A recent study reveals that if Chinese authorities had initiated timely interventions, a week, two weeks or three weeks earlier, the cases would have declined by 66%, 86%, and 95%, respectively.
As humanity recedes into a global lockdown in its battle against the coronavirus pandemic, the politics of coronavirus marches out in the open, as selfishly and shamelessly as it can. Sooner or later, the pandemic will pass, leaving not only thousands dead but also the norms and ethics of multilateralismin a shambles. The Chinese style of Corona geopolitics suggests a lot of about the post-Corona world order and its lead actors trying to redefine the rules of globalism. Hence, it is essential to understand its nuances of the current happenings with a futuristic eye.
China’s culpability in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic is amply evident in the chronology of corona-related events.
CORONA, CHINA, AND CHRONOLOGY
It begins with China’s mishandling of the SARS outbreak of 2002-04. A 2007 journal article gave a dire warning about the role of wet markets, where live animals, including wildlife, are slaughtered, in spreading such deadly viruses. China ignored such expert recommendations to ban the consumption of animals such as bats and civet cats. As recently as 2019, Chinese researchers warned that it was “highly likely that future SARS- or MERS-like coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China”. However, China paid no heed to such threats that could potentially imperil the lives of millions.
The first case of coronavirus appeared in Wuhan on 17 November 2019, and the number of patients continued to increase until 27 December. By the 27th, when the Central government officials were informed about the new epidemic, Wuhan already had 180 cases. Yet, China delayed for three more days in informing the country office of the WHO. Also, Beijing did nothing to inform the Chinese people. At the same time, the state authorities muzzled the voices of Dr Ai Fen and Dr Li Wenliang, early whistleblowers who tried to inform the people about the new SARS-like virus in their social and professional circles. By 5 January, Chinese scientists had decoded the genome sequence of the virus but did not disclose it until 11January. Even after the first known case outside China was reported in Thailand on 13 January, the head of the Chinese Disease Control Emergency Centers said on the television on 15 January that the “risk of human-to-human transmission is low”. The general public of China was unaware and continued with their routine business and social life as it is, coming in contact with thousands of people. By the time the government decided to lockdown Wuhan (23 January), five million people had already left Wuhan, making the global spread of the virus inevitable.
Also, in line with its time-tested practice of suppressing information, Chine jailed many citizen journalists, expelled American reporters, and censored corona-related social media posts with the services of Tencent, their partner in crime. Beijing shut down many online portals and accounts critical of the state, conveying the accurate picture of the death counts and the government’s bungled response to the crises.
Even Beijing’s official death figures of corona patients are not convincing at all. A Twitter handle named Azeema tweeted that a Wuhan resident was a witness to critically ill coronavirus patients being sealed in a bag, while alive, and sent for cremation. The tweet does not exist anymore. Reportedly, in January and February, China saw a drop of 21 million mobile users, suggesting that the death figures could be much higher.
A recent study by the University of Southampton reveals that if Chinese authorities had initiated timely interventions, a week, two weeks or three weeks earlier, the cases would have declined by 66%, 86%, and 95%, respectively. It would have saved billions of people from 100 nations from nation-wide lockdowns, soaring death figures, and massive economic disruption.
DEVIOUS DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN
The story does not end here. After the global spread of the virus, China unleashed a shameless disinformation campaign executed in a systematic and organized manner to cover up its dubious and questionable ways of handling the pandemic in the early days. Chinese shenanigans have now started baffling sane minds, with outlandish conspiracy theories blaming the US military of bringing the virus to China. The innovative methods of spreading disinformation do not cease to impress and scare strategic minds, at once. One such method is to present China’s mitigation efforts in an exaggerated and blown up manner and highlighting its contribution and aid to their countries. Another element of the disinformation campaign is to spread that the new cases of coronavirus in China are coming from foreign countries. Marching further ahead in its vicious propaganda, China has alleged that the US failed to prevent its countrywide spread because of its “arrogance and the lack of knowledge of the virus”.
MANIPULATING THE WHO
The most alarming part of the saga of China and corona is the way China manipulated the multilateral institutions and the prestigious media platforms into propagating its falsity and lethal lies. Allegedly, the WHO’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus turned a blind eye to post-November 2019 developments in China and even complimented the Chinese efforts in downplaying the severity, scale and the spread of the pandemic. Right from the outset, Ghebreyesus has been shielding China, even though the latter has a history of blatant mismanagement of pandemics. On 31 January, when Donald Trump issued a travel ban advisory as a critical precautionary measure, the WHO chief jumped in with a statement that widespread travel bans and restrictions were not needed to stop the outbreak, and could “have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit”. Finally, WHO’s long-awaited decision to declare it a pandemic that came only after the death of 5,700 patients and the global spread of the virus with more than 150,000 confirmed cases leaves a little room for not raising a question mark on the intentions and integrity of the global institution.
When the WHO chief, with the complete knowledge of China’s secret and underhand methods of arresting whistleblowers and citizen journalists to suppress information, praises China for its “transparency”, it becomes clear that it is not just about the $20 billion doled out by China to WHO in its fight against the coronavirus.
