Given China’s seemingly quick recovery from Covid-19 and given how the developed West has been shown up in its response to the pandemic, the possibility of a China-led post-Covid world order is not quite idle chatter. Nevertheless, such talk both exaggerates the weaknesses of the West and overstates China’s capabilities.
The world order might require changing but such change is not about to happen soon for political and economic reasons.
One, Western democracies retain strong institutions, no matter the mavericks (Boris Johnson in the UK) or sheer incompetents (Donald Trump in the US) who might take centre-stage occasionally and for brief durations. This is exemplified by the separation of powers in Western political systems as well as the willingness and ability of individuals within the executive branches to stand up and speak truth to power.
If the Trump administration is a chaotic operation, one could argue that it is not only about poorly qualified appointees to key positions but because the qualified ones and the average civil servant are unwilling to toe the line without rationale or to contravene either the law or basic decency. There are for sure good men and women in China who look out for the general public and who answer to a higher calling than just loyalty to an individual or a political party, but they are not actually encouraged in a system where the so-called meritocracy of its leadership is merely cover for the most transactional and personalized model of politics there is.
Two, peoples and governments – even authoritarian ones – around the world, understand the distinction between perception and reality, if not immediately, then eventually. The perception that the West is in a mess in the wake of COVID-19 is the result, in fact, of the greater transparency and demand for accountability in its societies while that of China’s comparative efficiency is the result of the opacity of its structures and its willingness to adopt measures that give the short shrift to civil rights.
If the current situation in the West looks bad, then it is what it is without any gloss applied. This is patently not the case in China – from the number of actual deaths to the nature of measures used to flatten the curve, there is very little that the Communist Party of China (CPC) has willingly revealed to the world.
Three, while China’s propaganda machinery encourages talk of its impending and inevitable replacement of the US at the top of the global heap, its own actions prove it less than capable of filling the role.
Consider, for instance, China’s efforts in the wake of the pandemic to try and take advantage of other countries requiring medical equipment. Not only has it tried to portray itself as a global do-gooder, it has regularly highlighted the gratitude countries receiving its aid have apparently expressed to China. But it is also patently not the case that all of this has been aid – most countries have had to pay for their supplies from China. What is more, Chinese companies have not only exported defective testing kits, but engaged in price gouging and diverting promised supplies when a better offer came along.
Four, there has been for some time growing pushback against China’s claims and actions which is only likely to accelerate following COVID-19.
For example, in October 2019, the city of Prague decided to cancel its sister-city arrangement with Beijing over over a clause on the one-China policy and switched to Taipei in Taiwan. In April, Sweden shut the last of its Confucius Institutes after, earlier in February, ending all partnerships with Chinese cities and regions. This followed the Chinese arrest of a Swedish citizen for publishing material critical of CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping and the Chinese embassy’s attempts to mute subsequent criticism in Sweden. Even in Africa, where China has expended considerable diplomatic effort over the years and where countries have generally been willing to see it as a viable alternative to dependence on the West, there has been occasion to criticise the Chinese. African diplomats and governments have pushed back strongly against the racial targeting of their citizens in Guangzhou over irrational fears that they were potential carriers of the virus despite having undertaken the same precautions as the Chinese.
Meanwhile, questions have persisted about the reliability of China’s figures for those affected and dead from the virus. China finally had to revise upwards the number of deaths in Wuhan by over 1,200.
Five, there are hopes that China will somehow help spur global economic growth but these might be misplaced given its own economic problems of long-standing such as local government debt and of centre-local coordination. Following COVID-19, there are also millions of struggling small businesses and households as well as high rates of unemployment. This will affect the Chinese government’s efforts to boost household consumption as a contributor to GDP growth even as it remains heavily dependent on manufacturing exports, which in turn will also require economies elsewhere to recover from the pandemic. And if China cannot lead on the global economic front, then this also reduces significantly its sheen as a potential replacement for the US.
Finally, China’s more or less open declarations in recent years that it wanted to achieve self-sufficiency and leadership in hi-tech industries has only had the effect of alerting those countries that are leaders in these domains to Chinese competition and mercantilism. As a result, reports of China trying to take advantage of the economic difficulties in other countries during the pandemic to buy assets on the cheap has led to swift reactions. Australia, Germany, and India among others have moved to tighten their FDI regulations while Japan is subsidizing its manufacturing companies to diversify away from China. These actions add momentum to the American trade war against China and to efforts by important global economies to decouple from China.
Putting all of this together would suggest the world will retain its present balance of power despite the pandemic and changes, if any, might actually be weighted against China than for it. Despite its tall talk of several years, China is neither prepared for the responsibilities of a global leader and nor is it going to be given a free hand to carry out its will whether by big countries or small.
A version of this article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Why a post-COVID-19 global order led by China is only a distant threat’, Moneycontrol, 9 May 2020.