US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have different ideas about the direction the world order. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

While much has yet to be ascertained regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, there are a number of facts that, though questioned by some, are generally agreed upon.

The first is that the virus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Where in Wuhan and how is still a subject of debate, but the general consensus is that it jumped from animal to human and was subsequently transmitted from human to human.

Based on this conjecture, one can again assume that the proclivity of part of the Chinese population to “eat anything that has four legs except a table and anything that flies except an airplane” might not be unrelated to the emergence of the virus among humans.

To address this issue, if only preventively, a solution would be a total ban on the sale, consumption and raising of specific animals such as bats, pangolins and the like. Such a ban should be international and not apply only to China.

While such a ban would not be popular in the countries where it would be of relevance, namely in East and Southeast Asia, most of the population should be sensitive to its being needed if properly explained. And as for its effectiveness, this should cause no problem provided the ban is buttressed by the heaviest of sanctions ruthlessly and publicly implemented.

China’s initial reaction

What is today a subject of major disagreement is the promptness of the Chinese authorities to react to the virus and the time gap between the moment they were made aware of the coming crisis and the implementation of the measures to contain it.

After the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, China put in place an early-warning system that was targeted at addressing a similar scenario. This was considered particularly necessary as the party leadership had come to the conclusion that, in the initial phase of the outbreak, local authorities had under-reported the number of cases.

However, the system that was set up to address the issue of under-reporting was designed to address an outbreak similar to that of the SARS. It was not designed to address an outbreak with different characteristics, such as Covid-19, and did not have the flexibility to do so on its own.

Under-reporting bad news by local authorities is a problem that has bedeviled China for centuries. It is predicated on the principle that authority flows from the top downward and not the other way around, and that it is not up to the grassroots to report news that might disturb the serenity of the Emperor.

The most extreme case of such a scenario probably occurred during the famine engendered by the Great Leap Forward of 1959-61. With the impetus for the Great Leap coming from the top, reporting that the endeavor was costing the lives of millions of Chinese would have been tantamount to saying that the Great Helmsman was steering the country in the wrong direction.

It was only when the evidence could no longer be hidden and disaster had struck that the top echelons of the Communist Party came to grasp the full dimensions of the crisis they had ushered in and backtracked.

The reverse scenario initially occurred with the Covid-19 outbreak. There the problem was the reporting from the bottom upward and the subsequent response made by the top.

The top of the hierarchy is perfectly aware of the fact that suppressing bad news is a self-defeating exercise. Conversely, given the authoritarian nature of the regime, constant input from the grassroots is not encouraged as it could easily become uncontrolled and spill over in the political sphere, where it could represent a challenge to Communist Party rule.

To address this dilemma, the authorities have set up their own reporting structures. These operate within set patterns and well-defined protocols. However, when a new and unplanned-for situation arises that calls for flexibility and innovation, the system is not at its best.

Compounding the problem is the fact that there are no parallel reporting structures. Indeed, the authorities have always been suspicious of sources that operate outside the system – a suspicion that resulted in the lack of a reporting line operating in parallel to the official one.

All these shortcoming came to the fore at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak.

In December 2019, Dr Li Wenglian, an ophthalmologist operating in Wuhan, raised the alarm. He had come across what he believed was a new source of infection that looked like SARS but was not, which had affected some of his patients.

For the authorities with which Dr Li shared his concerns, the issue was simple. Li was an ophthalmologist, not a virologist. He did not operate in a research facility and his task did not include reporting on new infection sources; in other words, by airing his concerns he had acted outside the box.

In an environment where one of the main functions of the police is to promote “social harmony” and where every individual is expected to have a defined role, Dr Li’s modus operandi was disruptive. He was consequently silenced and reprimanded for “spreading rumors.” One vital month was lost.

Compounding the issue

What followed was a chain of events that compounded the issue. Had the outbreak occurred some 50 years ago, it is a fair assumption that it would have been confined to China, not to say to the Wuhan region. Cheap air travel, both domestic and international, and the revolution in communications have changed the picture. Thus in 2019 it is estimated that some hundred million Chinese tourists traveled abroad.

The magnitude of this number ensured that there was a significant potential for Chinese travelers to carry abroad a disease contracted in China and/or to bring back to China a disease contracted abroad.

