Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

West can no longer turn a blind eye to China

Beijing must be called to account after this crisis for its lies about the spread of coronavirus

The Times
The coronavirus pandemic is the direct outcome of appalling behaviour by the Chinese communist regime. Yesterday, the Commons foreign affairs committee reported that the fight against the virus has been hampered by China’s lies. The committee’s chairman, Tom Tugendhat, said China had “manipulated vital information about the virus in order to protect the regime’s image”.
The regime concealed the origins of the virus and then falsely said it could not be transmitted between humans, thus creating a mistaken confidence which allowed the epidemic to rage out of control. According to data seen by the South China Morning Post, the first known case occurred in Hubei as long ago as the middle of last November, with fresh cases reported every day for the rest of the month. In late December doctors expressed anxiety that this was a new virus causing a dangerous form of pneumonia. Chinese communist party officials suppressed this information.
Li Wenliang, the doctor who first reported it, was forced to confess to “making false comments” before he himself died from Covid-19. Subsequently, Boris Johnson is said to have been warned by scientific advisers that China has probably downplayed the number of its own cases by a factor of between 15 and 40.
Despite all this, it has been posing as a humanitarian superpower by sending medical supplies to desperate countries. Britain is accordingly importing from China ventilators and virus test kits. But will they work? Numerous countries have complained that the Chinese equipment is defective.
The Netherlands recalled from its hospitals hundreds of thousands of Chinese facemasks because their seals didn’t meet minimum safety standards. Spain found that a batch of testing kits bought from a Chinese supplier were only 30 per cent accurate. The Czech Republic, which imported 300,000 test kits from China, declared that up to 80 per cent didn’t work. In response, the Chinese claimed the tests were being used wrongly and that concerns were being “politicised”, before stepping up its oversight of such exports.
China is not merely incompetent, however, but malign. It falsely accused the US military of bringing the virus to Wuhan. An article in its state-run Xinhua news service threatened to impose restrictions on medical exports so that the US would be “plunged into the mighty sea of coronavirus”. Then it ordered the expulsion of journalists working for three American newspapers.
Before this crisis the government subscribed to the view that any threat China posed to the West was containable. In this spirit, it decided to allow the Chinese tech giant Huawei to install parts of Britain’s 5G network.
This decision was taken in the face of strenuous objections from the US, Australia and a number of British MPs that China’s designs were predatory and that any such access would undermine British security. Telecoms companies such as Huawei, they said, were state-controlled institutions which were being used to embed Chinese surveillance into global communication systems.
The government decided such concerns could be mitigated. In doing so it reflected an establishment complacency towards China that goes back many years. The former chancellor George Osborne said in 2015 that he wanted Britain to be “China’s best partner in the West” and spoke of his desire to see China “take its place at the top table”.
The general view was that China’s internal oppression and absence of democracy could be safely ignored because it had no aggressive intent. Through doing business with it, the West might turn it into a regular player on the international stage.
If that was ever true, it certainly stopped after the accession of Xi Jinping as general secretary of the Chinese communist party and the country’s president.
For Xi’s aim is to make China the leading power in the world, and all its dealings are merely a means to that end. As Tugendhat says: “China is determined to create a new world order with itself at the top.” Accordingly, its Belt and Road Initiative, a vast series of infrastructure projects across Asia, Africa, South America and Europe, is designed not to establish trading partners but to create client states.
So why has the West turned a blind eye to all this? According to Tugendhat, British and western attention was elsewhere: with the EU, or fighting Islamists in Afghanistan. Its eyes were off that particular ball.
And so it allowed its economies to become dependent on China. Half of the world’s cars, 80 per cent of its computers and 90 per cent of its phones are built there, while Britain had, before this crisis broke, a trade deficit with China of about £22 billion.
Now there’s much furious talk of scales falling from eyes. MPs are demanding that the government should launch a review of Britain’s relationship with China. Unnamed cabinet ministers have been urging a rethink of the Huawei decision. One government source said: “It’s going to be back to the drawing board after this. Rethink is an understatement.”
Really? Will the government emerge from this crisis determined that Britain should regain self-sufficiency and end its dependency on China? Or will it, deeming the scale of the challenge too enormous, take the lethal path of least resistance and short-term benefits just as before?
No one can yet say how this crisis will change Britain. But towards China, any pretence is now over.

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