What to do about China?
“O the striped and vigorous tiger can move with style through the borough of murder.” Thus wrote Auden in 1939. “Secret ruses can hide in open acts. Utmost openness conceals utmost secrecy. Therefore, in order to cross the sea without heaven’s knowledge, one has to move openly over the sea, but act as if one did not intend to cross.” Thus wrote General Tan Daoji in 436, quoted in a Chinese People Liberation Army 1999 document called Unrestricted Warfare. The document was a long essay on the new multi-pronged and unrestricted nature of war in the view of the PLA officers who penned it. What was the export of millions of Covid19 infected Chinese to countries around the globe before President Xi of China imposed a lockdown on Wuhan if not precisely that, a stealth attack that did not seem like an attack, moving across the sea but acting as if one did not, just as the striped and vigorous tiger can move with style through the borough of murder? Plausible denial to go with deliberate intent, aided and abetted by credulous Western populaces and the China lackeys at the WHO. Only Taiwan, barred from the WHO by China, knew what was up and acted promptly, thereby dealing with the pandemic far better than the rest of the world for whom the virus, it turned out, did know some borders, over there near the South China Sea.
When President Trump suspended funding for the WHO he was criticized for doing it in the midst of the pandemic. When the Canadian Prime Minister was queried on the subject, he answered there will be time to investigate and scrutinize, but now is the time for him to deal with the virus at home. Prufrock too kept saying there will be time, “time to murder and create and time for all the works and days of hands that lift and drop a question on your plate…time for you and time for me, and time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions, before the taking of a toast and tea.” As is proper with the management of a crisis, there will be revisions and scrutiny in order to evaluate decisions taken and plan for the next one. But it is one thing for a modern society to do the post-mortem of its own behavior and quite another for it to do one on another country or international institution.
Already China has criticized statesmen and journalists who have questioned its integrity, dismissing any question of blame with threats and counterattacks. But China’s dismal record is there for all to see who wish to see. China forced the Wuhan doctor who raised the alarm to recant, suppressed information about the human transmissibility of the virus, allowed tens of thousands of Wuhan residents to attend a banquet in mid-January, allowed even more to leave Wuhan before declaring a lockdown, failed to inform the WHO about the severity of the crisis facing it, the same WHO which dithered before telling the world about it. The virus would still have spread, experts say. Perhaps, but the catastrophic incidence and death toll might well have been averted, as it was for Taiwan. But then Taiwan did not rely on official channels of communications, nor did Taiwan place credence in Chinese Communist Party numbers. Even today multiple observers discount Chinese reports of infections and deaths, which are now surfacing in many of that country’s cities where supposedly the virus was under control.
Already we know that China was buying up medical equipment all over the globe during the period between January 7 when President Xi took charge of managing the virus in Wuhan and January 23 when he came clean about its nature and severity. We also know that much of the medical equipment China subsequently sent the West when the virus started ramping up there was defective. How much time do we need to recognize perfidy? How many investigations will be necessary, if investigations are allowed of Chinese and WHO behavior, to deduce the simple fact that the Communist regime unleashed this virus on the world? Has not the same regime massacred its own people with its Great Leap Forward and its Cultural Revolution and its Tiananmen Square suppression of the democracy movement? Has it not made dissidents disappear, imprisoned millions of Uighurs, destroyed Tibetan culture and forced the Dalai Lama into exile? How much more time do we need, how many indecisions and revisions before we conclude the obvious or continue to ignore it, namely that the Chinese Communist Party that rules China is a scourge for the world and its biggest danger? The only real question is what to do about this menace.
