Is Coronavirus Ushering in a Chinese Future?

Staffers prepare to spray disinfectant at Wuhan Railway Station. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

When, at a meeting of the G7 late last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo so fervently insisted that the group refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” that the meeting dissolved rather than issue even an anodyne statement of concern, it seemed, at first blush, just another projection of Great Power xenophobia from the Trump administration — the U.S. trying to pin the blame for its own evident failures on another, more distant and more sinister enemy.

It was that. As were efforts, all the way down the political food chain, to call the disease the “Chinese flu.” But as the Trump administration has intensified its project to publicly equate its chief geopolitical rival with the devastating disease the president has taken to calling “the Invisible Enemy” in an effort to project a wartime mentality, the administration hasn’t diverged quite as far from expert thinking on the subject as you might think. In fact, while it’s not quite fair to say the White House vilification of China has dovetailed with conventional wisdom among China watchers and global public-health leaders, more and more of them have spent the last few weeks pointing an angry, accusatory finger at China — many of them on the right, yes, and many hawkish to begin with, but nevertheless raising vital questions about what you could call the epistemology of COVID-19. For a decade or so, China hawks have worried about how the country’s inevitable-seeming rise would reshape not just global networks but also the experience of those living very far from Beijing — a natural empire finding its imperial footing and marginalizing, finally, the United States and the rest of the West. Most of those fantasies imagined direct confrontations and unmistakable inflection points, but COVID-19 illustrates a more subtle version of that fear too. To a degree that can be hard to appreciate from the sidelines, the global experience of the coronavirus pandemic has been to live, at least temporarily, in a reality shaped, perhaps even defined, by Chinese forces.

This is not just because the disease emerged in China — viruses can emerge anywhere in the world, though some places produce more than others. And it is not just because the Chinese government’s initial response was so poor, with studies suggesting that if it had acted three weeks sooner, 95 percent of the country’s cases — and perhaps international transmission — could have been avoided entirely. Because while the early Chinese response was negligent and narrowly self-interested, there have been so few admirable responses to the disease it is hard to fault the first government to encounter COVID-19 for being imperfect, especially because the quite effective second-wave response has formed the basis of nearly all global public-health action: aggressive testing, quarantining of the sick and those interacting with them, and “shelter-in-place” lockdowns for everybody else, at least for a limited period of time.

The COVID debt the world owes China is much deeper than that response (the Chinese didn’t invent those policies, keep in mind, though they did implement them). In almost every way, our experience and understanding of the disease was, especially in the critical early months, refracted through a Chinese prism. To begin with, there is our collective sense of the shape of the disease itself, and the way it can be expected to work through a given population. It is only over the last few weeks that epidemiologists and public-health experts have begun to see sufficient, large-scale data on the spread of the disease outside China to make meaningful inferences from it. Before that, for months, our basic understanding of the coronavirus and nearly all of our sense of “best practices” in treating and containing it, came out of the experience of China, and particularly Wuhan, where the data seems to have been at the very least massaged, and perhaps much more systematically laundered, past the point of reliability.

At first, the reports from China were that there was no human-to-human transmission, then, that only symptomatic patients could transmit the disease. Today, the data varies from country to country, but studies suggest perhaps half or more of those infected show no symptoms, and perhaps a quarter or even three-quarters of cases may be spread by those asymptomatic carriers. (Of course, those estimates come largely from Chinese data sets, as well.) The death toll in China has been reported at 3,300, though credible analyses (broadly endorsed by the U.S. intelligence community) suggest the numbers might be ten times higher. The age skew looked one way, according to the Chinese data, suggesting that the young and middle-aged were quite safe, and quite another way in France and Spain and the United States. And while there are too many confounding factors and still-unknown aspects of the disease to attribute all of those differences to efforts of propaganda, it is nevertheless fair to say, as Anthony Fauci has, that the Chinese “deceived” the world by providing “misinformation” on matters of critical public-health importance. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the FDA and today among the more credible and serious Republican voices on the disease, has gone further. “China was not truthful with the world at the outset of this,” he told CBS this past weekend. “Had they been more truthful with the world, which would have enabled them to be more truthful with themselves, they might have actually been able to contain this entirely.” On Monday, Chris Hayes tweeted, “This is a very obvious point and has been obvious from the beginning but as the global picture fills in over time, there is *absolutely* no fricking way China only had 3300 fatalities from this virus.” It’s enough to make some serious people wonder whether the account we have of the origin of the disease is credible, or whether it emerged from a lab facility (though at the moment, the somewhat plausible version of that hypothesis remains the facility was doing proper biomedical research, not bioweapons work, as the fringier hypothesis has it).

