(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, April 29.)
When – or should that be if? – the world gets on top of the Covid-19 pandemic, attention must turn to the issue of Chinese culpability.
In an ideal world, President Xi Jinping and the government of the People’s Republic of China would be presented with a bill for reparations, but that’s not going to happen. No amount would be big enough to atone for the massive economic and social harm done internationally, and China wouldn’t pay anyway.
Nonetheless, China – or more specifically the Chinese Communist Party, since the Chinese people are blameless – must be held to account. Beijing must be made to realise there are consequences for allowing the coronavirus to leak across China’s borders and for silencing courageous people who tried to alert the world to the looming catastrophe.
The first of those consequences is the loss of trust. The world must now see that the image China has assiduously cultivated over several decades – that of a benign emerging power willing to play by the rules – is a sham. To put things bluntly, China has played us for suckers.
Chinese culpability for Covid-19 starts with its tolerance of “wet” markets, where captive live wild animals are a potential breeding ground for lethal diseases.
At a stretch, wet markets – cruel and unhygienic though they are – might be condoned on the basis that they’re a long-standing cultural practice. But nothing could excuse China’s failure to warn the World Health Organisation about the disease, as it was obliged to do, or its punishment of whistle-blowers.
In the meantime, travellers were allowed to carry the contagion around the globe. If China’s aim was to cripple Western economies, it couldn’t have done a better job. Just saying.
And it wasn’t the first such time. In 2002, China allowed vital weeks to pass before notifying the WHO of the Sars pandemic. As with Covid-19, the communist regime’s obsession with secrecy and self-protection outweighed its concern for even its own citizens, who were kept in the dark.
Countries that have previously courted Chinese favour, including New Zealand, should now be appraising their relationships with Beijing in a much more critical light.
Not only has China revealed itself to be untrustworthy, but its aggressive global ambitions can no longer be disguised or ignored. These are most apparent in the South China Sea, where China has put military installations on artificial islands, originally created for supposedly peaceful purposes amid strategic shipping lanes.
In a recent discussion on America’s National Public Radio, US foreign policy specialist Michele Flournoy, who’s tipped as a possible Secretary of State in the unlikely event that Joe Biden wins the presidency, said China for decades had pursued a policy of “hide and bide” – hiding its real agenda while waiting for the right time to drop its mask, as she put it.
Xi’s ascendancy to the Chinese leadership was the moment the mask fell, Flournoy said. To which she might have added that the coronavirus pandemic was the moment the West took off its blinkers and realised that China is interested in behaving as a good international citizen only when it suits it to do so.
Meanwhile, China’s ascendancy continues. In trade, it’s using the so-called Belt and Road Initiative to extend its economic influence over a large swathe of the globe. Less conspicuously, and by means that are often incompatible with the way things should be done in transparent democracies, it is exploiting political, diplomatic, business, academic and cultural channels to acquire influence in other countries’ affairs – a trend highlighted by Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University, a courageous lone voice on Chinese interference.
Regrettably, there seems to be no shortage of high-profile New Zealanders happy to be schmoozed by Beijing. John Key had an audience last year with Xi, who said he hoped the former prime minister would continue to enhance the friendship between the two countries. The state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Key as praising Xi for his “vision and leadership”. All very chummy.
Another former prime minister, Jenny Shipley, served until last year (when she was implicated in the disastrous collapse of Mainzeal, of which she was a director) on the board of the state-controlled China Construction Bank, one of the world’s biggest financial institutions.
New Zealand, like many countries, has allowed itself to become economically reliant on China and cannot easily disentangle itself.
Even America took a fatally complacent view of Chinese expansionism, allowing China to steal millions of manufacturing jobs and build a vast technology sector based largely on American innovation.
Chanting the mantra of globalisation, Western leaders encouraged China to take an active role in world trade. America even sponsored China’s membership of the World Trade Organisation.
Successive US administrations, both Republican and Democrat, thought that if China was opened up to the world, the country’s leaders would reciprocate by playing a responsible part in international affairs, just as Germany and Japan did after America aided their revival following World War II.
In hindsight, it now looks a bit naïve. But to use an epidemiological metaphor, the lessons of the past few months may at least serve to inoculate the world against future delusions about China’s trustworthiness.