The problem was further compounded by the state of US-China relations. Not since the Korean War have the tensions between the two countries been so high. The fact that to a considerable extent the economies of the two parties are interlocked has been a further destabilizing factor, as it has increased the points of friction. Thus the issue today is not so much to what extent the two parties can disconnect from each other and pursue independently their own agendas, but rather how they can co-exist.

This was not an issue during the Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union operated as two parallel systems. The collapse of the Soviet Union followed by the opening of China had two major effects on the United States: It removed an opponent and replaced it by a nation that the establishment in Washington viewed as a low-cost producer. “Invented in California, manufactured in China” became the reference.

It took three decades for the United States to realize that the low-cost manufacturer had become a technological powerhouse that operated in the same arena while abiding by different rules. It was the sort of competition that the United States had never encountered and that it was ill-equipped to address.

The “trade war” that followed proved to be far more than a tariff issues. Actually it was an existentialist clash between two systems that had yet to find a formula that would permit them to co-exist on an equal footing while preserving their own specific values and integrity.

By an unfortunate coincidence, the Covid-19 crisis erupted when the “trade war” between China and the administration of US President Donald Trump was in full swing. By then it had spilled into the wider spectrum of overall US-China relations, and the resulting mutual hostility it had generated pre-empted what should have been a level of trust and cooperation that the situation required.

And the proclivity of the Trump administration to find fault with everything that stood for China certainly did nothing to encourage a regime not particularly known for its transparency to be more forthcoming than it would normally have been.

Once the Chinese governing structure had became conscious of the problem and its potential ramifications, it acted decisively and effectively. By then, however, the virus had spread, and what had been a local problem had morphed into a global disaster.

How each country responds to the crisis and how responsibility, if any, should be apportioned hinge on what are, substantively, two main issues.

Poor information flows

The first is internal to China. The regime, as it is conceived today, does not make room for reporting channels outside, or in parallel to the system. With no independent non-governmental organizations or political actors, investigative journalists or out-of-the-box thinkers, the regime is dependent for feedback from the grassroots on its own institutions.

With the priority being on “preserving social harmony,” this can become a self-defeating, not to say stifling, exercise that no longer fulfills its role. With China becoming an increasingly mobile and complex society, the like of unreported low safety standards in a research laboratory in a distant province could have consequences that go far beyond a single facility. 

The Covid-19 crisis should therefore provide the impetus for China’s ruling Communist Party to reassess its approach to information flows that do not necessarily originate within the system. For China, this is not only a Communist Party issue but also a cultural problem that ultimately relates to the relationship between the grassroots and the apex of power.

Everyone loses

The second issue relates to nothing less than China’s place in the world. Barring a return to the situation that prevailed in the 1960s when the country was an international outcast, China today is part of the international system and cannot be discounted. So ultimately the question relates to how China can be made to fit into the system, and on whose terms.

It is obvious that in terms of economic relations the playing field between China and the West is not level and that a part privately, part state-owned Chinese entity enjoys an inbuilt advantage when dealing with a purely privately owned Western one. Ultimately it is up to the West to find its own mechanisms to deal with the imbalance – an imbalance that will belong to the past the day China complains of unfair trade practices or the theft of its intellectual property by outside actors rather than the other way around.

Thus far, the Covid-19 crisis has only produced losers. China, whichever way one looks at the issue, has not emerged with plaudits, and not a few of the denials coming from Beijing appear to disguise little more than a lack of self-assurance. As for the rest of the world, it faced the crisis with the best it had and except for a handful of countries deserves no plaudits either. 

Conversely, “China bashing” as practiced by the Trump administration is if anything counterproductive, as it obscures the fact that the international system is today so interrelated that a single crack can cause the whole edifice to falter.

Who is to act in the name of this elusive “international system” is as yet undetermined. With a timorous secretary general, an absent Security Council and a World Health Organization under fire,  the United Nations has phased itself out of the picture. This puts the onus to act on the individual member states of the international community.

So far, each has acted on its own, and for good reason. Societies are different, national cultures are different and each marches to its own drums – which does not suppress the need for international action: something badly needed but nowhere on the horizon.

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Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.