There are increasing calls from many quarters to present China with the bill for the damage the virus has caused. The Communist regime in China has not taken kindly to such suggestions, but that certainly is one way to hold it responsible. Even better would be for calls on China to democratize, which the Chinese Communist Party would most likely denounce as interference in its internal affairs. But nothing would help the world more than for China to become a democracy with free elections, an independent judiciary, government and opposition, freedom of speech and a free press legally enshrined, all the political hallmarks of a modern democracy. The world would be able to trust it, trust its products, maintain its supply chains in that country, engage in open and competitive trade with it, salute it when deserved and criticize it when needed. Of course, the clique that today rules China would probably think this a heresy. Not only would they fear retribution for the decades during which they plundered the country and terrorized their people; they probably cannot imagine any other way of governing China than through ruthless centralized power. The alternative to them would be anarchy, for confirmation of which they would point to their thousands of years of history with the rise and fall of empires punctuated by horrific war and bloodshed. They probably cannot imagine that government can work on trust between governors and governed, the very trust that exists in democracy, however laced with suspicion and mistrust, because the institutional arrangements of democracy require precisely that. One has only to see the way people in democracies respond to their political leaders’ decisions with respect to coronavirus management. They follow the orders and they question the orders. Different states try different strategies. In the end, policies are worked out, solidarity is established, trust, not anarchy, prevails. We are all in this together is more than a mantra. The Chinese Communist Party elites delude themselves even more than they seek to delude the West in thinking that their authoritarian response, that mixture of terror and ideology we have known only too well from the Soviet experiment, will prove both efficient and victorious.
To move from Communist totalitarianism to democratic governance is no easy matter. But unlike the mess that resulted from the dismantlement of communism in the Soviet Union, China has a chance to do it differently. It has a model, and potential allies, in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, the very places it has long sought to subdue. Chinese compatriots there are familiar with the experience of democracy and could help Communist China in making the transition. It still has a residue of affection in the West – a term I use to encompass the democracies of the world, not a geographical area – even if it will rapidly evaporate once the time for assessment following the pandemic arrives. The regime has taken to confound criticism of its actions with racism, but that too is a ploy, a ploy which the Communist regime also believes, for it conceives the world in terms of empire and dominance, while democracy thrives on tolerance and exchange, commerce in the widest and freest sense of the term. It is the old story of a system only being able to see what it can see, and not that it cannot.
But let us think of the alternative. The West would cut its supply chains in China and relocate elsewhere. China under the Communist Party would be increasingly ostracized, perhaps even quarantined. Not only would democracies not want to do business with it; they might even not want to compete against it in the Olympics, exchange students or cultural productions, even collaborate on future pandemics. China, in short, would be quarantined as punishment for unleashing the virus that caused democracies to impose quarantines at home. And then what would happen? China would decline, its people would grow restive, even the power of the army to suppress revolt would weaken and wane. One day hordes in the millions would rampage through the palaces behind which the elites had barricaded themselves and maul them to pieces, much as the people of Paris marched on Versailles and dragged the king and queen back to their city in 1789. Only the lucky would hop a plane to their safe havens in the West where they have bought real estate and salted away their ill-gotten gains for precisely such a day. And all so needless, the usual outcome when people and societies refuse to learn from history, refuse to make the one great leap forward that would truly lead to a different kind of world, the kind that would make a difference. History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake, Joyce had Stephen Daedalus say. He might as well have said it about China’s current rulers. Maybe they should read Joyce.
Maybe we all should. We in the West certainly should do something. Or will the author of Prufrock prove to be even more prescient when he followed up that poem with another one eight years later: “We are the hollow men We are the stuffed men Leaning together Headpiece filled with straw.” Remember how it ended? “This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.” I recognize that the preceding is speculation when it comes to the future, observation only when it concerns the present and what has come to pass. But I never liked the image of being a hollow man, nor do I have much faith that the leaders of democracies will do much about China if their peoples do not demand it. What better way to demand it than by doing something about it? For myself, I am no longer buying anything made in China and will not do so until China becomes a democracy. I heartily encourage other denizens of democracies to do the same. My recent ceramic coated frying pan was made in Canada and I am delighted with it. It was a little more expensive than the ones made in China but well worth it.