Illustration: iStock
Illustration: iStock

Global markets are melting down, economic confidence is thinner than air, and developed countries are grappling with the stark reality of a massive recession. It’s mostly because the modern plague, the coronavirus, is now spreading its deadly wings worldwide.

It had to ravage Italy to wake up the rest of the world to its dangers. Western countries are now coming to grips with the reality of the disease. The outbreak is like a war. Perhaps America and Europe should encourage NATO to coordinate efforts and re-establish public confidence to help stabilize markets.

People didn’t really understand and didn’t really believe what was happening in China. Instead, they had to witness the tragic developments in Lombardy to comprehend the threats of the new flu. Even in these very trying times, Beijing is failing to communicate effectively with the world because it does not understand how the world wants to be talked to.

China reacted slowly but then effectively to the spread of the virus. It brought it under control, and the flu didn’t become the Chernobyl moment for China many foreign pundits predicted. Italy saw it immediately but took a long time to react to it. However, after the Italians realised how dire the situation was, they told the world more than the apparently effective but secretive Chinese.

Here there is something deeper at work. It is the image the Chinese elites want their country to project. With the myth of “China’s century” or the “resurgence of the nation” and the triumph of the “Chinese dream,” the country’s leaders talk to their people but also to the world. Beijing is attempting to de facto export an ideology. It is riding a Weltanschauung that is antithetical to the Western paradigm, which is based on the geopolitical, economic-commercial, and cultural centrality of the United States. This is not an explicit attempt – like exporting communism during the Cold War – but a different, subtler, and at times unconscious endeavor, and has similar if not wider outcomes.

Tianxia or the world

The break from the American/Western vision is highlighted by the very concept with which the Chinese define and depict the globe: tianxia, “all under the sky.” It is the old term to describe “China’s world,” different from shijie, the world in modern terms. The concept of tianxia was supposed to help China understand and fit into the modern world, shijie, as it is.

It should have been an anthropological translation that would take into account some Chinese elements but eventually would lead to connect them with the world as it is now. It was not supposed to expand a particular vision of the world, its own, onto the globe, which has a different mental picture.

Actually, China identifies with the world, is the world, distinct from the rest of the world. It is a curious – for us Westerners, inconceivable – form of universalism. And yet, it is the perspective of a giant who really never stopped thinking of himself as the center of the world, even when, from the second half of the 19th century to the Thirties of the 20th century, he was forced into practically complete introversion.

The Middle Kingdom has never internalized a perception of the globe coming from outside. It did not open during the course of its two historic moments of failure: in the 17th century, culminating in the collapse of the Ming dynasty in 1644; and exactly two centuries later, in the 19th century, from the Opium Wars (the first was in 1841, almost exactly 200 years after) to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911. China’s worldview has not changed much in the current phase of strong external projection, with the present attempt to objectively oppose the US/Western brand of globalization.

This reveals an incomprehension rooted in cultural asymmetry between Americans/ Westerners and Chinese, fueled in communist China by the idea of the wounds inflicted by the Western colonial powers as well as an old sense of superiority. The result is an incomprehension of the “world as it is out of China,” which is also evident in the difficulty implementing the project of the new Silk Road or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced and imbued with special impetus by President Xi Jinping.

By reversing the existing paradigm of globalization, intentionally or unintentionally, the Communist Party of China (CPC) means to impose its vision of the world with the BRI brand. China is doing so without, however, taking into account the still evident prevalence of the North American continent, the nerve center of global affairs, and the overall Westernization of most of the world.

The new Silk Road is undermined by this cultural/structural failure. In fact, Beijing aims to circumvent America – understandably, given US pressure from the east and the south – by denying it a role in its ongoing design. It calls for eradicating the idea of global integration advocated by the West in the last five centuries and replacing it with a tianxia model. The strategic goal of China, beyond the strategic imperatives and economic repercussions, remains the return to greatness. This may be acceptable if it were to happen within the present cultural boundaries as defined by five centuries of Western/Mediterranean culture (of which even Islam or Russia are part). Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all developed because they accepted a culturally different world vision, the Western one.

Can the world become sinocentric?

But it is de facto impossible if China wants the rest of the world to accept a sinocentric vision, although devoid of the old ideological inspiration typical of its still officially professed Marxism. It hinges only on the Western fascination with China’s formidable economic performance in the last 40 years.

