as an undergraduate, I had no knowledge of the ways in which we in the west are behind, but, after meeting Cervantes as a master’s student, I realized that the west urgently needs to catch up. Although China and the west may be enemies, it is possible to regard your enemy with admiration, rather than hate. The Sino-Japanese rivalry is as fierce as any, but, when Deng Xiaoping visited Japan in 1978, he realized that China needed to emulate its enemy in order to improve. With a world under siege from a global pandemic that no western country seems capable of suppressing, now is the time for the west to get to know China and learn whatever lessons we can.