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COVID-19 and Our Coming Clash with China

The geopolitical context of the fights about China and the coronavirus.
March 25, 2020
COVID-19 and Our Coming Clash with China
(THOMAS PETER/AFP via Getty Images

It’s sometimes hard to disentangle them, but there are several different debates about China and the coronavirus knotted together. Some of these debates are very important; others much less so:

(1) Look for the “Made In China” label. First, and most prominently, there’s the debate about whether it is appropriate—historically, politically, prudentially—to refer to the cause of the pandemic as the “Chinese coronavirus” or the “Wuhan flu” or other similar names. Does the name matter all that much? The people most exercised about this question are those who want to score political points, or who enjoy slipping into their accustomed culture-war roles of (on one side) political-correctness scolds and (on the other side) politically incorrect goads. Sadly, what happens on Twitter doesn’t stay on Twitter, because the president and his state media allies have used the debate for deflection.

As a historical matter, it is true that our forebears did assign a national-origin label to the 1918-19 pandemic—it’s still sometimes referred to as the Spanish flu even though there is reason to believe it originated in Kansas—and there are many other diseases that have been given names based on geography. But as a prudential matter, what value is there in labeling the current pandemic as Chinese? President Trump’s talk-radio and MAGA world supporters seem to think that reminding the American people of the threat that China poses to the United States is worthwhile. And indeed, it might be useful to the president as a matter of domestic politics. But as my friend Mike Mazza has pointed out, this is precisely what the Chinese government wants. This nomenclature blame-game will help the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) position itself as the defender of the Chinese diaspora, especially if the press continues to report on East Asian Americans’ anecdotal accounts of being stigmatized.

(2) Bats for brunch. For all the talk about bats, pangolins, and China’s wildlife markets, we do not yet know for certain how SARS-CoV-2 made the jump from animals into humans. If Chinese eating practices and sanitary conditions do indeed increase the risk of zoonotic diseases that could turn into global pandemics, then they should certainly be reformed. But that’s a debate to be had after the worst of this pandemic has passed, and after researchers have learned more about the coronavirus and its origins. (It is worth noting that Western dietary habits are also sometimes blamed for endangering the world—in particular, beef production, which climate-change researchers associate with greenhouse gas production and, in some countries, deforestation.)

(3) The weapon theory. Did China create the coronavirus in a lab and release it on purpose or by accident? If you’ll permit me to use a technical term, this notion is what we in the political science community call “hot garbage.” (The same goes for the even more bizarre theory some Chinese propagandists were circulating that the coronavirus originated as an American weapon.)

(4) Clear as mud. Should we blame the Chinese government for its lack of transparency? Yes. We have little reason to trust China’s statistical reporting after the Chinese government’s early deliberate suppression of the reports of the outbreak. The physicians who initially reported the outbreak reportedly received a gag-order and were instructed to destroy the samples. Even when officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited China in early January, they were not shown the full picture. Given the Chinese regime’s dishonesty, can we believe them when they report that they have flattened the curve? And the recent moves Beijing has taken to silence critics by disappearing them, and now to kick American reporters out of the country, only make things worse.

(5) Was China competent in its handling of the outbreak? Forget what President Trump has said—as Jim Swift has documented here on The Bulwark, Trump spent several weeks praising China and its president Xi Jinping for how their handling of the crisis before he pivoted to talking about a “China virus.” Surely many Chinese doctors worked extraordinarily hard and made tremendous sacrifices to save lives. But we will likely never have enough information to judge fully how well China handled the outbreak. Had China acted three weeks earlier, according to at least one analysis, the number of COVID-19 infections would have been reduced by 95 percent. Even one week earlier action would have reduced the number of the cases by 66 percent. Chinese authoritarianism may have made it easier for the regime to enforce quarantine measures in Wuhan, but the regime’s lack of transparency and trustworthiness likely slowed its response time and contributed to the rapid global spread of the disease.

Let’s take a step back. How does the coronavirus crisis fit into the broader geopolitical struggle between the United States and China?

After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, China began slowly to adopt a series of economic reforms—creating a “socialist market economy”—that led some observers to hope that political liberalization might someday follow, in the belief that competitive markets and liberal democracy have a kind of natural affinity. Major liberalizing reforms never came. Still, even as late as 2010, some analysts believed the United States and China could join together in a grand alliance for world stability.

But Xi Jinping, China’s president—although dictator would now be a more apt term—sees his country’s relationship with the United States as fundamentally one of conflict: economic, political, and perhaps military.

Between 2000 and 2018, China’s share of global trade rose from 1.2 percent to 34 percent. During the same period of time, China’s share of U.S. imports rose from 8.2 percent to 22 percent, and its share of U.S. exports rose from 2.1 percent to 7.2 percent. Virtually every other country in the world has experienced similar increases in the Chinese share of their economies. Initially, these increases looked good because they resulted in reduced global prices for goods and they lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty.

American businesses love China. Many of them produce goods or at least parts there and import them to the United States or sell them directly to the rest of the world. And many American businesses, from such industries as agriculture and entertainment, export U.S.-produced goods to China.

There is, however, a price to pay for that: It makes America craven about criticizing China. Recall how, less than six months ago, the NBA rushed to apologize for offending the Chinese Communist Party after the manager of the Houston Rockets spoke in support of the Hong Kong protests. Think about it this way: All these American businesses heavily invested in China are helping to finance the regime’s oppression of the Chinese people and the concentration camps Xi has created for perhaps a million ethnic Uighurs. The global economy has financed the CCP’s hold on power for decades. Indeed, the United States helped to facilitate China’s membership in the World Trade Organization in hopes of more responsible domestic and international behavior by China. It never came.

The COVID-19 outbreak has opened the world’s eyes to some of the problems of the authoritarian Chinese regime. But China has a large share of just about every country’s economy and trade and controls a large portion of the global supply chain. In the midst of this public health crisis, China controls one-fifth of U.S. medical imports and four-fifths of antibiotics imports. There is a reason that China is sending aid everywhere that there is an outbreak: They fear the backlash.

They should.

China poses a threat to the world. This outbreak is just one dimension of that threat, and it is not the greatest one. The greatest threat is China’s ascension to global hegemony and ruling the world the way they rule China. This pandemic is just a preview of what that world might look like.

Once this episode is past us, American policymakers need to have a serious discussion with the U.S. private sector about the threat that the CCP by nature poses to the entire world through corruption, incompetence, and malice, a threat we are getting a small dose of. American consumers, as well as foreign consumers, should also ask themselves if cheaper goods are worth the horror we are going through, or even something far worse.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.