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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 29-05-2021 11:22

An extremely sensitive superpower

Should the government of a debt-ridden country such as Argentina come up with a statement that raised its hackles, China would have no qualms about doing whatever it would take to make it change its mind.

By now, businessmen, filmmakers, actors, pop singers, top athletes and, of course, politicians in a rapidly growing number of countries are fully aware that they would be well-advised to toe the line set by the Chinese Communist Party. Should they fail to do so, they would be liable to find themselves banned from a highly lucrative market, which would be terrible for them. This is why some people who make the mistake of standing up for the people of Hong Kong, expressing sympathy for the Uyghur Muslims or describing Taiwan as “a country” (as, to his belated chagrin, a professional wrestler turned Hollywood personality recently did), feel obliged to apologise wholeheartedly, saying how much they love China and how deeply sorry they are to have said something that might offend her.

In their own countries, such individuals, and there are many of them, may be more than happy to berate the local government and most of their compatriots for their “systemic racism,” “white privilege,” sexism, evident indifference to the horrors perpetrated by their imperialistic predecessors and a great deal else, but when it comes to China they see nothing wrong at all. Though some secretly yearn for an authoritarian government able to get things done, few are communists. What impresses them most is money.

The Chinese dictatorship has plenty of it and is more than willing either to use it or withhold it in order to put pressure on anyone who thinks it should be judged by standards which are considered appropriate for Western governments. Nobody in the United Kingdom would raise an eyebrow if you called Scotland or Wales “a country,” but as far as the people ruling China are concerned, putting Taiwan in such company is a symptom of “split-ism” which in their view is an unforgivable sin. Should the government of a debt-ridden country such as Argentina come up with a statement that raised their hackles, they would have no qualms about doing whatever it would take to make it change its mind.

China is no place for “whistleblowers,” men and women who risk their careers and sometimes their lives by revealing inconvenient facts their bosses desperately want to keep secret. As many films remind us, in the United States and Europe they can become folk heroes, but in China the all-powerful ruling elite sees them as traitors who should be done away with as quickly as possible. This is one reason, perhaps the main one, why the investigation into the origins of the pandemic which is causing such suffering throughout the world is proving so difficult. 

For almost a year and a half, all efforts to find out just how the coronavirus escaped from its previous home in the animal kingdom and set off on the deadly rampage, which has already cost millions of lives and flattened much of the world economy, have been heavily influenced by fears about what determined researchers might find. For public consumption, what up to now has been the dominant theory, that it was helped on its way by the culinary tastes of peasants with a liking for bat soup or pangolin stew was bad enough from the point of view of Xi Jinping and his men, but the rival one, which has been gaining ground of late, that it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which by a remarkable coincidence is near the wet market where the bush-meat ingredients for such dishes were on sale, was even worse.

To widespread surprise, a couple of days ago Joe Biden asked his country’s intelligence agencies to take seriously the possibility that the pandemic had its origins in the Wuhan laboratory which has long been of interest to specialists in biological warfare. It is safe to assume that his aides think there is at least a 50-50 chance that it did. Until very recently, Biden, his supporters and most respectable media outlets have been prone to dismiss this alarming hypothesis because Donald Trump had seized on it, thereby proving it was yet another bit of “fake news” that no decent person would dream of taking seriously, but it would seem they have come to the conclusion that it could be based on rather more than what they see as the former president’s ridiculous fantasies. Not surprisingly, the Chinese regime, which does not take kindly to criticism, has responded with indignation to Biden’s initiative.

Up to now, in geopolitical terms the great pandemic has been good for the Chinese dictatorship. It has made the country it rules stronger and many of its foes weaker. The current consensus is that, thanks to the harm done by the coronavirus, China’s economy will become bigger (perhaps it already is) than that of the US several years earlier than had previously been expected. China has also managed to increase her international influence by making good use of what is called “vaccine diplomacy,” by pioneering strict lockdowns others quickly imitated and by allegedly reducing the contagion and death rates of the resulting pandemic far better than most other countries.

What is more, a world distracted by the arrival of a most unpleasant disease has proved more willing that might otherwise have been the case to overlook the elimination of democratic rights in Hong Kong, the attempt to transform the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang into dutiful Chinese in “re-education” centres outsiders liken to the Gulag concentration camps of Soviet Russia, and putting much of the population under a high-tech surveillance system far more efficient than the one imagined by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Like many other governments, China does its best to make out that taking it to task for its misdeeds is really an attack on an entire national community, including the many Chinese victims of its remorseless behaviour. To a certain extent, this works. In the United States, the identity-politics obsession with racial stereotypes that is currently in fashion soon led to the notion that even referring to the “Wuhan flu,” let alone the “Chinese flu,” as Trump and his supporters so often did, is racist and should be forbidden.

Chinese communists may be a tough lot, but they know enough about Western countries to understand that playing the victim can bring them many benefits. They can also take it for granted that people who are hostile towards the US will continue to give them the benefit of every conceivable doubt. For the accusations implied by Biden’s recent statement to have any effect, they would have to be backed by some very hard evidence, but if history is any guide, even then plenty of North Americans and other Westerners would prefer to believe in what the sworn enemies of the democratic societies they live and prosper in are saying than in anything provided by the intelligence agencies or by courageous Chinese dissidents.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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