|dr Tomasz Okraska|
If we reject the unlikely theories, we should search for the source of the current pandemic in Wuhan. But also, in a way, in the Chinese sociopolitical system. Many observers have noted that the specific nature of this system was the reason why certain actions which could have limited COVID-19 effects for China and rest of the world were not taken at the right moment. Here we can refer to the story of Li Wenliang, the doctor who warned against the epidemic, for which he was arrested by the police and died soon afterwards, or to other examples of the incompetence of local Chinese quthorities, as well as to withholding information by the central government. At the initial stage of COVID-19 development, some claimed that it could threaten the position of the Communist Party of China, especially that in February 2020 over 800 million of critical comments appeared online, frequently raising the problem of freedom of speech. On the other hand, Beijing is trying to turn the crisis into political gain by means of skillful propaganda, which is perfectly understandable. It was addressed, in the first place, to Chinese citizens, to reassure them that they live in the best possible world. Apart from blaming the American army or Italians for the epidemic, it was also indicated, more and more boldly with the progress in combatting the virus, that it was the Chinese system that achieved such success, and in particular the centralisation of the state and governmental control of the citizens, which are the core of this system, specifically under the rule of Xi Jinping.
Apart from stabilising the social relations in their own country, the Chinese government also took action abroad, especially by providing the supplies of protective equipment to other countries. Although a majority of supplies were commercial in nature, some of them were also provided free-of-charge, e.g. through the Red Cross. Despite the problems with the quality of Chinese equipment, these campaigns allowed to promote the People’s Republic of China as a responsible global power, which conducts the ‘diplomacy of generosity’, thus reducing the Chinese sins from the first pandemic weeks. Such propaganda is also directed towards Chinese citizens, building the nationalist feelings and pride of being the global leader, which enables the authorities to distract attention from the internal problems. Requests for help are currently addressed to Beijing from nearly all parts of the world. They have received words of gratitude (characteristically, many European countries are more willing to emphasize Chinese aid rather than EU aid), but more importantly, the Chinese are hoping for the future benefits, mainly economic, for example allowing their companies to build 5G network.
Therefore, we are currently facing a real paradox. On the one hand, the effects of the pandemic are seen in the context of the global shift of power, and especially the exacerbating American-Chinese competition. It has been pointed out that the manner of handling the current crisis, rather than any war, may tip the balance in the favour of China – however, we can only guess whether it is actually going to happen. On the other hand, the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of the Chinese model, which for years has been presented as a more efficient alternative to the Western liberal democracy. The questions concerning its real effectiveness, as well as the possibility to recreate it in a different place than China, had already been asked before COVID-19. It is not without a reason that the tragic effects of the Great Leap Forward campaign, initiated six decades ago by Mao Zedong, are recalled these days (it is worth reading the great book on the subject by Frank Dikötter). The most important causes of the Great Chinese Famine back then included concealing information, falsifying statistics, too far-reaching centralisation and ignoring reports on the disastrous development of events. Today’s China is obviously in many aspects a completely different country than in the times of Mao Zedong, and incredible progress has taken place during the last several decades. However, the political system has changed the least – in this case, to quote the classic, we can say that ‘everything must change for everything to remain the same’. And it is the defects inherent in the system that have weakened the ability of Chinese society to respond to crises properly. Ironically, though, the specific nature of the Chinese model, which is intrinsically related to the suppression of citizens, could essentially improve the later response to COVID-19 spread.
It is worth emphasizing again, however, that the propaganda action taken by the Chinese authorities is entirely understandable from their point of view, and it can be assumed that many other global governments would behave similarly in a comparable situation. Currently, it would also be crazy not to accept help from Beijing (whether against payment or free-of-charge), if it is possible. We should also remember, though, that there is no altruism in politics, but only pursuit of national (or party) interest. And repeat after Virgil: timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.