The drive could be legitimate, but it should have considered the reality as it is: the world is not sinocentric and won’t be in the foreseeable future. China failed to perceive this, and perhaps now it is too late for a change of heart, both in China and in the West. The conceptual and perceptual limits that invalidate both the Chinese strategic vision and the attempts to make it geopolitically effective appear very serious today.

Emulating superficially the American system of expansion of power, the People’s Republic aims to establish a sphere of geopolitical and cultural influence without having the resources, not so much economic as of cultural hegemony: the world thinks in Western terms, even when it opposes the West with anticolonial or socialist ideologies.

China convinced itself that the economy is the paramount standard. In this it has adopted Deng Xiaoping’s idea that jingji shi yin daoli (“economy is the hard truth”). The point was extremely important in the early 1980s to move the country away from the ideological intoxication of Mao’s time, which measured every action in terms of communist purity.

But taken by itself it is an oversimplification and deep misunderstanding of the workings of the capitalist system and even more so the dynamics of geopolitics, where money is important to achieve power, but power is more important than money. And money is only one of the many tools needed to achieve and preserve power. Money can be of some use to people who don’t have money. But if people or countries believe they have enough money, then they want something else.

In fact, the rise of the communist party occurred not because Mao or the Soviets threw around cash. The CPC won in China because it had more attractive ideas, which defeated the far richer nationalists. This happened when most Chinese were extremely poor. This is how the underdogs manage to win, and why religious organizations are important: they have power through influence. Moreover, China with the establishment of the rule of the communist party, forfeited and destroyed its old tradition. It can partly revive it like Japan, within the framework of accepting the global vision. But if it recovers it while holding on a system already alien to the rest of the world, effective communication becomes extremely difficult.

Countries do not think in Chinese terms and do not – or do not want to – understand what tianxia really is, especially as defined by the CPC. This begins from China’s geographical surroundings, which during the ancient imperial glories were considered to be part of its dominion. There are frictions with other Asian players – such as Japan, India, or Vietnam – with different ambitions and capabilities to defend their sovereignty and independence, and eager to capitalize on the competition between Washington and Beijing for their own purposes.

In China’s current immense perception of itself, we will see how the coronavirus affects this image, too: China refuses to come to what the West sees as “pragmatic agreements” with neighbors, who have accepted the vision of the Western world.

In doing this, China demonstrates it is incapable of grasping actual power ratios, and it is encouraged by the echo of certain American, but also Asian, assessments of Beijing’s inevitable ascent to world primacy. China has thus adopted conduct typical of a power at the height of its development. It is a serious mistake, despite the enormous economic growth of the last decades, in which endogenous hubris and Western narratives of the “Chinese miracle” have contributed to widening the gap between reality and boundless ambitions.

A Western story of ‘declinism’

The alleged decline of the West and in particular of the US as a superpower is being read by Beijing in the light of its historical experience, which was marked by sudden and radical interruptions. In China’s eyes, the very ascent of Donald Trump to the US presidency is a symptom of a profound systemic crisis, symbolically launched in 2008 with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Yet this is a misperception. After the Second World War, the United States went through much more dramatic moments, such as the integration of African Americans, McCarthyism, and the repercussions of the war in Vietnam. China is therefore only doing a partial reading of Western literature and self-perception, in which a certain “declinism” is inherent. Sometimes it may be sincere, sometimes tactical to blow smoke in the eyes of competitors, China above all.

The parable of every dynasty in China – from the Song to the Tang, from the Ming to the Qing – followed a script that foresaw, after growth and stabilization phases, a sudden collapse of the system.

On the other hand, the longevity of the Roman empire and its decline continued for at least 1,500 years. Even when the empire fell in 1453 by the hand of Mehmet II, the Turk proclaimed himself heir of Roman empire, providing a different paradigm for interpreting the Western reality.

In general, the West boasts a superior historical continuity and a formidable ability to overcome critical phases, especially evident in the American case. The 2008 financial crisis was perceived by Beijing as a sign of an inevitable eclipse of the US as a superpower, rather than what it actually was – an accident on the way, although its structural causes are still present. It is precisely because this continuity generally escapes America’s enemies that the US has become the latest incarnation of Western civilization.