However, it is about something beyond that. On exploring that “something beyond”, emerge China’s massive investments in Ghebreyesus’ home country of Ethiopia and China’s support that made him the chief of the global body, without even being a trained doctor or having any experience in the global management of public health crises situations. Ghebreyesus’ overlooking of China’s gross human rights violations and detainment of ethnic minorities in unhygienic re-education camps, highly susceptible to the coronavirus, needs to be seen in the context of his political background. A former foreign minister of Ethiopia, Ghebreyesus comes from a political party that finds a place as a perpetrator in the global terrorism database.
MEDIA PRAISE FOR CHINA
Coming to China’s outrageous manipulation of the media, I would like to mention that while researching for this piece, I found some of the most prestigious media houses with a legacy of 100 years, blatantly glorifying the lies of China and cleverly, rather shamelessly, hiding China’s cover-up job. One such mighty Indian newspaper, well-known for its principled defence of liberal democracy and secularism, openly defended China. Its editorial read with its classic modesty that “the rest of the world might have to follow China’s lead in containing the virus”. Further, it said that China’s timely interventions “sharply reduced the chances of the rapid spread of the virus within China and forward onto the rest of the world”. Another prominent electronic media outlet, known for its integrity in taking on right-wing extremism in India, was writing paeans in praise of China’s “notable” contributions to foreign countries in containing the pandemic. Reportedly the contributions also came with “Chinese characteristics”, asking them to refrain from any criticism of China. However, the media house was mysteriously silent on the issue of China’s cover-ups and its racist and brutal detainment of thousands of Uyghurs in highly corona-prone living conditions.
It will be complicated for the post-corona world to trust China. US-China relations will not be the same anymore. The demand to hold China accountable has started coming from various quarters. In many quarters, including the ones as eminent as Times, the conspiracy theories of the whole thing being a bio-weapon or an accidental or even deliberate leak from the labs of Wuhan, are doing the rounds. A lawsuit in Dallas Federal Court has accused China of releasing a “bioweapon” in the form of coronavirus. Lawyer Larry Klayman and a non-profit Freedom Watch have asked China to pay $20 trillion in damages. In the US, Rep. Jim Banks introduced a bipartisan resolution condemning China of lies, hiding facts, and mismanagement of the coronavirus.
China’s murky record of handling the pandemic and following disinformation campaign speaks volumes about the world order with “Chinese characteristics”. Add to this the stories of PLA colonels covertly studying in the US research institutes and China secretly funding top-class scientists from Harvard University. Further, the communist regime’s history of orchestrating genocide through famines and its unfair trade practices can find a place in our deliberations upon the future global order. Also, China’s special bond with dictatorial regimes, a robust defense of terror-sponsoring nations, the UN-designated terrorists, and ruthless ambitions of world dominance through “unrestricted warfare” offer excellent insight and warning to those who cry their hearts out for a multilateral world led by the Asian powers.
Agreed that it may be a bit premature to speak of a world order led by China; however, it is imperative to worry about the world order with “Chinese characteristics”, which has, in a way, already arrived. Indeed, no matter how much one hates globalization and global institutions, no one fancies a world with “Chinese characteristics”—where conspiracy theories keep the humankind in a state of perpetual fear and the powerful state actors undermine the legitimacy and integrity of institutions like the UN and WHO, orchestrate economic disruptions, temper with democratic systems and elections, threaten or buy the mainstream media and manipulate the social media for their geostrategic ambitions.
LEARN INDIA, LEARN
Nevertheless, the fact remains that China’s efforts to come clean of the allegations levelled against her and project an image of a country leading the world in the mitigation efforts against the coronavirus pandemic have met with huge success. The success is visible. Voices as prestigious and as credible as the New York Times are praising Chinese efforts in successfully containing the pandemic on the domestic front and helping the other countries in their fight against corona. The reasons for the success have a wide range—from the sincere mitigation efforts involving strict lockdowns to a successful outreach with “Chinese characteristics” to global opinion-makers and winning them to its side. Indeed, India has a lot to learn from China’s successful communication strategy. Given India’s track record of incompetence in the handling of communications and becoming a subject of slander and calumny from liberal voices across the globe, after some of its most legitimate and justified actions in the recent past, the lessons from the Chinese success become even more critical.
Also, the purpose of this piece is not to defend the existing hegemons of the world order or to even provide rational justifications for naming viruses after Wuhan or China. Through this piece, I simply want to raise some relevant concerns and threats for an equitable world order, for which we all, as humanity strive. Finally, I would like to leave the readers with the following question-
Is the way China has been acting after Nov.17th, discussed above in detail, congenial for the emergence of an equitable world order based on ethics, transparency, democracy, and goodwill?
Well, in my view, it is not. Instead, such ways constitute a significant threat to equitable world order.
Abhinav Pandya is the author of Radicalization in India: An Exploration (Pentagon Press, 2019). Currently, he is writing his second book, Terror Financing in Jammu and Kashmir. He did his BA from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and post graduation in Public Affairs from Cornell University, US. He has more than seven years of experience in public policy, counter-terrorism, electoral politics and the development sector in India and the US.