It is fair to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world not only where personal, local, and national matters are concerned, but in terms of the process of globalization.
While the outbreak exposed the major Western powers’ systemic weaknesses and unpreparedness to handle a pandemic of this magnitude, it also exposed the contempt inherent in the Western “pride and prejudice” approach to the early assessments of the risk posed by the virus.
“… After seeing what the virus did in China, how could Europeans have underestimated it? Why did Chinese experiences not matter to them? Why did they not respond fiercely the moment when the first cases without known infection routes emerged?” asked German sociologist Marius Meinhof in an article titled “Othering the Virus.”
He believes the reason for this is that “‘we’ did not see a great threat, because ‘we’ perceived the virus as something related to the Chinese authoritarian or backward other, disconnected from the West.”
Feelings of defeat, uncertainty, fear and anger have amplified liberal democracies’ disagreements with China, which objectively speaking emerged as the success story of the first wave of the pandemic – and was also able to assist other countries in need during these difficult times.
In consequence, we have been witnessing a chain of unfortunate events, including racist attempts of US President Donald Trump’s administration to name the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus” at the Group of Seven meeting in March, as well as a reparations campaign related to the alleged cover-up of the pandemic by Communist Party of China (CPC) orchestrated by the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative think-tank based in London.
With the growing hostile rhetoric about China in the English-speaking world, where it is clear that business as usual with Beijing is no longer on the table, more ties are being severed, from bans on Huawei, TikTok and WeChat to the Trump administration’s policies against Chinese students, as well as closing consulates and expelling journalists.
With all of these things happening simultaneously amid the pandemic, the fear of a new cold war becomes more realistic – and easily has the potential to transition into a hot war.
To my surprise, a praiseworthy attempt to reshape the China narrative and move away from the Cold War rhetoric has been made by a “libertarian” think-tank called the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK.
The institute recently published a report titled “Chinese Puzzle: A classical liberal approach to post-pandemic relations with China,” co-authored by Dr Stephen Davis, head of education at the IEA, and Professor Syed Kamall, academic and research director of the IEA and professor of politics and international relations at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, England.
(I happen to know Kamall personally from previous engagements canvassing with him for the British Conservative Party.)
“Covid-19 is provoking a major reorientation of the foreign policy of the US and Europe. At the heart of this is their changing relationship with China,” says the research paper.
What is accurately observed is that the West’s “fears are based on out-of-date assumptions and a misunderstanding of China’s motivations,” which “unlike the USSR … does not seek hegemony, nor to evangelize and export its political and economic system.”
To the contrary, according to Davis and Kamall, the country “rather acts out of self-interest and seeks to become both a model nation for developing countries to emulate and the dominant rule setter in the international trade and financial system.”
The paper explicitly states that “the strategy of constructive engagement or liberal internationalism is no longer working – but a more confrontational relationship with China could be economically costly and politically dangerous,” and it is attempting to offer “an alternative to simple confrontation and military competition, one that could be more effective in promoting the goal of a freer and more peaceful world.”
Sadly, once we dive into the publication, an uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance starts emerging.
It is clear that the authors feel strongly about “the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and against Asian neighbors” and visibly are disappointed with President Xi Jinping’s governance of the Chinese state, as opposed to Deng Xiaoping’s “praised” era.
What is also significant about this report is that it outlines a general disappointment with China’s inability to throw off the shackles of the CPC, even to the detriment of its own people.
“… The Chinese leadership has refused to engage with international bodies and agreements in ways that would limit or constrain the sovereignty of the Chinese state.… Its subsequent actions have confirmed the growing suspicion that China may be more a threat than a partner, both geopolitically and ideologically.
“These factors, along with the rising feeling of frustration and disappointment with the failure of things to work out as expected where the development of Chinese governance is concerned, are now leading to a serious reassessment.”
Disappointment comes when flicking through the next pages of the document, as the reader cannot spot any serious (or credible, for that matter) attempt to engage in an objective discourse about China, its motives, and the motives of its Western counterparts, but a lot of the usual accusations typical of the Trump administration and the British political and media class, always eager to mimic Washington’s pronouncements.
From questioning Beijing’s behavior toward Muslim Uighurs to trying to discredit the Belt and Road Initiative, these IEA intellectuals visibly engage in a defense of universal human rights so typical of the high priests of neoliberalism, whose ideological godfathers intentionally “tied it fundamentally to the free market, and turned it into a weapon to be used against anti-colonial projects all over the world,” as we can read in Jessica Whyte’s book The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism.
In fact, what we can see is that the authors are operating with outdated colonial lenses, using language typical of the former imperial power engaged in Opium Wars in the Middle Kingdom and theft and debauchery in Hong Kong.
This approach is especially obvious when the authors try to promote the 19th-century concept of “people’s diplomacy,” which puts strong emphasis “on personal contacts and the exchange of ideas,” but this “exchange” (as understood by the authors) has a very strange meaning.
“In the context of an ideological contest between political systems as well as governments, the idea is that these exchanges will work to spread ideas, to strengthen and encourage dissidents and opposition in the authoritarian state, and to support the cause of personal liberty and those upholding it,” is the paper’s explanation of the real purpose of this approach.
The authors make a clear distinction “between other people as a whole and the rulers (in this case the Chinese Communist Party and its supporters),” in effect unfolding the real purpose of actions of which the end game is to bring about regime change in China.
As if that weren’t enough, Davis and Kamall draw an outrageous parallel between the proposed actions and the American abolitionist movement during the slavery era, trying to justify their hostile thinking vis-à-vis the Chinese state and its subjects.
“This was the policy used by abolitionists in the antebellum American republic. In that case northern abolitionists worked with southern sympathizers to support runaway slaves (through the institution of the famous ‘underground railroad’) and to spread literature attacking the ‘peculiar institution’ among both slaves and the white population.”
Although the authors try to disassociate themselves from the Cold War rhetoric, we witness intellectual inconsistency when they mention “anti-communist thinkers such as David Marsland and Roger Scruton” (who smuggled books and gave lectures behind the Iron Curtain), as well as the Cold War “efforts to support dissidents such as Vaclav Havel or Andrei Sakharov” as examples worth emulating this time.
To summarize, unfortunately the promising paper published by the IEA fails to serve the purpose of solving the Chinese puzzle. On the contrary, it repeats an awful lot of British neo-imperial clichés about non-Western people by offering the “White savior complex” as the antidote to the problems of the modern world.
Instead of “moralizing against China,” as Professor Kerry Brown of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London advises in his recent article, in my opinion, British policymakers and academics would be in a much better position if they would learn talk less and listen more.
By gaining the ability to understand the meaning of Isaiah Berlin’s concept of “negative liberty,” the moralizers perhaps will also gain the ability to understand why so many Chinese people are still rooting for the Communist Party (even after being exposed to Western ideas) and ultimately refrain from treating the world’s second-largest economy like a failed state in the Middle East, which (in their view) has to be corrected by any means necessary.