Sunday, 1 March 2020

The Chinese as world leaders? That notion just died

Chinese President Xi Jinping, centre, wearing a protective face mask waves as he inspects the novel coronavirus pneumonia prevention and control work at a neighbourhoods in Beijing. Picture: AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping, centre, wearing a protective face mask waves as he inspects the novel coronavirus pneumonia prevention and control work at a neighbourhoods in Beijing. Picture: AP
The Chinese Communist Party has done more damage to China’s prospects of becoming a global superpower than its most ardent detractors.
As president of the one-party state, Xi Jinping is responsible for political decisions that have facilitated the spread of a novel coronavirus from mainland China to countries around the world.
The CCP’s web of misinformation, censorship and corrupt ethos of putting the party before people have resulted in billions wiped from nations’ GDP as governments struggle to contain COVID-19.
The idea that China is fit to compete with America for global leadership is dead. The CCP is a political primitive and the coronavirus story shows how despots can make dwarfs of economic giants.
When a novel coronavirus was suspected of causing flu-like cases in central China, a doctor did what his training taught him to do. He set about trying to prevent harm. Dr Li Wenliang was a whistleblower who risked the ire of the communist state to warn people about an emerging virus.
Li worked as an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, the epicentre of COVID-19. In late December, he communicated concerns about unusual cases to medical school alumni on social media. A day later, the Chinese authorities notified the World Health Organisation about the Wuhan viral outbreak. While the WHO heaped praise on the CCP, it emerged that Chinese authorities had known about it since at least early December. In a Lancet article, researchers observed the first diagnosis was made on December 1 — a month before the Chinese government alerted the WHO. For a state that claims to be a good global citizen and champion of multilateralism, China has a lot of explaining to do.
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Not only did Chinese public authorities fail to warn the world about the viral outbreak, President Xi waited until January 20 to make a public speech on the virus. Forbes reported that in remarks to government officials on January 7, Xi had discussed viral prevention and control. It appears he knew about the risks two weeks before.
On February 7, the man who tried to stop the virus succumbed to it. Dr Li had been publicly humiliated for doing his best to protect public health. Chinese authorities made him sign a letter stating he had made false comments about the virus.
But the liars are in government. The extraordinary irresponsibility of the CCP should not go unpunished. The party must be held to account by nations around the world for the human health disaster it has unleashed.
Freedom of speech is vital for good governance. In a medical crisis, it is essential to public health. In a democratic country, Dr Li and other whistleblowers might be congratulated for noticing an unusual health problem and warning people about potential risks. Yet the CCP responded by accusing whistleblowers of “fabricating, ­disseminating and spreading rumours”. State-controlled media ran the party line in a chorus of condemnation.
In communist China, whistleblowers and human rights activists have been arrested. Others have disappeared. The regime has cracked down on internet forums where people expressed fury about government inaction and the suppression of information critical to public health.
It has lied about the emergence of the virus, took a month to reveal the threat, fudged statistics and placed the whole world at risk of a pandemic. But the CCP is utterly shameless. Last week, President Xi boasted that his government has “made positive contributions to safeguarding global public health security”. Qiushi Journal published remarks by Xi in late January where he ordered “all-out prevention and control work” and “the need for timely release of information and the deepening of international co-operation”. International co-operation? The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
The CCP presides over a regime of censorship designed to maintain power at any cost. It rounds up dissidents, disappears freedom fighters and denies human rights. In the past, the damage was largely restricted to domestic affairs because threats made to neighbouring democracies were met with international condemnation. Yet in the panic of a looming COVID-19 pandemic, there have been too few nations prepared to hold the Communist Party to account.
While the CCP focused on preening its image and showcasing its industrial might on the international stage (a 1000-bed hospital in 10 days!) Chinese people were dying by the dozen. At the time of writing, the total death toll was 2858 with 2682 deaths in the province of Hubei. Australia recorded its first death on Sunday. The total number of cases worldwide was 83,389 with 78,824 in mainland China.
When China embarked on a path of industrial development, the free world held out hope that market liberalisation would lead to a gradual opening of the communist state. Internationalists believed that history did not belong to Marx, but universal liberalism. As the Cold War entered its final stages and the Soviet Union was in terminal decline, Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay the End Of History was celebrated for its vision of a new world order. Liberal democracy at home and liberal internationalism abroad would prepare the way for global peace. The counter-thesis was steeped in political realism. Samuel Huntington believed the post-Cold War global order would not be characterised by Western-style universal liberalism, but a clash between Western, Islamic and Sinic civilisations.
Huntington’s thesis proved prescient. He saw the distinguishing features of world civilisations included vastly different beliefs about liberty, among other things. The founding father of the CCP, Mao Zedong, proved the point in 1957 when he said: “What should our policy be towards non-Marxist ideas? As far as … saboteurs of the socialist cause are concerned, the matter is easy, we simply deprive them of their freedom of speech.”
The iron fist of communist censorship has done untold damage to the Chinese people for decades. Now, it is threatening global health. The politics of the CCP is so primitive it is a danger to humankind. The communist state must be held accountable for its role in facilitating the COVID-19 outbreak and the mounting death toll.
COLUMNIST

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