How fast the tables turn. And how quickly they turn against China, where President Xi Jinping’s takeover is won at a cost now too obvious for the economic dynamics. Only a fool would say with conviction that the Chinese economic miracle is over. Stall speed has been called several times before, only to be completely wrong again. But China’s long march to global hegemony is not as inevitable as is often depicted, and Covid may mark the first major wrong turn.
Rewind to the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago, and whatever its role in the origins of Covid-19, China seemed at least to get it right in its ruthlessly executed zero-tolerance approach. The reliability of the data can be disputed, but even though infection and death rates were ten times higher than officially reported, China has so far unquestionably done much better than its Western counterparts. Equally impressive in some ways, the economic impact of the pandemic has also been significantly less severe.
As much of Europe languished in an economically crushing lockdown, images emerged of crowded parties and bars in Wuhan; the epicenter of the pandemic had apparently emerged virtually unscathed and life had returned to normal. China’s propaganda machine was quick to point out the contrast between the clinical effectiveness of its totalitarian repression and the West’s chaotic, confused and careless approach.
You were my teacher, but look at your system now, Wang Qishan, then Chinese vice premier, reportedly told US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson at the height of the financial crisis. We’re not sure we should learn more from you. A once dominant world order, it seemed, had doubled the failures of the financial crisis with incompetent mismanagement of the pandemic.
That was then. Yet, as has happened so often over the past two disconcerting years, the narrative shifts again. Sealing borders and locking down hard may have been the way to go in the early stages of the pandemic.
Today, the fortuitous emergence of highly effective Western vaccines and the much more infectious omicron variant has revealed that containment was yesterday’s cure, the equivalent of medieval bloodshed against the wonders of the modern antibiotics. Only Beijing can’t admit so much, to himself or to the rest of the world. Vaccines were supposed to be another manifestation of Chinese superiority, but it didn’t work out that way. Even before the launch of omicron, it was clear that the two main Chinese vaccines were not as effective as their Western counterparts.
Preliminary research suggests that they are also significantly less effective against omicron, even with a booster. Countries that relied on these vaccines may have to consider more expensive Western alternatives for additional doses, but that will of course not be an option for China. Only President Xi Jinping’s pride would stop him. The result is that as omicron becomes more widespread, China is relying on isolation as the first and only viable line of defense. Efforts to contain and eradicate the disease have been made more urgent by the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, seen by the high command as another opportunity to show Chinese ascendancy.
The more contagious nature of the latest variant further means that economically damaging containment and testing strategies need to be applied more widely. Factories and ports are already closing all over the store, again putting international supply chains at risk. Many Western companies are again reassessing their reliance on Chinese-sourced components and products.
Ultimately, people will make up their minds about how well or badly the UK government has handled the pandemic and vote accordingly. The prevailing opinion is not so good.
But this has never been possible, even remotely, in China. If Xi had disobeyed his own rules by throwing a party in the Forbidden City, you would be very unlikely to hear about it. For the Chinese people, the parties’ handling of the crisis has never been anything but glorious. Even to question the regimes zero-tolerance approach is to risk freedom and livelihoods.
China will no doubt find ways to replicate more effective Western vaccines over time. But the Chinese brand has been hit hard, first by its refusal to cooperate with attempts to establish the origins of the virus, and now in its approach to containment more generally.
This, in turn, serves as a kind of metaphor for a regime that, increasingly intolerant of any challenge to its authority, focuses more on its own grip on power than on the continued economic progress of its people. Xi sees no contradiction. The failure to find a lasting solution to the Covid disruptions strongly suggests otherwise.
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