But our COVID debt to China goes further still than just bad data sets giving rise to a misleading initial picture of the disease. The self-reported false-negative rate of the tests used in China is 30 percent, and many of the test kits being used now elsewhere in the world were manufactured there, including those which Spanish, Slovakian, Czech, Turkish, and British doctors and scientists have found to be unworkably flawed. The same goes for masks and other PPE, like the 600,000 masks the Dutch returned to China after buying them — the Netherlands was deep in the muck of its own pandemic but unwilling to use such shoddy protection. And many of the more plausible plans for emerging from hemisphere-wide lockdown depend on aggressive testing regimens linked to “contact tracing,” which would likely be aided by cell-phone location data — data collected on phones manufactured largely in China. In Europe, the second-most-popular phone company is the Chinese manufacturer Huawei, suspected by many in U.S. intelligence to contain backdoors designed for access by Chinese intelligence, and now contracted to build out Britain’s 5G network. What once sounded like xenophobic paranoia is now, at the very least, an acknowledgment of supply-chain dependence and vulnerability (as the NBA learned when it found itself in the middle of the Hong Kong protests, with no executives or players willing to speak out, for fear of jeopardizing business interests in the country).

And the WHO, the global organization you’d hope, in a pandemic, would be able to help the world as a whole sort through these issues — highlighting the good studies, casting doubt on bad data, separating reliable manufacturers of test kits and PPE from unreliable ones — has such an uncomfortably deferential relationship to China that one of its senior officials, when asked by a journalist about the exemplary response in Taiwan, first pretended not to hear the question, and then, when it was repeated, simply hung up the phone, rather than even acknowledge Taiwan’s existence (let alone its lessons for the rest of the world). He has since apologized, but, as my colleague Andrew Sullivan wrote last week, the WHO’s problematic record here is longer than a single bad interview: Beyond all the early misinformation, as recently as last week it was downplaying the severity of the disease by suggesting again, and against the public-health consensus, that mask-wearing was unnecessary by all but the sick. This while public officials in China are “cracking down” on those academics trying to study the origin of the disease, vetting and deleting academic work and imposing new restrictions on research on the subject. The same week, the scientific journal Nature apologized for “erroneously … associating the virus with Wuhan and with China,” and describing its own decision to do so as “an error on our part, for which we take responsibility and apologise.” Already, there is a long list of researchers with an interest in, or some insight into, the origin of the disease who have simply disappeared.

But these “COVID hawks” aren’t just fretting over the way China handled the arrival of COVID-19, they are beginning to warn about how the country will handle the next stages of the global crisis, too — positioning itself, as the U.S. did with the Marshall Plan after World War II, as the major, indeed essential, global creditor and investor helping a cratered world economy begin to recover. In this view, though China bungled COVID-19 at first and probably handicapped the rest of the world’s response as well, neither of those failures will prove costly, in the long term, if China can plausibly offer itself as a stronger and more willing partner to the struggling nations of the world than the U.S. or Europe, which it will inevitably try to — less focused on short-term costs and much more on long-term plays than either of those rivals.

Perhaps the clearest distillation of this thinking came in a short essay by the Portugeuse politico turned contrarian wise man Bruno Maçães, published April 3 at National Review: “China Wants to Use Coronavirus to Take Over the World.” (At Foreign Affairs, Yangzhong Huang was even more assertive, putting the proposition in the past tense: “Xi Jinping Won the Coronavirus Crisis”). As Maçães points out, though few in the West have noticed, the disease has effectively ended the mass protests in Hong Kong that were, for the better part of the last year, the major domestic political threat to the regime of Xi Jinping. “More important,” he writes, “the pandemic set in motion a global competition, to contain the virus, for which China and the Chinese Communist Party seem uniquely prepared.”

At the most basic level, this is because no one, at this point, is looking to the United States, indeed to any nation in the West, as a model for how to respond to COVID-19, or any pandemic. Which means they may look less reliably to those countries as models in any crisis. China isn’t the world leader on COVID response, of course; South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have managed much better, and without the black mark of initial failure. But among the world’s real great powers, even accounting for inaccurate data, China has managed its way through the crisis much faster and more confidently than the U.S. or any nation of Europe. “The numbers of cases and fatalities provided by Chinese authorities almost certainly misrepresent the real figures by more than an order of magnitude,” Maçães acknowledges in his piece. “But the fact remains that a semblance of normalcy was achieved in a small period of time. If the United States fails to do the same, its prestige will suffer a severe blow. People all over the world will quickly change their perceptions about relative power and capacity.”

Indeed, Maçães told me when we spoke last week by phone, the U.S. has already suffered profoundly from living in a bubble of delusion about China. One relative advantage the South Koreas and Singapores of the world may have had over the U.S., he said, is considerably more sophistication about China, which helped in interpreting the news out of Wuhan. In the U.S., out of a mix of ignorance and prejudice, snobbery and disinterest, Americans were likely to see both a devastating epidemic outbreak like COVID-19 and the remarkable, rapid lockdowns that followed as “normal” for China, and therefore to assume nothing extraordinary had to be done within their own nation to defend against the disease. Those nations who knew China better, he said, were much quicker to read the news out of Wuhan — both reports of the disease itself and the unprecedented shutdown — as signs of genuine, near-existential alarm. As a result, they prepared accordingly.

