World

Why China is laughing

M Ramesh Chennai | Updated on April 23, 2020 Published on April 23, 2020

File Photo of US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping.   -  Reuters

Regardless of whether or not the Covid-19 virus leaked out of a Chinese lab, nobody disputes that the pandemic had its origins in China and could have been checked if only the Chinese authorities had acted in time. As this article is being written, the pandemic has affected 2.6 million people, of whom 184,200 have been dispatched to Heaven.

So, one would expect China to be contrite, accept responsibility and talk of suggestions to make up for the pandemic. On the contrary, the country is nonchalant, aggressive and in a hit-back mode. This is clear from a perusal of articles and blogposts written by Chinese academics, journalists and Chinese-American experts — people whom China uses for its public relations. There is a big army of them engaged in this activity.

The language and tone — which is often pontificating — may differ, but the central message is the same: ‘we are a powerful country, don’t mess with us’.

Take, for example, what Prof Zhang Jun, Dean, School of Economics, Fudan University, writes in an article titled ‘Covid-19 will not reduce global reliance on China’. “I believe that the Covid-19 pandemic will strengthen this dependence (emphasis added) not least because China is months ahead of most countries (at least) in getting a handle on the virus and reopening its economy.”

Prof Zhang argues that China has moved up the value ladder. The Yangtze River Delta and Guangdong province — regions that used to produce garments and shoes and assemble electronics — have become hubs for high-tech innovation, he notes in the article published in chinausfocus.com. He says that unlike in 2008 China has not even bothered to provide stimulus to its economy — the existing infrastructure plans, such as of ultra-high-voltage power grids, intercity high-speed railways and 5G networks, will carry it through the crisis. With a fiscal deficit of less than 3 per cent of GDP, China can certainly afford such measures, Zhang says. Furthermore, with China’s recent progress in artificial intelligence, internet of things, and big data, “not even a Sino-US decoupling will stop technological exchanges between China and the rest of the world.”

Zhu Feng, Director, Institute of International Studies, Nanjing University, practically laughs at the notion of de-coupling of US and Chinese economies. He writes wondering if such a decoupling is in US’ interests. If that happens, “more than 350,000 Chinese students will be withdrawn from the US, more than six million Chinese tourists annually won’t visit and the massive US investments in China will suffer.”

Far from expressing contrition for the pandemic, some Chinese intellectuals argue that this is an opportunity for China. In an article titled ‘Is this China’s Global Leadership Moment?’, Keyu Jin, Professor at London School of Economics, recalls how China capitalised on the ‘Eurozone debt crisis’ (that began in 2009, when several Eurozone countries couldn’t repay their sovereign debt or bail out over-indebted banks, and had to be bailed out.)

“China strengthened its ties with Europe by purchasing Greek, Portuguese and Spanish bonds. It also boosted imports from Europe and increased investments there,” Keyu says, adding that this time around too “China can be an anchor for global demand and a source of critical supplies, because Chinese businesses are now springing back to life.”

“The IMF lacks resources to be a major lender or liquidity provider, while the world’s leading central banks offer swap facilities mostly to one another,” she writes, adding in a condescending tone, that “China should provide financial assistance to developing countries which are left in the lurch during global economic downturns.” In the past, it was the People’s Bank of China that “provided rescue packages” to countries like Portugal, Argentina and Egypt during their crises. The tone and tenor of the article suggests the author wants to convey an impression of China’s large-heartedness; there is no mention of how China benefited by buying the bonds.

Business advisor George Koo, a Chinese-American who serves on the boards of many American companies is full of advice for Joe Biden, the Democratic party’s presumptive candidate for US Presidency, should do. “Biden’s job” Koo pontificates in an article in Asia Times, “is to take a bold stand and explain to voters that working with China would boost the global economy, including the US.”

One also sees a tendency to “hit back” at countries criticising China by resorting to open what-aboutery. Dr Christina Lin, who describes herself as a California-based academic and consultant specialising in China-Middle East relations, in her blog post titled ‘Safety lapse in US germ labs a biosecurity risk’, documents “systematic safety failures and repeated non-compliance to safety procedures” in US bio labs.

US on the defensive

Oddly enough, the US, which is the most affected by Covid-19 with nearly a million affected cases and 48,000 deaths, is on the defensive and conciliatory.

Of course, many US political leaders have called for punishing China. A notable action is the Tom Crenshaw Bill, introduced by Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Dan Crenshaw, which seeks to allow Americans to sue China in federal court to recover damages for death, injury, and economic harm caused by the Covid-19 virus. Representative Jim Banks wants the US President to force China to relieve a great deal of American debt. China holds $1.1 trillion in US treasury bonds. Brigadier General (Retd) Robert Spalding, a Mandarin speaking China expert, is another strident critic of China; he says “the biggest existential threat to the US is not Al Qaeda, not ISIS, not Putin, but China.”

However, that such harsh criticism of China is more out of nervousness than the exercise of power becomes evident when they are looked in the light of insights thrown out by the American intelligentsia, which reflects a clear recognition that the US cannot do much against China.

Participating in a panel discussion organised by the Council on Foreign Relations, Brad Setser, American economist and former staff economist at the United States Department of the Treasury, hopes that “China recognises what right now is a clear commercial opportunity, which is that its capacity to supply personal protective equipment to meet global needs is enormous.”

While American politicians talk of decoupling, Sester notes that “the world desperately needs China to be outward-looking and outward-producing in the near term.”

Sester observes that China is a lot less dependent on exports today than ever before, a point that several Chinese writers frequently mention.

Former American diplomat Robert Blackwill, (who, incidentally, has been US Ambassador in India), wants the US to avoid a permanent confrontation with China, “which would be bad for the US, bad for China and bad for the world.”

Blackwill wants the US to work towards “strengthening our alliances” against China — an admission that the US cannot take on China on its own. He wants the US to “energise our diplomacy with Russia”, because Russia and China are “becoming more strategically entwined, including on the military side.”

Elilzabeth C Economy (yes, that is her full name) Director for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, goes a step further and calls for the US to join the Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank, a Chinese initiative, “as a symbolically important gesture”. Calling upon the US government to mobilise other multilateral institutions to provide large-scale financing, she says, “hopefully, the Chinese would fully support that.” That is hardly a tone of talking from a position of strength.

Despite all the negative PR, China is sitting pretty and knows it — which explains its recent extra aggression in the South China Sea. China is having the last laugh and seems to be enjoying it.

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Published on April 23, 2020
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