Not surprisingly, although the People’s Republic has not undergone upheavals of this magnitude in the past 30 years, after just over a decade, China – perhaps far more than the United States – has faced systemic, economic, and geopolitical crises. Nor is it a coincidence that to measure the decline, the West has equipped itself with multiple instruments, however limited and questionable: economic decline, cultural decline, influence decline, et cetera.

For the Chinese, in the last 30 years the only parameter (borrowed from the West) has been that represented by the economy, considered a driving force for the growth of geopolitical and military influence. This is the opposite of reality – the fatal vice of excessive economic ideas in geopolitics.

Of course, the economy of the People’s Republic has grown – and will continue to grow, albeit less rapidly – at rates unimaginable for most Western countries. But it is largely artificial growth, the result of a closed and often poorly managed system. Just think of the increase in debt, of which the real figure, however stratospheric, is not known.

Slow rituals of passage

The power equation cannot end in the economic variable. The United Kingdom lost the role it held before the translatio imperii between Anglo-Saxon powers, but thanks to its media, its cultural and scientific excellence, and its global financial role, a century later it continues to exert a certain degree of worldwide influence. Constantinople, after it was sacked by Venice in 1204, for centuries was a beacon of geopolitical-cultural influence in the West and East. Italy, which long lost its Roman imperial preeminence and the influence and wealth of the Renaissance, still draws attention worldwide. Power is more subtle.

On this front, China’s position is far from comparable to the Western one. Beijing enjoyed cultural diffusion in its own region prior to 1492 and the first globalization, when the world was divided into areas of tendency to hermetic influence. Subsequently, the development of global interrelationships permeated by European and Anglo-Saxon culture overwhelmed the position of China even in its own region.

Nonetheless, Western declinist literature has taken hold on the new and old continents, placing emphasis on China’s inevitable return to the center of the global scene. Originating in the US in the mid-90s, this thesis is the combined disposition of two factors: the more or less genuine manifestation of a congenital declinism in the DNA of Western culture, which paradoxically is also one of the factors of its continuity; and a means of promoting the integration of the Chinese giant into the international system, in order to make it an equal counterpart, discounting the risk that in the future it may even prove to be dominant.

That is, “declinism” in Western countries is a way to scare Western countries into action. It actually means the opposite of what it states: it says, “act before it is late.” It is the modern translation of Greek tragedy – it doesn’t say accept your doom, but spurs you into action to avoid disaster.

Moreover, it was also an approach indicative of real US good intentions and true good feelings toward China, which was already traceable in the policies adopted after the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in the early 20th century. Then, in contrast to the European colonial powers, Washington reinvested part of its indemnity on the spot, promoting the modernization of the country. It can be seen as a para-colonial operation, but it was far more sophisticated when compared to the models of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It was a different idea of a global approach to human development, favoring the development of the other to simple plunder.

Another sign is the United States’ choice, almost half a century later, to assign Chiang Kai-shek’s China a permanent seat on the Security Council of the nascent United Nations after World War II.

It was the legacy of the fact that starting with Matteo Ricci’s travels in the 16th century and then until the 19th century, Europe looked to China as a center of civilization. From China Europe absorbed concepts such as bureaucracy and revolution, until the advent of the Enlightenment. Fascination has continued so far with different shades and degrees, feeding a distorted Chinese perception of itself and of the global theater.

The People’s Republic has also attempted to leverage its diaspora in propagating the national myth. For this purpose, Beijing has played for years on the distinction between zhongguoren (Chinese citizens in the PRC, irrespective of their nationality) and huaren (in the current sense, individuals of Han ethnicity, irrespective of their citizenship), in an attempt to identify the former with the latter, to appropriate the Chinese living abroad, and to erode the identities of other ethnic groups, as in the case of the Uyghurs.

This effort tried to bank on the fact that overseas Chinese tend to settle in communities that are firmly tied to their home and motherland, a phenomenon encouraged by the often exclusionary policies of the host states. This strengthens the myth of tianxia.

But stressing the concept of huaren was mostly a mere theoretical effort, not only by virtue of the double loyalty of the diasporas but also because of their marginality in their host countries, and in China itself. In all likelihood, when they have acquired demographic and socioeconomic relevance in the host country, after several generations, the descendants of the current Chinese in the diaspora will be – and will be perceived by China as – foreign citizens, not belonging to Beijing.

