Artillery Row

Covid is a symptom of the Age of China

British statecraft is not protecting us from an emerging autocratic superpower

It is fair to say that Boris didn’t plan to replace EU membership with a medical police state. But then, when Edward III defeated a larger French fleet to secure control of the English Channel in 1340, he cannot have known that the Black Death was already surging out of Asia along the Silk Road.

Wuhan Virus, as we are not supposed to call it, does not spell the death of forty-five percent of the population: this is not a cataclysm. But it is not to trivialise the suffering many will endure to say that, like most pandemics, Covid’s greatest impact will not be immediate mortality, but the reckoning that it brings for the elite. In Edward’s England, the Black Death destroyed the value of aristocratic land-holdings and later increased the surviving peasantry’s bargaining power, hastening the development of Parliamentary democracy. Today, Covid sweeps a country where democratic renewal was just beginning. 

Research since 2010 suggests that the bacterium that caused the Black Death also evolved in China: contemporary Chinese records include Hubei as the origin of that outbreak, much of whose population had been uprooted by the Mongol Conquest. But today, the condition into which Covid plunges us suggests a failure in Britain and elsewhere to appreciate what a new superpower’s emergence would mean. 

The hegemony that was passed between Britain and America, the Anglosphere superpowers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was based considerably on the most successful application of the scientific method, the outcome being the Industrial Revolution, enabled by institutions that protected private property and created a steadily more accountable state. This hegemony is now challenged by a state that has not only avoided this process, but since the ascent of Xi Jinping is going in other direction. Its attitude to Covid as it emerged shows us this, the scientists who first warned the regime of the new virus being told to destroy their samples. But while the West has deceived itself for decades about the nature of the Chinese regime and failed to devise a statecraft for this new reality, China’s near neighbours have done better. We can see this in two nations’ very different reactions to the pandemic.

Most things work better when nation states compete at them, not when harmonised by a super-structure

One country’s Covid strategy is little discussed, but seems to be the most effective: Taiwan, with only three deaths at time of writing despite being separated from China by a shipping lane and with a population over a third of Britain’s. Its strategy involves three main strands. First, mobilising resources well in advance (soldiers were sent early to factories to make millions of face masks); intensive testing and tracing of early cases and their contacts; and beginning closing its border to China early, on 26th January becoming the first to ban flights from Wuhan. It is right to rally behind our national and especially voluntary efforts. But Taiwan learned the lessons of SARS, whereas our state is now catching up. 

However other aspects of the Taiwanese case are more revealing. First, Taiwan is almost the only nation with no official relationship with the WHO, to whose data China routinely denies it access. Did this force the island to better think through its own responses? If the country most cut-off from relevant globalised institutions did best, the implication for governing elites is serious. As Nassim Taleb discussed in his book Antifragile, and as the EU demonstrates daily, most things work better when independent entities (nation states) compete at them, not when harmonised by a super-structure preventing competition between ideas. Single issue multilateral organisations like the WHO may be more effective than the EU, but questions must be asked of an organisation whose Director General praised China’s response as “transparent”, and which made time during a pandemic for some speech-control, tweeting: “DON’T talk about… “infecting others” as it assigns blame”. 

But Taiwan suggests something still more urgent: the state with the worst relationship with China has done best at managing the virus that began there. Threats from Beijing are daily default; modern history has inoculated Taiwan against illusions that Beijing wants to uphold international norms. So, if Taiwan has the worst relationship, which developed country has the closest? 

We have read little about Taiwan’s success, but we know all about Italy’s catastrophe. Its causes have already been decided upon. Settling on Italy’s large elderly population (despite Japan’s larger proportion of elderly) allowed opinion-formers to ignore uncomfortable questions, as if facing an evolutionary environment to which they are no longer adapted.

As leading defence academic Professor MLR Smith and nursing scholar Dr Niall McCrae have described, the Eurozone’s privations forced Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte last year to join Beijing’s Belt and Road scheme, the only G7 country to do so. Alessandra Vecchi of Bologna University has shown how, over two decades, Chinese companies have acquired many Italian firms, and while Italian exports to China have grown, Italy has received at least one hundred thousand Chinese workers, northern Italy especially. Chinese gangs are heavily involved, paying pitifully. Unable to compete, especially with Chinese firms who infringe their trademarks, numerous Italian firms sell out to these competitors, finding competing with China a rigged game. A large proportion of these workers are from Hubei province, and as Smith and McCrae state: “this is not idle speculation, it is obvious correlate”.

