While China does as it pleases, US wails as it declines - GulfToday

While China does as it pleases, US wails as it declines

Tom Peck


Peck is The Independent's Political Sketch Writer.

Peck is The Independent's Political Sketch Writer.


US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Monday. Reuters

But for two seismic electoral events in the year 2016, the coronavirus crisis might have done more to hasten a reckoning that is as crucial as it is inevitable.

It is quite remarkable that even now, after long weeks of total national transformation and a mushrooming economic disaster, how little of the nation’s intellectual energy is being devoted to the China question.

It has been generally accepted wisdom, for decades, that China will be the superpower of the future, but even at this moment, we are shying away from thinking about what that really means.

One crucial reason is that we are understandably distracted. But for Brexit, it is highly unlikely that the UK would have, at the most crucial hour in generations, the worst government in its modern history. A cabinet of nobodies, chosen for no reason beyond a willingness to sign up to a project of suicidal stupidity, finds itself having to handle a disaster of immense complexity, and finds itself unimaginably, horribly wanting.

At this crucial time, few other countries are as preoccupied with the failure of their leaders, because they have not been so badly failed.

And then there is Donald Trump. It shouldn’t be ignored, or glossed over, that coronavirus is China’s failure. In any year in living memory, but for the past three, there would have been no US president to distract the world’s attention from that fact by, for example, suggesting his people drink bleach.

It is only Trump who could ever have somehow transformed this crisis in the eyes of the world into America’s failure.

How China engages with the rest of the world is the question that defines the decades ahead. We’ve known that for a long time, but we are not managing to live up to the weight of said question.

On Sunday, Australia’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published an article which is based on a leaked joint report from the intelligence services of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It states that China suppressed crucial information about coronavirus, and that whistleblowing doctors were “disappeared”.

The UK government has refused to comment on it, which all but confirms its veracity.

It stops far short of concluding that coronavirus was manmade, and was accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, though it intimates that the US takes a different view on the likelihood of that having happened than the rest of the “Five Eyes” partners, as the security sharing relationship between those countries is called.

Alarmingly, even on this, the “Five Eyes” partnership, cannot speak with one voice.

Trump has made public claims that the coronavirus came from a lab, then when asked for evidence to support his assertion, only says, “I can’t tell you that”.

Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state for defence, made the same assertion, before having to clarify within seconds, that his own intelligence services disagree with him, making clear that, well, he is just saying it for the sake of saying it. That an actual US administration could be so useless was until very recently, inconceivable.

But how we respond to China is knotty. The question as to whether coronavirus came from a lab is unlikely to ever be known, in the sense that it is highly unlikely that it did, but that conclusion will never be universally accepted. That it suppressed information and was wilfully misleading about human-to-human transmission, is almost certainly true. The consequences of that, for human life, are vast, but there is precious little the wider world can do about it.

Gordon Brown has on several occasions in the last few months made the point that the response to coronavirus has to be global, and it is especially miserable that this crisis should have emerged when the global community is more divided than it has been in decades.

But how does it become less divided? Whether a less belligerent United States might have coaxed more international cooperation and more acceptance of culpability from China, is by no means certain.

And whether America can be depended on to preserve the liberal democratic values of its allies and itself is a question that won’t go away, even if the Trump administration turns out to be in its final few months. Demons have been unleashed across America, people have been radicalised, vicious new methods and tactics of mass communication cemented that will wither come November, whatever happens.

Europe has had little choice but to stand back and watch the US-China trade war. Our instincts, for the most part, are to blame Trump, but China’s closer neighbours, like Japan, take a more circumspect view.

Ultimately, China’s future can only be decided by its own people, and that is the most nuanced question of all. They have been growing progressively more affluent, after decades of self-inflicted stagnation, which itself fuelled the terrific US economic boom of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Though coronavirus will be quite the setback, the trajectory is nevertheless upward, and, generally speaking, global history doesn’t show that rising affluence suppresses a desire for political and human rights. The opposite tends to be true.

For a while, after the outbreak in Wuhan, the lazy view to be found doing the rounds over here was that it was easier for China to control the virus because oppressive regimes can lock people down without the kind of concerns that rightly weigh on the minds of democratically elected leaders.

But China’s efforts to shut down coronavirus were in many respects ingenious. For many weeks, a city of 11 million people had all its food delivered via a centrally planned and controlled system. Tens of millions of people still have a mandatory app on their smartphone, declaring their status as green, yellow or red, which details their risk level and the degree to which they are allowed out of their home.

Sounds appalling. It could never happen here, except that similar innovations are expected to be launched in the UK within days or weeks. There’s also the fact that, ultimately, the British people practically had to demand to be locked down.

For now, China does as it pleases, America wails as it declines, and everybody else just watches. No good will come of coronavirus, none at all, but this crisis will still be around for plenty long enough for us to use this moment to think a lot harder about the questions that matter the most in a future that is already here.

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