China’s spirit goes viral

The reverberations of the health crisis that erupted with the spread of coronavirus are potentially disruptive in economic, political, soft power, and even geopolitical terms. The epidemic has reached a phase of acute international tension and may undermine the foundations of the economy of the People’s Republic, effectively paralyzed and already tested by a structural slowdown.

A return to the old normal does not appear to be as easy as it was following the 2003 crisis caused by SARS. Back then, the Chinese economic dimensions were far smaller, and Beijing was not facing the hostility of external powers – the American one in the lead. And if it is true that the whole globe would be affected by the collapse of the Chinese commercial superpower, the world could nevertheless decide to start again without China, now considered unreliable in the short and long term. The actual spread of the disease worldwide further splits the world.

In fact, the second health crisis in less than 20 years conveys and corroborates the image of a country that is unreliable in terms of health but above all politically. The decision-making system preserves an increasingly less acceptable opacity and hermeticism in the West. Unlike what happened after the containment of SARS, when the trend toward relocation and investments into China was consolidating, today it seems very difficult that, with the health crisis limited, international markets and investors will reverse course.

Spes contra spem, the hope is that Beijing will learn the lesson, aware that it is in its interest to make itself more reliable. Therefore, it should adopt the necessary political reforms, which are the unavoidable starting point of every modernizing project. It is a complicated operation in itself, further affected by the insecurity of a system that fears for its survival and is therefore reluctant to initiate substantial changes.

The current difficult phase of China, its main strategic rival, creates benefits for the United States, whose industrial-commercial structure is still closely linked to the Chinese one. In the US, two trends coexist: that of Trump, who has the tactical need to improve the economy ahead of the presidential election in November, and the opposite for the Democrats. Given the economic-financial intersection between the two powers, a collapse of China’s economy would also be a drain on Washington.

If, therefore, there is a physiological tendency to compromise, especially in view of the November elections, the US superpower could nevertheless accept the fallout of a possible Chinese collapse, favoring the resurgence of centrifugal thrusts inside China, from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In this sense, the coronavirus could exacerbate difficult-to-repair geopolitical faults. As summarized by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – in the midst of a contagion the World Health Organization called a global emergency worse than terrorism  – the Chinese Communist Party is the main threat of our time. This seems to be the tombstone on Washington’s approach to the Beijing regime, which leaves no room for future corrections.

The strategic goal of the United States is to weaken the People’s Republic, including by discounting its possible fragmentation into anything other than “One China”.

To date, the situation remains fluid. The first indications of the degree of resilience and on the future path of the People’s Republic will be provided by the trend of the real economy and of the stock markets in the coming days. As further collapses are occurring worldwide, anything could happen in China. It means that, even if China were to rebound in a V-shape fashion, the growing difficulties of other countries, affected one after the other by the virus, would dampen global growth and drive down the Chinese economy, which is about 50% dependent on foreign trade.

The uncertainty regarding the effects of coronavirus also derives from the fact that the risk is not so much a function of the quantity of the actual deaths, as of the rampant panic – regardless of who fomented it – that has cut off the country and has overwhelmed investors and international markets. It is a function of the subtle yet real danger of the spread of the sick, which, if they become “too many”, could crush the healthcare system and start a massacre.

Certainly, the fact that China has been hit by two pandemics (SARS and coronavirus) in 17 years, reveals serious gaps in the health system and in agriculture itself, especially with regard to animal husbandry, still far behind in terms of quality standards and safety for human health. In fact, despite the enormous progress made in urbanization, four out of 10 Chinese still live in the countryside, often cultivating small plots of land and paying little attention to hygiene rules. Nor does the state have the resources to promote an agricultural revolution, which would provide for the transfer of at least two hundred million people to the city.

The Chinese population uses modern social networks and applications of all kinds, but the data that the authorities offer are not verifiable and are not open to certification. Fears are therefore fueled by the awareness that nobody has reliable information. Maybe not even the government. It is a vicious circle heightened by rigidity and an inability to understand the truly impressive external reality – the fragility of China, whose opacity backfires on itself and on others.

This article originally appeared in Settimana News. Asia Times is grateful for permission to republish it.