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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 08-02-2020 12:43

China at war with the coronavirus

If winning prestige in other quarters was what the people in Peking were after, they are likely to remain disappointed.

Like all dictatorships, China’s nominally Communist one cares greatly about the image it projects. It wants to be admired for its efficiency, for its ability to confront big problems head-on without wasting valuable time on the political horse-trading, bickering and kowtowing to the media that allegedly prevent democracies from acting as decisively as circumstances demand. No doubt this is why its public relations department made so much of the building of a brand-new thousand-bed hospital in just 10 days, an achievement which, the regime’s propagandists insinuated, would be beyond the reach of any government in North America or Europe.

The hospital was needed because of the surfacing in Wuhan a month or so ago of a previously unknown coronavirus. Since then the tiny organism has spread to most parts of the planet but does not seem to pose much of a threat to mankind. With a fatality rate of about two percent – experts say it may in fact be far lower because many infected people think they have nothing worse than a common cold – it looks distinctly less deadly than some of its close relatives, let alone such a spine-chilling virus as the one which causes Ebola.

Why, then, did the arrival on the scene of a new coronavirus dominate headlines worldwide until getting pushed aside by more interesting matters, among them the latest episodes of the ongoing battle between Donald Trump and Democrats who are determined to bring him down by any means available? Because the Chinese government decided that stopping the coronavirus in its tracks was a top priority and to hell with just about everything else.

In a belated effort to contain it, the Chinese authorities quarantined first Wuhan, a city with almost the population of Greater Buenos Aires, and then did the same to others until at least sixty million people found themselves forced to stay wherever they happened to be. All this was most impressive, but it did not stop the virus from finding its way to other countries where, specialists suggest, it will probably end up as yet another unpleasant seasonal pathogen like influenza which, if left untreated, could cause pneumonia, but should not be regarded as particularly dangerous.

As well as wanting to be seen to show a proper concern for public health, the Chinese authorities evidently thought they would be applauded by all other governments for their willingness to take really drastic steps to protect the rest of the world from a virus whose previous habitat had been another species (some say snakes or bats) dwelling in central China, but had made the crossing to humans thanks, it is surmised, to the carelessness of people working in a Wuhan food market.

In other words, they assumed that by making full use of their dictatorial powers in an effort to contain the bug, they could turn an event likely to have a negative impact – eating snakes is, well, weird - into an opportunity to win international kudos. According to the British media, Chinese officials were feeling sore because Prime Minister Boris Johnson had yet to send them a personal message of support. By now he will have obliged them. In any case, unlike Boris, the people heading the World Health Organisation were quick to praise the Chinese for “setting a new standard for outbreak response”.

If winning prestige in other quarters was what the people in Peking were after, they are likely to remain disappointed. Elsewhere, it was immediately appreciated that only in a ruthless dictatorship could a government get away with putting huge cities on lockdown and keeping millions of citizens prisoners in their homes for the duration without facing harsh criticism from those who would prefer a less draconian, and in their view more realistic, policy. Sceptics could also point out that by the time the government started to act it was already far too late for it to contain geographically a virus which had begun to make its way to dozens of other countries.

What is more, if fighting the coronavirus entails the quarantining of large chunks of their country, by the same logic the rest of the world would be well advised to quarantine China. On a psychological level, something like this is already happening. Residents of Wuhan and neighbouring cities who travelled before the outbreak became known complain they are being shunned by their compatriots who fear they could be carrying the coronavirus, while further afield, Chinese who have never been anywhere near Wuhan or even the People’s Republic itself say they are getting discriminated against in airports and hotels, which is clearly ridiculous but, given the way these things work, was only to be expected.

So instead of earning itself the respect it evidently craves, the regime’s no-holds-barred approach is encouraging the anti-Chinese sentiments which lurk just below the surface in many parts of the world. Not surprisingly, the apparently unstoppable rise towards superpower status of a country with a huge, gifted and notoriously hard-working population is causing unease in a great many places.

In the US, Trump’s willingness to take on China is one of the few things which enjoy bipartisan support. In Europe, politicians and others are attracted by the commercial possibilities opened up by China’s long-awaited resurgence but are also aware that their role in the emerging world order could be a very humble one. And in the underdeveloped countries of Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, there are fears that what the Chinese have in mind is a version of neo-colonialism which would be even more demeaning for them than the North American or European variety.

It is for this reason that the Chinese “outbreak response” to the coronavirus epidemic is being greeted with as much alarm as admiration. After all, if they are willing to quarantine the equivalent of the entire population of Argentina plus Uruguay and Paraguay in an attempt to contain a virus which seems to be less dangerous than many we are accustomed to living with and which, in any case, has already escaped their clutches, what would they not be prepared to do if confronted by a far greater challenge?

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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