Nixon and Zhou toast, 1972

Return of the dragon

China’s Covid belligerence will only isolate it further

“The week that changed the world”, was how an exultant Richard Nixon described his celebrated visit to China in 1972. For once, the president wasn’t wrong. His talks with the aged, crumbling Mao Zedong and the wily Zhou Enlai were epoch-making indeed, introducing the world’s most populous country, and hitherto one of its most reclusive, into the rules-based international order. The thaw in relations between the United States and China might have proceeded at a rather glacial pace — full diplomatic relations were not restored for another seven years — but when the great change did eventually come, in the 1990s, it came at a rush. By the dawn of the new century, with Russia in terminal decline and the Soviet Union a fading memory, the essence of the new world order was a Sino-American condominium. Cheap Chinese production lines serving American, and Western, consumers.

Until now, that is. The coronavirus pandemic will have many consequences. Some of them, as yet, we can still barely glimpse; the pandemic may yet have months, years even, to run. One consequence though, is already very clear: that China’s relations with the West, and thus its place in the world, will never quite be the same again.

President Donald Trump, of course, had been trying to knock China off its stride even before the coronavirus began its deadly journey around the world. Convinced that much of China’s rise since 1972 has been at America’s expense, his administration had been expending most of its energy trying to redress the balance. As it turns out, however, Trump need hardly have bothered; the pandemic has done much of his job for him.

Over the past few months, China’s missteps have mostly been of her own making. All of China’s pent-up resentments and insecurities have come to the fore, exhibited in a new-found prickliness, bellicosity and menace in its foreign relations. The middle kingdom’s swift re-emergence as a global power masked the country’s lasting scars from its “century of humiliation”, that period from the nineteenth century to 1947 when China was overwhelmed by rival imperial conquests and largely ceased to exist as a single, coherent entity. Now, the mask has dropped.

And China’s growing passive-aggressive posture has often provoked an equal response. Even those countries that are most sympathetic to China in the West, such as Britain, are being forced to reconsider their ties. Take one important example. Boris Johnson’s decision to accept China’s tech giant Huawei into the construction of Britain’s 5G system, dating only from January, will now be officially reconsidered. Mutinous backbenchers reckon they have enough numbers to force an embarrassing parliamentary defeat for the government if it persists in favouring Huawei, and they have been emboldened by widespread resentment at China’s behaviour over the coronavirus.

Indeed, everywhere one looks, from Japan to America to Italy, governments are extricating themselves from Chinese commitments. Many had hoped that China’s rise could be contained within the norms of the Western rules-based system; many have concluded from the coronavirus crisis that this may no longer be possible. In that sense, the fate of Huawei, hobbled by legislators from Canberra to Washington, serves as a proxy for China as a whole.

The immediate problem has been China’s defensiveness over the origins of the virus, but this merely betrays a deeper pathology in its dealings with the West, and with the international system. Whether or not the new coronavirus started in a wet market in Wuhan (or even in a nearby laboratory) may never be conclusively settled; to this day there is no agreement on where the so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918 originated, despite its name. However, it seemed perfectly reasonable to call for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19, if only to try to avoid a repeat of the circumstances that produced the virus in the first place. Likewise, it also seems perfectly reasonable to look at the role of the WHO, to judge whether it might be able to function better the next time round.

It was not so much the fact that China resisted these investigations, but how the country did it that raised heckles, and which might have caused lasting damage. Any mention of the Wuhan wet market was dismissed as an attack on the country’s virtue, its integrity, rather than an attempt to tackle a longstanding scientific problem, namely the risk of infections jumping from animals to humans. And the regime’s woes over the coronavirus have been compounded by the economic fallout from the crisis.

Despite the forceful bluster of Xi Jinping, China’s communist leaders are probably feeling less secure than for a long time. The Chinese people half-tolerate tyranny for as long as they are lifted out of abject poverty in exchange. But that trade-off looks increasingly tenuous. The pandemic has brought the Chinese economy, the great motor of poverty alleviation, to a shuddering halt. The economy contracted by a whopping seven per cent in the first quarter of this year, the first contraction at all since such figures began to be recorded in 1992.

Over the following decades, annual growth surged along at an average of about nine per cent a year. This year, however, even if China recovers well enough, the IMF is expecting growth of only about one per cent. That is not going to lift the customary millions out of anything very much, let alone poverty.

Xi, however, seems to have concluded that it’s better to pick patriotic fights abroad than to start tinkering with the system at home, giving his compatriots a few freedoms to compensate for stagnating wages and lost opportunities. The politburo, after all, knows where that ends up — in Tiananmen Square. Thus anxieties over the economy, and the social compact in general, are heaped upon anxieties over the country’s role in spreading the coronavirus, which compounds China’s historical insecurities as to whether it can, in fact, measure up to the modernity of the West. Some measure of self-criticism might now be in order, or even a bit of self-reflection, but that would betray the aspirations to great power status that have been nurtured by the leadership.

Instead, China’s leaders and diplomats have come out swinging. The exaggerated, almost comical, belligerence that we now behold only betrays a deep sensitivity, and lingering resentment against presumed Western assumptions of superiority.

The response of China to a wave of global criticism has been to circle the wagons at home and lash out abroad

Take China’s extraordinary, unprecedented attacks on Australia, for instance, whose offence was to dare to suggest an international probe into the origins of the virus. The editor of a Chinese state media publication described the country thus: “Australia is always there, making trouble. 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.” He clearly hadn’t read much of Dale Carnegie. Not content with this, China’s ambassador to Canberra went on to threaten all manner of economic retaliation if the Australians persisted, from stopping Chinese students and tourists from going to the country to pulling companies out of Australia altogether.

China is Australia’s principal trading partner, so China’s oh-so-subtle diplomats must have thought that the Antipodeans would quake at such threats. The only result of all this has been more aggro against the ethnic Chinese population in Australia.

The same performance was repeated in France. Desperate to compensate for any suggestion that China bore any guilt for what had, or had not, happened in Wuhan, the Chinese have flown quantities of (sometimes substandard) protective clothing to European countries as aid. In return the Chinese government has expected nothing more than bouquets of undying gratitude. When that isn’t forthcoming, however, again, China’s diplomats have lashed out.

Messages began to appear on the Chinese embassy’s website in Paris that were increasingly critical of France’s response to the crisis, culminating in one accusing staff at a care home of abandoning their posts and leaving their patients to die “of hunger and disease”. The Chinese ambassador was called in by the French foreign minister and upbraided.

The same belligerence has been repeated elsewhere, from fisticuffs on the Sino-Indian border near Ladakh to the passage of new laws cracking down on democracy and civil liberties in Hong Kong. Everywhere, it seems, the response of China to an unprecedented wave of global criticism, and internal doubt, has been to circle the wagons at home and lash out abroad. President Donald Trump is going to use China-bashing for maximum political gain at the election in November; China seems determined to play into his hands.

some of China’s new belligerence pre-dates the pandemic. Last year the government chided its diplomats for not being assertive enough, demanding that they show more “fighting spirit” in promoting Chinese interests. The result has been “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, named after a couple of crude, jingoistic action films, the first of which appeared in 2015. “The days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone,” declared the Global Times, an organ of the Communist Party.

If the communist leaders hope that the whole affair of the origins of the coronavirus will be put to bed by issuing a 37,000- word, one-sided white paper on the subject, as they did on 7 June, they had better think again. The tussle over the origins of the coronavirus and China’s role in the pandemic will continue to rage, and fighting their corner of this scientific controversy with Wolf Warrior diplomacy will only isolate China further. That will disrupt global trade, and growth, which will harm the Chinese economy, still further. Time for a reset.

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