Beijing Seizes Its Chance
Anita Inder Singh
Having failed to inform the world about the outbreak of the Coronavirus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last November, Beijing has made sure-footed moves to enhance its image as the world’s do-gooder and leader in pandemic response. There is something astonishing about China’s boldness.
After all, it was China’s own mistakes – especially its initial attempts to mask the severity and spread of Covid-19 – that created the crisis now afflicting more than 100 countries. But Beijing seems to assume that if it is perceived as leading the world in countering Covid-19 – while the American superpower is seen as unable or unwilling to do so – China could enhance its global status.
China made deliberate efforts to cover up the spread of Covid-19. The government actually punished the doctor who first reported the Coronavirus. He contracted the disease and died in February. Beijing delayed measures to enable widespread testing, educate citizens and halt travel. It also controlled information about the spread of the disease. After throwing the world into disarray through its sustained disinformation, China was claiming victory by early March. It declared a national lockdown and mass quarantines and imposed a ban on travel.
But as reports of more Chinese doctors dying of the disease – and of deaths in Europe and the US – came in, China admitted that that its people were also suffering from the global pandemic that had originated in their country.
That only seems to have spurred Beijing into transforming its mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis into a narrative to tell the world that China is the main player in a coming global recovery. It has done this in part through self-congratulatory statements about the strength, efficiency and speed of its authoritarian governance. The failure of the Trump administration to take the lead in a global campaign to fight the Coronavirus has facilitated the spread of China’s propaganda. So has the news that US had failed to produce enough testing kits. This has given Xinhua, China’s official news agency, the chance to criticise the “irresponsibility and incompetence” of the “so-called political elite in Washington”. China’s powers that be have had no qualms about accusing the US military of creating and spreading the virus in Wuhan and expelling American journalists.
China is now polishing up its claim to world leadership. It has publicised the help it has given to countries as diverse as Italy, Iran, Serbia – and even the US. That help has included antibiotics, masks, respirators, ventilators, and medicines. Such items were already manufactured on a large scale in China: in fact, the world has since long been dependent on China for the sort of products that are essential to fight Covid-19. Now the production of those goods is on a war footing.
China has lost little time in boasting about its generosity to the world. It has been helped by its ability to organise regional frameworks in the past. They have included its “17+1 mechanism”, which has Central and East European states on board. Beijing has offered help to India. It is also claiming that China and ASEAN countries will “further strengthen the solidarity, cooperation and trust between them in their joint battle against Covid-19”.
To begin with, the response of the World Health Organisation (WHO) also helped China. In January it backed China’s claim that there was no evidence of transmission of the Coronavirus and faulted countries for imposing restrictions on travellers to and from China. Initially, China may have succeeded in using its international leverage in the organisation. But with news of more than 8,000 cases in nearly 20 countries, the WHO eventually labelled the Corona crisis a global health emergency.
The wealth and scientific edge of the US make it the only country that can set an example in turning the domestic tide against Coronavirus. To accomplish that it must successfully manage the problem at home, share its experience and knowledge with other countries and simultaneously coordinate a global response.
It is imperative that the US does so. Over the last decade China has crafted an image of itself as a responsible partner in global governance. To the Trump administration, however, China is America’s arch-foe.
To cope with the domestic crisis fomented by China’s maladroit handling of Covid-19 New Delhi should present an urgently needed economic package. It should also reinforce democratic governance, upheld by a strong rule of law and freedom of information as a counter to China’s unaccountable authoritarian governance. Unfortunately, the Modi government’s propensity for taking radical decisions like the 2016 demonetisation and imposing a cumbersome GST has not been matched by administrative competence or a commitment to democratic norms. Indians are seeing this misgovernance again. Early announcement of cash transfers, shelter and food availability, could have obviated the need for migration. Poor government planning, unclear instructions and a propensity to use strong-arm methods largely explain why the staff of grocery stores and couriers delivering food and other essentials have been beaten up. Like other democratic governments, New Delhi must accept the responsibility of the state for the health and safety of poor migrant workers instead of leaving them to the charity of private individuals.
At another level, India’s decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and its absence from any Asian regional economic group leaves it looking economically isolated, unable to influence regional and global economic organisations to challenge China’s claims to be the world’s saviour.
Change is necessary. More attention to the human aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, better management of the problems created by the sudden lockdown and more thought to the creation of conditions running the economy efficiently could bring relief to India’s citizens, improve health facilities, and counter China’s efforts to cover up its responsibility for the Covid-19 crisis and enhance its global status through its economic influence. Will New Delhi rise to the occasion?
Anita Inder Singh is a Founding Professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi