Who could argue with this statement on coronavirus made by Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, as pandemic rampages around the planet?
“This is a virus that has taken more than 200,000 lives across the world. It has shut down the global economy. The implications and impacts of this are extraordinary. Now it would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how all this occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again.”
The answer is simple: China. For this sensible suggestion was enough to drive Beijing into fury. Admittedly, it was made amid a long-running feud between the two countries with strong words on both sides, threats of a consumer boycott from Beijing’s ambassador and a furore over leaked diplomatic conversations. “Australia is always there, making trouble,” blogged Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times, a brash tabloid that serves as Beijing’s attack dog. “It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off.”
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Yet the Australian leader is correct. It makes perfect sense to determine how this disease broke out, then spread around the world so rapidly to cause such epic devastation — especially when it is still not clear precisely when, where or why it erupted in human beings. I have heard the same suggestion from Right-wing Tory MPs through to Left-wing human rights lawyers. Or listen to Winston Peters, New Zealand’s deputy prime minister: “It’s very hard to conceive of there not being a desire by every country in world, including the country of origin, for an investigation to find out how this happened,” he said.
But China opposes such an inquiry. A probe could expose the embarrassing truth about the source — whether a wild animal market in Wuhan, or one of two secretive laboratories working nearby with bats and coronaviruses. It might reveal more about the Communist Party’s crackdown on whistleblowing doctors, rejection of outside offers to investigate the emerging virus and cover-up of data. Officials have raised death numbers in Wuhan after global criticism. But it still seems strange that 13 flights with 2,990 passengers from Wuhan to Italy over the critical three-month period helped cause such contagion in Europe yet 7,530 flights containing 1,016,550 passengers to elsewhere in China sparked far fewer fatalities there.
China’s leaders are behaving like a big playground bully. They are throwing their weight around with threats to thwart an international investigation that might expose weaknesses inherent in a brutal dictatorship that does not permit dissent. Morrison deserves credit for standing firm — unlike our own political masters, who just mutter about the need for “hard questions“. He was the first leader of a major nation to raise valid issues over Huawei’s involvement in telecoms infrastructure. He has pushed hard for reform of the risible World Health Organisation. Yet China accounts for a big chunk of Australia’s trade as its biggest market for key sectors such as coal, beef, wine, tourism and education.
This is more than simply another diplomatic spat. Closer to home, it has emerged that China complained three times to the European Union in a bid to blunt a report on its disinformation efforts, warning that bilateral relations could suffer if Brussels dared accuse Beijing of exploiting the coronavirus crisis. Criticism was toned down as a result, according to reports, following some furious internal rows. Mention of a “global disinformation campaign” was dropped from public documents, although there were still softer allegations of covert operations on social media. Yet we know its officials tried to shift blame for the outbreak to both Italy and the United States.
Meanwhile, there have also been shenanigans in the South China Seas, where China has been making claims over vast areas of the ocean by building naval bases on coral reefs. The New York Times reported last week how it has been intimidating fishing boats from other nations, opening new ‘research stations’ equipped with military-grade runways and grabbing new chunks of contested reefs and rocks. Some are submerged, so would fail to confer rights under international law. “The Chinese want to create a new normal in the South China Sea, where they are in charge, and to do that they’ve become more and more aggressive,” said Alexander Vuving, a security expert in Honolulu.
There has also been a crackdown in Hong Kong, where brave protesters last year made clear their desperation to retain freedoms promised under the ‘one country, two systems’ deal negotiated during handover from Britain. Among the activists and politicians rounded up earlier this month was Martin Lee, the affable 81-year-old father of democracy who testified to British MPs how that agreement was designed to ensure “no Hong Kong resident would have to fear a midnight knock on the door”. Jimmy Lai, who founded an outspoken paper in the territory, was also arrested in tactics clearly designed to silence critics and deter further protests.
These moves demonstrate China’s assertiveness under Xi Jinping, who took power eight years ago. He has intensified domestic repression, seen most starkly with the hideous incarceration of Muslim minorities and ratcheting up of surveillance. He has stepped up pressure on other nations to have no truck with Taiwan, which helped lead to the world ignoring this small democratic nation’s early warnings on the virus. Now his army of diplomats even argue that “disregarding China’s huge sacrifice in the fight against Covid 19 is slander“, as one envoy told a British newspaper.
This is all part of his bullish strategy to “charge forward with a full tank” — as Xi put it to party acolytes two years ago when they backed his plan to retain control for life. “The Chinese people have understood since ancient times that there are no free things to enjoy,” said Xi, warning the National People’s Congress that the world might not accept their rise to supremacy. “To be happy, one must fight for it.”
Now he has unleashed ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ that fires off fierce insults at governments that cross his country, while any corporation that fails to follow Beijing’s diktats on Taiwan or Hong Kong faces being frozen out of the world’s biggest market.
With immense skill, China’s Communist leadership exploited the world’s desire for cheap goods in order to lift millions of its people from poverty while strengthening their own power. Now we can see clearly this ruthless regime’s determination to dominate the post-pandemic global order, speeding up its drive for ascendancy over the West. Xi clearly intends to grab maximum commercial and diplomatic advantage after emerging early from a catastrophe that exploded from within his own borders, while also capitalising on a gaping void left by the United States under its infantile president.
This is why the tussle over establishing the truth about this virus matters. I accept that some politicians are attacking China as a diversion from their own dismal failures over pandemic. But Beijing’s propaganda machine is running at full tilt to push the belief their response was best, since this promotes the idea that their autocratic style of government is most effective in crisis. It is worth noting, incidentally, that so fast does this virus spread, one study claimed two-thirds of cases might have been eliminated if Wuhan had been locked down one week earlier – and 95% averted if action had been taken three weeks earlier when Beijing alerted the WHO.
Yet this is also a battle to protect Xi at a time of potential weakness. There have been unusual ripples of dissent over his handling of the virus, along with hints that some party princelings harbour doubts over his leadership. There is also a looming recession that may stymie the scale of growth promised to the masses, hitting their promise to double the size of the economy in a decade and banish extreme poverty in time for next year’s centenary of the party’s birth on a boat in a Zhejiang lake.
These are insanely challenging times everywhere with pandemic raging. It has been made worse by the fact it strikes the planet at a moment when a pair of pugnacious nationalists are in charge of the two mightiest nations. The fuss over the WHO, botching a pandemic from the start due to its boss being a Beijing stooge, exposes how China has been seeking stealthily to influence multilateral bodies. Yet in truth it is only mimicking the West’s traditional tactics at a time when many key democratic nations — including our own — have lost confidence in their own values and look so confused about their beliefs. Only the wildest of optimists might dare hope that we will emerge from this sudden plunge into darkness with renewed strength.
We must accept China’s rise, not fight it nor fear it. We should see their concerns, work with their firms, learn from their culture, understand their politics. But at the same time we should follow the lead set by Australia and stand firm in the face of bullying — especially when it comes from Communist Party chiefs trying to escape blame for global pain. Yes, they are far from alone in making deadly mistakes over this disease, as we know to our cost in Britain. But their bungling is a consequence of autocracy, It almost certainly inflicted and most definitely intensified the suffering that has infected the whole world. We need to find the truth if possible. For as the great George Orwell wrote, whoever controls the past controls the future.
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