But the role of migration in the Italian outbreak remains unclear, and one’s relationship with China does not determine the extent of an outbreak or the medical police state that follows. Instead, it suggests that this relationship is one of the indicators of the health and capacities of sovereign government. The BBC and others laid down an early firewall of racism accusations about such questions, an attitude that stops us looking the facts about the world’s new superpower in the face. Beijing itself likes to bleed together racism and criticism of China. To fight “prejudice”, in February the Beijing-funded cultural organisation Associazionne Unione Giovani Italo Cinesi broadcast a publicity stunt on Chinese state television called “Italian residents hug Chinese people to encourage them in coronavirus fight”, featuring a Chinese girl in Milan with a placard stating “Please hug me, I’m Chinese not a virus” (Mayor of Florence Dario Nardelli then launched a similar stunt). Among some European leaders, one of the symptoms of Covid is Stockholm Syndrome. 

These examples are discomforting. But they suggest something fundamental about our times. The lockdown tells us that the only way we can respond to the results of autocracy in China is with autocracy, because we are warned daily about the dangers of questioning the technocrat-experts who decide when we can leave the house (yet that is exactly what we should do: expertise improves with criticism). As we atrophy in our homes, and as our police threaten to take your children away if you take them for a walk, power is placing itself beyond criticism because it is “science-based”. This does not mean the current lockdown is not justified, clearly it is. But science-based policy is not necessarily rational policy: country by country, scientists work under different contexts. 

For a governing class, physical safety is the sine qua non. When that fails, your days are numbered

There is a small group of countries whose results tackling the pandemic resemble Taiwan’s (Israel, South Korea and Japan). We are not among them, alas. Here, polite opinion scoffed at the “instinctive” (ergo: wrong) idea that we might close the border to people who had recently been to mainland China. That group of countries are very different to each other culturally, but none imbibed deeply of permanently open borders or sub-contracting government to multilateral organisations. Why? Because they face a powerful adversary, every day. To experience the pandemic is to understand that. 

Refusing to ignore unpalatable questions does not imply “politicising a crisis”. It implies common sense. We urgently need a state and its media outriders capable at least of asking the questions the pandemic leaves in its wake, like the security implications of a Euro that pushes European countries towards China. The days of sweeping these questions under the carpet must end. 

The biggest impact, then, is what comes next. The public may emerge bleary-eyed from the isolation wards of their homes with unease deeper than even after 9/11 or the financial crisis: they really didn’t keep us safe this time. For a governing class, physical safety is the sine qua non. When that fails, your days are numbered.  

As Professor Steve Davies has discussed, just as the Black Death destroyed land values, asset values will now fall: bad news for elites. Next, debts will be written off. In the 1300s, Italian banks collapsed as debtors like Edward III stopped paying. The re-alignment will accelerate, which can mean rejuvenating the nation state, as more voters turn against post-national institutions. 

For better or worse, the government response shows that this will mean an activist nation state, so reforming our dysfunctional bureaucracy – “the blob” – is even more urgent. An active state can counter-intuitively mean less regulation, and already the government is suspending intrusive regulations like gender pay-gap reporting, which must become permanent. This crypto-totalitarian intrusion was always nasty: now its capacity to hinder private initiative would be unforgivable. And Britain’s extraordinary post-war centralisation must finally be reversed. Local governments’ capacity to compete when allowed to, controlling their tax rates to attract entrepreneurs, demonstrably increases prosperity for all. Whitehall can no longer be allowed to kill these reforms. 

China will keep generating these crises. A pandemic’s second wave is frequently worse. This viral pandemic may seem but a rustle in the leaves if a dark storm of antibiotic-resistant bacteria shows its might. Which country has especially severe antibiotic resistance should come as no surprise.

The same governing class that failed to discern what EU membership would mean for our democracy was equally unprepared for the impact of an emerging autocratic superpower on our whole national life. Their statecraft has not protected our prosperity, or our freedoms.

In Britain, Boris must seize the hour and begin a programme for the profound rejuvenation that will soon be necessary, or be remembered as the Prime Minister who got Brexit done, then created a medical police state.

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