The efforts made by Beijing to convince the world that it has handled the pandemic in exemplary fashion will not suffice to cover up its failings.
It is a surprising paradox that, although the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China seems to be the country that has benefited most from the epidemic, just as American finance emerged strengthened by the 2008 crash that it had caused. However, in the same way as the USA has been swept along by the populism unleashed by the financial crisis, China may well see its position weakened because of its responsibility with regard to the origin and spread of the pandemic.
The public health crisis, which Beijing says it has handled in exemplary fashion, has highlighted the totalitarian nature of the regime, which cannot be dissociated from lies and state violence. It is now accepted that the epidemic was concealed for over two months, crucially affecting the spread of the virus. Furthermore, figures concerning the numbers who died or had been contaminated were truncated. “Truth must be based on practice. Truth must be corrected in the light of practice,” said Mao Tse Tung. China only counted the fatalities that occurred in hospitals and excluded deaths at home which, once the Wuhan figures had been revised, accounted for one third of deaths. Above all, the figures only included those who had died because they had contracted the coronavirus alone, but did not include cases of comorbidity which, according to Chinese epidemiological studies, accounted for 72% of hospital deaths. Therefore, the real number of fatalities in China is probably at least 25,000, instead of the official figure of 4,632.
The Chinese economy has started up again but is suffering from an imbalance between supply – at 90% because of an authoritarian order to go back to work – and demand, which is down by half. Domestic consumption is not taking off – in spite of aid given to households – because of fears of unemployment, salary cuts, and the specter of being recognized by the instruments of digital control as testing positive for Covid-19, which would mean immediate quarantine. Furthermore, the crisis has caused phenomenal development in new technologies. The government awards a grant of up to 1 million yuan to any company with an innovatory project linked to the epidemic. It has shortened certification procedures, systematized online public services and developed partnerships with the private sector, e.g. the health passport for drivers, both commercial and private, under Alibaba’s management. A great many inroads have been made: in telemedicine with the dissemination of examinations in 5G; in the use of drones for deliveries and traffic control; in digital surveillance with retina recognition and the collection of personal health data. All this without the consent of the people concerned.
From a geopolitical standpoint, China is playing the leading role in this crisis which, for the first time since 1945, has seen the USA totally absent. Beijing sees the epidemic as speeding up the de-Westernizing of the world, for democracies have shown how powerless they are to deal with the epidemic and are engaging in a Japanization of their economies, marked by the stagnation of economic activity and soaring public debt. At the same time, China – playing by the rules of Go – is methodically encircling the democracies by strengthening its links with the emerging nations. It is doing this in three ways: through health diplomacy, i.e. delivering protective material, medical equipment and medicines; by financing governments through investment in the new silk roads and in central banks via swap agreements with the Bank of China; and by taking control of multilateral institutions, the WHO being top of the list.
Nevertheless, China’s apparent triumph has its downside. The epidemic has highlighted the two faces of China: the country is at the cutting edge of technology but Chinese lifestyles and consumption are sometimes archaic, and the organization of production is unsound. The totalitarian capitalism of Beijing has been shown up as being a culture of lies that cannot be trusted. Furthermore, the inordinate cost of the losses incurred worldwide is giving rise to innumerable legal proceedings holding China responsible and demanding that it should pay reparations.
There is a lot to be learned from the situation in China.
- Economic recovery after lockdown will be slow and will largely depend on the revival of international trade.
- The coronavirus crisis is causing a phenomenal acceleration in digitalization.
- The clash with China will be a central issue in the presidential elections in the USA because the health crisis has become another Pearl Harbor, and America’s defeat means that the technology war is bound to reach extreme levels.
- The fact that China has sidelined the West is proof of the failure of Donald Trump’s isolationist strategy.
- The disappearance of the USA and China’s failings mean that the 21st century world is left without a real leader. This makes it even more urgent for the European Union to rethink itself as a power.
(Article published in Le Point, 23rd April)