The COVID-19 crisis: what we need from China and why getting it may be difficult

Starting the conversation…

Charles Parton, Senior Associate Fellow, RUSI

This title deliberately reflects an ubiquitous and harmful mistake. We should talk of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), not China. Xi Jinping stresses that the Party leads in all spheres. It is important to believe him. Firstly, blaming China for COVID-19 leads to blaming Chinese. This encourages hostility and even attacks on ethnic Chinese, who are also victims of the virus. Secondly, a CCP tactic is to deflect criticism of itself by conflating China and the CCP; it represents such criticism as racist.

The CCP’s initial reaction to its COVID-19 was to suppress, censor and delay. But once Pandora’s box was open, it changed to a global propaganda offensive, which has been, well, offensive.

What are our aims?

We need the Chinese Communist Party to put people before politics

Today, we need medical equipment and medicine precursors, China supplies much of these.

Mid-term, we need collaboration on research and a freer flow of information. Finding out how COVID-19 arose is important, not to enable fingerpointing at the CCP, but to prevent the next virus.

Longer term, we need to urge upon the CCP better biosecurity. China cannot be an economic superpower unless it is health superpower. The two are closely linked, as China is finding out. Furthermore human and animal health are closely interlinked, and come together most threateningly in antimicrobial resistance, where China’s overuse of antibiotics threatens a crisis far worse than COVID-19.

In sum, we need the CCP to put people above politics.

Why might the CCP be difficult to persuade?

The Party leads all and so claims credit for all good things. But that means being pinned with blame when things go wrong. Without the valves of democracy, the pressure in the cooker builds. Protest becomes the only means for the people to express dissatisfaction and protests can lead to instability.

So the CCP does everything to prevent protest. It suppresses, it censors, it represses, it arrests, it misrepresents. Yet all those things precisely militate against the prevention of pandemics. Additionally, CCP officials faced with making decisions come under pressures which mean that they often prevaricate or dodge responsibility.

Liberal democracies must better understand the CCP’s nature. Without prejudicing our aims or our values we have to push forward with Gramsci’s pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. Meanwhile railing against the Party is not the way to make progress.

Responses…

Patricia Thornton, Associate Professor of Chinese Politics, University of Oxford

Mr. Parton correctly notes that whilst the Party prevails in all things, neither the nation nor its people that deserve the opprobrium currently being doled out in some quarters. The insistence of US President Donald Trump on referring to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” is not only unhelpful, but is dangerously fanning the flames of anti-foreign sentiment. Here in the UK, anti-foreignism has been responsible for an upwelling of so-called “maskophobia,” the beating of one Singaporean student in London, and a bizarre conspiracy theory linking SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to 5G, inciting a spate of attacks on 20 new 5G masts. Chinese “wolf warrior” officials are busily seeding new counter-conspiracy theories of their own. As we ponder what future lies beyond our national lockdown, and China fights off reimported coronavirus outbreaks post-quarantine, it is becoming painfully obvious that none of us are safe until all of us are.  

I concur with Mr. Parton’s assessments of our aims, with some caveats. The UK is in dire need of PPE and testing kits, but, as The Netherlands, Spain, Turkey, India and Ireland have discovered, many such items sourced from China have been judged substandard, defective and/or unreliable. China has now imposed new quality control guidelines, which, while welcome, creates further delays. Second, the current government’s delayed response has it now scrambling in a chaotic global marketplace of panicked buyers. Here, friendly relationships with countries that have successfully weathered or are better poised to manage outbreaks could literally prove life-saving. Taiwan, blocked from WHO membership by China, has not only provided a model for how to “flatten the curve,” but also donated PPE to the UK that meets the necessary quality control standards.

In the medium-term, although we need reliable, accurate information and data updated in real time, the current blame game being waged by officials on both sides makes this seem an unattainable goal.

Over the longer term, although again I concur with Mr. Parton that China must upgrade its biosecurity, I am not hopeful that it will be able to do so. In the wake of the deadly SARS epidemic in 2002-2003, which was also hampered by the concealment of local-level officials, bureaucratic mismanagement and a lack of transparency, China’s central government designed a robust three-tiered network of disease control and prevention. It failed. Doctors who ought to have been able to share patient information in real time were intimidated, silenced or were disciplined for spreading rumors online; hospitals were forced to wait for local health authority approval before taking action. Precious time, and many lives, were lost; and, as result, a pandemic was born.

Your view…

Isabel Hilton, The China Dialogue Trust and Kings College London

I agree with the comments above, but would add one further point to the list of things we might ask of the CCP: to clean up traditional Chinese medicine practices. In recent years the CCP has promoted TCM, as cultural heritage and native “science” and worked diligently to get it accepted in global mainstream medical practice. The 2016 strategic plan on the Development of TCM advocates the use of the Belt and Road Initiative to promote it. In a big win for China, in 2019 the WHO assembly accepted a new edition of the WHO compendium which included a chapter on traditional medical practices for the first time. TCM may have its merits, but it has one dangerous demerit: it encourages the “medicinal” consumption of animal body parts that, for the most part, have no active ingredients. This promotes wild life crime (trafficking of pangolin, rhino horn et al) and the farming of animals such as bears and tigers, which poses a continuing risk of zoonotic disease outbreaks. The CCP promoted TCM as an effective treatment for COVID-19 and Xi Jinping continues to promote the idea of a “health silk road” as a vector for TCM. We should make it clear that reform of TCM is a prerequisite to any discussion of Chinese ideas of health care.

George Magnus, China Centre, Oxford, and SOAS

The sobering conclusion from the incisive comments made by both Mr. Parton and Professor Thornton is that we know what we need from the CCP, but that it may well be incapable of delivering it.

This crisis has underscored the necessity for openness, transparency, and horizontal and bottom-up communication, especially when confronted with dystopian shocks. Yet, as noted by both contributors, these are the antithesis of the CCP’s modus operandi. Its craving for ‘stability maintenance’ and control mean that the tools of for example, suppression and censorship are features, not bugs. While not new, the CCP’s lack of institutions of constraint, consensus and challenge is more important than ever, now that China has both economic heft and political ambition at a time when the Western world is struggling.

There is, as both authors say, widespread agreement that the Chinese government needs to upgrade its biosecurity, and, I would argue, reboot animal hygiene regulations. Professor Thornton says she is not hopeful it will be able to, referring to aspects of the features I have pointed out. It is a depressing thought for even if Western leaders adopted the ‘pessimism of intellect and optimism of will’, it is hard to see how trust relations at the highest political level can be established, especially given the broader confrontational backdrop.

The way forward is murky, at best. Perhaps in the area of public health, where surely interests are aligned, we might support and promote a high level of scientific engagement. It must be worthwhile, at the very least, to establish if the pandemic has affected the balance among China’s medical and scientific community between ‘doing’ and ‘talking’ which has weighed heavily on science governance. If this small acorn can be planted, perhaps there are still some grounds to be hopeful for progress.

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