At the moment, the U.S. and the rest of the West is just beginning to feel the economic pain brought on by our shutdowns. Somewhat amazingly, two of the best pieces surveying that landscape published over the last few weeks were both by the economic historian Adam Tooze: a sort of ticktock of the global financial panic in the Guardian, and a bigger-picture assessment in Foreign Policy, titled, bracingly, “The Normal Economy Is Never Coming Back.” Tooze writes that as a result of the coronavirus pandemic:

America’s economy is now widely expected to shrink by a quarter. That is as much as during the Great Depression. But whereas the contraction after 1929 stretched over a four-year period, the coronavirus implosion will happen over the next three months. There has never been a crash landing like this before. There is something new under the sun. And it is horrifying.

As recently as five weeks ago, at the beginning of March, U.S. unemployment was at record lows. By the end of March, it had surged to somewhere around 13 percent. That is the highest number recorded since World War II. We don’t know the precise figure because our system of unemployment registration was not built to track an increase at this speed. On successive Thursdays, the number of those making initial filings for unemployment insurance has surged first to 3.3 million, then 6.6 million, and now by another 6.6 million. At the current rate, as the economist Justin Wolfers pointed out in the New York Times, U.S. unemployment is rising at nearly 0.5 percent per day. It is no longer unimaginable that the overall unemployment rate could reach 30 percent by the summer.

The ultimate fallout, Tooze writes, “defies calculation.” But the impact may be even more punishing in the developing world, he suggests. “This year, for the first time since reasonably reliable records of GDP began to be computed after World War II, the emerging market economies will contract,” he writes. “An entire model of global economic development has been brought skidding to a halt.”

But if most of the world is presently skidding into a depression in order to avoid public-health catastrophe, in China, Maçães points out, the country is already recovering — almost certainly more haltingly than it says, and yet in ways you can more or less track, and more or less verify. “The most recent data show renewed activity in the flow of goods across the country, as well as at ports worldwide that do business with China,” he writes. “If the freeze in Europe and America continues for much longer, Chinese companies will be able to dramatically expand market share and replace Western-led value chains.”

A more dramatic reordering is possible, too, if “important countries could experience the kind of economic shock that leads to widespread social and political collapse,” he writes, in what he calls an “extreme scenario” that is nevertheless, given the scale of the coronavirus threat and its economic fallout, conceivable. “At that point, China would have a unique opportunity to step in, provide aid, and refashion these countries in its image. It would look like a repeat of the Marshall Plan and the beginning of the American world order after the ravages of World War II. Indonesia, South Asia, and even Russia might be of special interest in such a scenario.”

Other nations, Maçães says, may find themselves refashioned in less profound ways — but nevertheless emerge from the pandemic much more dependent on China than they entered. But while that world may seem alien from the vantage of today — or, more to the point, six months ago — it is, indeed, a quite familiar model, as all those invocations of the Marshall Plan suggest. As much as Americans like to believe otherwise, Maçães told me, “American power was not based on a pristine reputation, but on hard power.”

And opportunism. “There was always an argument that the existing world order cannot change because only a momentous war has done that in the past and world wars have become impossible,” Maçães wrote in his National Review essay. “But in pandemics — and soon in climate change — we may have found two functional equivalents of war.” China, he says, sees the opportunity clearly. “They are following the American model: we don’t have to be loved, we just have to be respected and feared,” he told me. And in a crisis of this scale and scope, a nation doesn’t have to thrive by any absolute standard to improve its global standing, only endure the human suffering and political turbulence relatively better than others. “China will pay a price, but if it pays a lower price than the E.U. and the U.S., it will come out on top.” Wang is even more declarative in Foreign Affairs: “Few can deny that China is fast becoming the safest place on Earth,” he writes. “History will be written by the victors of the COVID-19 crisis. And Xi looks like a winner, at least for now.”

It is always hard to know precisely what to make of particular predictions for Chinese dominion over the world, given how many of them have been offered over the last couple of decades, and how few have yet to come precisely true. The pandemic is a cloud through which it is hard to see much beyond the next week, if that far, though that’s in part because dysfunctional governments like ours seem incapable of planning anything longer term at the moment. And there are many reasons for skepticism that China will emerge stronger from an epidemic that killed many thousands and shut down as much as a quarter of its economy. See, for instance, Minxin Pei’s “Competition, the Coronavirus, and the Weakness of Xi Jingping,” also in Foreign Affairs, or Gideon Rachman’s more measured “Coronavirus and the Threat to U.S. Supremacy,” in the Financial Times. But the chorus of COVID hawks reminds us, at the very least, that the endgame and the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis will be laced through with geopolitics — as we know it will be with existing inequities and injustices. We probably shouldn’t have needed reminding. Crises always are.

Is Coronavirus Ushering in a Chinese Future?