When some of the consequences of the 2008 Financial Crisis were barely being experienced, a new earthquake comes along that threatens to break – even more- the world political and economic stability and definitively modify the multilateralism hitherto prevailing.
A New Hegemon
For at least 3 decades, China’s exponential growth, with an average of 10% per year, has allowed it to regain its leading role on the international stage to the point of indisputably competing with the United States for the role of the dominant global superpower. A relationship that with many frictions had advanced since 2008, passing through 2014, the year in which for the first time the Chinese economy exceeded the size of the US in terms of GDP, until reaching what had been its highest point until now with the beginning of the Commercial War between the two countries, which with certain nuances and de-escalation continues its course since 2018.
2020 will undoubtedly be a new stage of the conflict and it seems that we are witnessing in real-time the shift in hegemony by the Asian giant and although obviously it is still early and to an extent even daring to predict definitive results, the management of the current world crisis caused by the Covid-19 gives clear clues about the capacity of both countries to provide practical answers, both internally and externally, to the so-called “problems without a passport” as the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, coined.
From being the country where the virus originated, with a population of more than 1.3 billion people, China officially reports less than 90,000 total cases, less than 5,000 deaths and just 600 active cases, previously blocked and quarantined cities already open, including Wuhan and a productive apparatus gradually reactivating although also severely hit by the contraction in global demand, in any case China seems to have controlled the problem and is now offering itself to the rest of the world as a collaborator to solve the crisis.
On the other hand, both the United States with 330 million people quickly became, the epicenter of the pandemic with more than one million of total cases, of which nearly 900,000 are still active and with 60,000 deaths. The crisis exposed not only the terrible deficiencies of the American health network, but also the precariousness of its labor market, since in a matter of just 6 weeks at least 30 million people have registered for unemployment, due to the ineffectiveness of a political system that seems to not overcome partisan differences to confront the crisis, with a clear disdain and disregard for science and facts, even coming from the White House
The Communicational Struggle
Although the political battle depends to a great extent on the public health and management response to the spread of the virus, it now falls more than anything else on the control over the narrative.
China is making clear efforts to show itself strong, and in control of the situation. President Xi Jinping himself visited Wuhan on March 10 as a sign that stringent social isolation measures would have yielded positive results and ushered in the new stage of the crisis. Since then, China has promoted what from western media outlets was called the “mask diplomacy” more actively, which is nothing more than collaboration programs and donations of medical equipment and human resources, especially in Europe and Latin America.
There are two important concerns for Beijing. First is China’s position in trade value and supply chains and the second is the perception that the rest of the world has on China.
The abrupt decrease in the purchase of commodities and manufacturing production that took place in China during the first quarter of 2020 and the fall and destabilization that global markets continue to suffer as a consequence of this, has demonstrated conclusively the extremely high economic relevance, China’s position as ‘ World Factory’ and one could even say the Chinese-dependence of international trade. This, coupled with the lack of confidence generated by the Chinese state apparatus could force investors to think twice and large companies that have shifted in recent decades partially or completely its production to Asian territory to relocate in the west. The United States is going to reinforce this argument, which is also already part of the American political routine, promoted by President Trump and even by the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party in that country. It is part of the American political agenda and now more than ever it will be mainly because they will need jobs.
On the other hand, having already controlled the health crisis, China, as already mentioned, has proposed to improve its image before the international community, offering medical supplies, personal protective equipment, health workers, advice, training and even financing to countries where the pandemic is still going through.
China is gaining ground and strengthening its international relations in the field of cooperation at a time when America is completely absent and internally weakened and its traditional allies and areas of influence are too. This is where the immense and powerful Western cultural and communicational apparatus combined with the State comes into action and begins to pose in the narrative that implants in public opinion notions that range from the credible to the obvious propaganda, such as the possibility that China has been dishonest in terms of quantifying Covid-19 positive cases, including delays in letting the world know about the risks of the disease, pressure, and complicity with the World Health Organization to hide information about the crisis or to handle it at the convenience of the Asian country, even the widely denied and conspiracy theories that the virus has been developed in a laboratory and intentionally spread with the permission of the Chinese government, the latter has been expressed even by people with a certain level of credibility in the medical and epidemiological field but without any supporting evidence other than merely anecdotic.
The truth is that some of those arguments are possibly verifiable. China indeed seems to have tried to censor the first reports of the new Coronavirus, being the more publicly notorious case of Li Wenliang. And international pressure paid off when in midst April came to the correction and updating by China of its numbers of infections and deaths.
The Chinese Communist Party knows perfectly well that the path to global hegemony is definitely going through a cultural battle, and public opinion is a big part of it, so the aid packages and collaborative efforts it has embarked on are just beginning and will be a constant strategic positioning for the current and for future crises.
Is it possible to dismantle this level of social control?
The pandemic will leave profound consequences on the international scene and the internal structures of the States will surely be subject to change and attacks.
The Chinese government’s control over its population is almost absolute and the destabilization that it could suffer will not be a direct consequence of political demands from its citizens, but of the economic damage that the pandemic produces, which is yet obviously to be seen.
Western democracies, for their part, have been in crisis since long before the appearance of the coronavirus.
The escalation of quasi-police control and surveillance Western states are implemented during the crisis, which, although for the moment seem necessary and is viewed with a high level of approval by the population, to sustain it once the pandemic is overcome could cause the erosion of liberties system, which has been long under attack. The question that may be asked, is it possible to dismantle this level of social control? In case of refusal or reluctance of the authorities to decrease it would trigger without doubt uprisings, changes of government, or a state of constant social conflict, without even mentioning the economic imbalance.
The political challenge of our democracies, then, if it intends to preserve its traditional model, and in this case of its most emblematic actors, the US and Europe, will be to make a coherent transition towards a new State that is more capable than it is now clearly not to face global challenges such as this without breaking apart from its basic principles.
Meanwhile, China will continue to take space.