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Corona Diaries: the convenient demon

April 8, 2020

Yesterday a friend sent me an email suggesting I write about China. He included a link to an article by Melanie Phillips in the London Times entitled West can no longer turn a blind eye to China.

It was nice of him to ask, especially as I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable as Melanie Phillips. So let’s start with an opinion I’ve written that you might encounter out in the wilds:

“Thank goodness that’s sorted. It’s all China’s fault for covering up the original outbreak. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it manufactured the damn thing and let it loose on the grounds that it could manage the fallout better than its rivals. Economies collapse, democracies implode, and China picks up the pieces.

Much the same argument that influential Americans made at the height of the Cold War: let’s nuke the Russians. Yes, there will be mass destruction, but our bit will be less destroyed than theirs.

For the plan to work, you don’t want a virus that’s too virulent. That would either end up destroying everyone, or it would die out after being bottled up in a quarantine zone. No, you want one that debilitates but doesn’t destroy, thus leaving the victims vulnerable and dependent on mighty China to keep them afloat.

Remember the aftermath of the 2008 crash? It was China’s massive stimulus that kept the world economy afloat. It embedded Chinese investment in the US, Britain and other powerful nations to an unprecedented extent. That was Phase One.

Now we’re into Phase 2. The ultimate revenge for the Opium Wars. Where the Western nations brought China to its knees in the 19th century by getting it hooked on opium, so today China has turned us into Yuan junkies.

So by the end of this pandemic, no country will for the foreseeable future challenge China’s economic and political supremacy, because to do so would result in catastrophic withdrawal symptoms.

Welcome to the Chinese Century.”

If I were to synthesise a virus to demonise China in my little Surrey lab, this would be its DNA. If variants of the same virus weren’t already out there, you could cut and paste this one, and it would go zipping around the world as fast as the one that started in Wuhan. Which is why China is in the process of being revealed to the watching world (but mainly in the US and the UK) as the devil incarnate. Just in time to stop it from taking us all over.

If the BlameChina20 virus didn’t exist, it would be necessary to create it. Because everybody needs a scapegoat. A coherent narrative that distracts attention and channels blame. No matter how incompetent your government in responding to the pandemic, the ultimate counter-narrative is to blame the Chinese.

Unfortunately for the blame virus, there are plenty of antibodies that will stunt its virulence. In fact, logic shows one fatal flaw.

If you believe that China’s virologists are so smart that they could synthesise a virus as effective as COVID-19, and test it in secret with live subjects to make sure it had the desired effects, you are naïve in the extreme. An accident possibly, but deliberate? Highly unlikely, because you would be dealing with something that would screw you up as effectively as it would those you are targeting. Your economy as much as theirs. Your people as much as theirs. And if there’s one thing followers of Confucius abhor more than anything, it’s chaos – the opposite of harmony.

Take away the intention, and the whole theory falls down.

Now, let’s get serious and realistic.

China is an authoritarian state. Covering stuff up is what countries like China do. And not just China. Remember Chernobyl? It was only after the toxic cloud reached Scandinavia that the USSR, under that nice Mr Gorbachev, finally admitted the full horror of what was happening.

However, in the case of the coronavirus, Chernobyl is not a good analogy. China has dealt with lethal virus outbreaks before – bird flu and swine fever most recently – and has effectively suppressed them. It seems highly likely that the politicians who orchestrated the COVID-19 cover-up did so out of a sense of complacency. In other words, we’ve dealt with this kind of thing before, no point in alarming people. Although the implications of Chernobyl were pretty clear early on, that might not have been the case in Wuhan. People with viruses don’t emit radioactive clouds.

But in both cases, you can point to organisational incompetence and a cover-your-arse culture, which are signs not of strength but of weakness.

Though before its fall the USSR was revealed as a sclerotic basket case, China is nowhere near that point. We might look at its ruthless suppression of the virus after the outbreak as evidence of its competence, but ordering people around is something that authoritarian states must do to stay in existence.

In the USSR, the structures Lenin put in place to keep the people compliant lasted over seventy years. You could argue that they still exist today after Putin’s efforts at refurbishment. China, on the other hand, has no need to rebuild its authoritarian apparatus. Instead, it’s enhancing it.

So basically, China covered up in Wuhan because it could – for a while. As I said, for better or for worse, it’s what authoritarian governments do by default.

Finally, lets look at some fundamentals about China that the West interprets as strength.

Covering up the original COVID-19 outbreak is not strength. It’s fear. Locking up millions of Uigurs in camps is not strength. It’s fear. Carrying out surveillance on its people to an unprecedented degree is not strength. It’s fear.

So perhaps we should think carefully before branding Xi Jinping as an all-powerful dictator, presiding over a juggernaut of an authoritarian state bent on world domination. And we should not forget that authoritarian states are built on fear. The people fear the state. The leaders fear the people, because they know that their legitimacy depends on what they can deliver – safety, prosperity, stability and contentment. The moment one or more of those four pillars is threatened, the legitimacy cracks and the leaders fear for their future.

Therefore we should not fear China as an economic cuckoo in our nest, or as an aggressive military power seeking to dominate the South China Sea and beyond. We should see it for what it is: a major power with strengths and weaknesses, both proud and paranoid.

Rather than constructing a conspiracy theory around its national ambitions and seeking to punish or even isolate it, we should deal with it as an equal, protect ourselves from its unsavoury activities such dubious trade practices and industrial espionage, and treat it with clear-eyed, calculated respect. Neither the kow-tow nor the cold shoulder.

And if the leadership finally implodes, it will most likely do so without our help. What’s more, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that such an outcome will be to the benefit of the rest of us. We surely learned that lesson after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One last thought. Various voices in the West are calling for a reparation claim on China for covering up the original outbreak. China will treat any such claim with contemptuous refusal. Likely as not it would respond with a demand for reparations on account of the damage done by opium forced upon it in the 19th Century. And it would have a point.

The reality of the present is that China is neither malign nor benign beyond the boundaries of what it perceives as its national interest. If we understand what that interest is, we in the West have a sensible basis for interacting with it as we go forward.

OK Jeremy? That’ll be six packets of Custard Creams please.

From → History, Politics, UK, USA

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    have never before seen you so worked up that you didn’t fully proofread.
    Thanks for showing just how much this means, both by word and deed.
    I can fairly hear you yelling as you mash the keyboard!

    • Thanks Debby. Oh hell, I’m going to have to go back and do some weeding! Actually, I thought I was being quite temperate. You can haul China over the coals on a number of counts, especially in its treatment of the Uygurs. Lots of people are doing just that. But China isn’t going away, and the rest of us still have to deal with it. That was my point. S

    • Now with a few edits. Thanks for alerting me. Posting one or two pieces a day can bring its challenges, especially as I’m not the only person living in this particular bubble. Isolation is one thing, being a hermit is quite another!

  2. Andrew Robinson permalink

    As Frank Carson would have said: “That’s a cracker!” (not to be confused with an American fortune cookie, British Christmas-.. or a Chinese fire-….).

    BTW….You’re still mixing up your know-how with your kow-tow after your pre-proofread….lol.

    Bloody good stuff.

  3. deborah a moggio permalink

    I find it helpful, especially now, to have a cuppa before I hit send.


    Yes, difficult times.
    My greatest fear is that the weight of all of this will so fatigue most american voters that the only ones who show up at the polls, even mail in, will be Trumpeters.

    • For me, coffee is obligatoire. Hopefully, people will be so fed up with his empty bullshit that they will clear him away. I think everyone will need a fresh start after this. S

  4. Great post Steve although I’m not sure the custard creams would pass muster at the “essential items” check out!

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