The worst effects of this public health crisis will be felt in the political sphere.
The toll taken by the coronavirus epidemic is increasing. Even though official statistics are notoriously underestimated, the toll is far greater than during the SARS episode. This new public health crisis that comes to us from China is threatening to turn into a pandemic, with major effects on the world economy and on Chinese totalitarian capitalism.
The coronovirus has managed to do what Donald Trump failed to achieve in his trade and technology war: to paralyze the Chinese economy. Since the end of the Chinese New Year holiday period on 2nd February, the world’s factory has been practically at a standstill.
Despite the injection of 156 billion euros by the Bank of China and the implementation of a support plan for companies comprising some 40 billion euros, growth is due to hit a sudden air pocket, bringing it down from 6.1% in 2019 to 5% in 2020.
The shock will by no means be limited to China. Because of integrated value chains, this paralysis of industry will spread to the rest of the world, particularly in the fields of computers and electronics, in which China is the fifth largest producer (70% for smartphones).
However, the consequences of this health crisis will be felt most strongly in the political sphere and will have an effect on China comparable to the effect on the USSR of the Chernobyl explosion in 1986. What the two events have in common is the disastrous way in which they were managed – and this is linked to the totalitarian nature of the regimes: an indifference to risk, the refusal of transparency and attempts to hide the catastrophe, contempt for the population and its victims, and priority given to maintaining order rather than providing care.
The Chinese are paying a high price for the unlimited power claimed by Xi Jinping during the 19th Communist Party Congress. The authorities are not prioritizing the fight against the epidemic over issuing information about the epidemic. This is symbolized by the death of doctor Li Wenliang who was arrested and accused of spreading false rumors because he tried to alert people about the disease. His heroism is in direct contrast to the thoughtlessness of those who were responsible for organizing a banquet for 40,000 people in Wuhan on 18th January when they had known about the existence of the epidemic since early December. These same authorities are directly responsible for the spread of the disease worldwide, because they refused to inform the WHO and because pressure was put on the WHO to avoid declaring an international public health emergency.
Just as Gorbatchev used the Chernobyl disaster to speed up glasnost and perestroika, Xi Jinping is using the coronavirus health crisis to strengthen the totalitarian nature of his regime. Control over regions and city councils is being tightened. Repression is increasing, as shown by the disappearance of the lawyer and journalist Chen Qiushi. There is greater surveillance of social media and an intensification of propaganda. Control of the population is being reinforced because the epidemic is a justification and a test bed for strengthening digital surveillance.
Added to the sharp fall in economic activity because of the war with the USA, the protests in Hong Kong and the scathing rejection felt by the presidential election in Taiwan, the coronavirus epidemic is further weakening Xi Jinping’s personal power. Although democracy, freedom and the rule of law do not exist in China, public opinion does exist, through social media, and is becoming active, particularly on health and environmental issues. Civil society is refusing to be taken in by the way that dealing with the epidemic is being presented, and there is intense anger among the people.
The world economy is hanging by a delicate silk thread that could so easily be cut at any moment by the dangers threatening the domains of finance, healthcare, the environment, cybernetics and geopolitics: the coronavirus could trigger a new financial crash. Nations depend on their healthcare systems to resist, and this may encourage them to reduce democracies’ dependence on China for drugs and medical equipment. Lord Acton pointed out that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Because of China’s power politics, the coronavirus epidemic underlines the Orwellian nightmare of its totalitarian capitalism. To all those who are tempted by démocrature [a combination of democracy and dictatorship] or by illiberal democracy, it is a reminder that there is no freedom without security but that security is no greater – including security with regard to public health – when there is no freedom.
(Column published in Le Figaro,17th February 2020)