Covid 19 Edition

Two Pillars for Reckoning

Professor Lanxin Xiang

As Covid-19 spreads all over the globe, instead of seeing collaboration, we are seeing negative politics which is reaching the level of hysteria. All governments were badly prepared for this crisis from the start. What is odd about this war against a common enemy to humanity is that the war guilt” question has started even before the decisive campaign is over. There is wild talk of reparation” of the Versailles style, or even the Boxer Indemnity. Many leaders, frustrated by their late start and its horrible consequences, are scrambling for moral high ground to shirk their own responsibilities. 

China, where the first cases emerged, has found itself a favourite target for bashing, despite a relatively successful record in combating the virus at home. Any international bashing reflects the power politics of the day. Not surprisingly, China bashing is instigated mainly by the United States, but it is gaining momentum in other western democracies. 

One could easily imagine, of course, had the first cases emerged in a democratic country, we would not see the same type of attacks. Clearly, this is a clash going beyond Covid-19, over culture, values and global dominance. Among all the hot debates on China, conspiracy theories aside, I note one rather calm and bland voice that really captures the gist of the problem. 

Lord William Hague, former foreign secretary of Britain stated recently: In my view this crisis reinforces the case for two major pillars to be established for western policies towards China.” 

He explained: The first arises from the fact that China isn’t going to play by our rules … And that means that we cannot possibly be strategically dependent on China”. Then he added: The other important pillar arises from the fact that we can’t solve global problems without China and global problems are some of our most pressing and obviously most existential.”

Indeed, the West is facing the same mental problem in dealing with China, as has given the Christian world unbearable agony for over four centuries. When the Jesuit missionaries — the first western interlocutors — came to China at the end of the 16th century, they were confronted with the same psychological problem. They found an advanced civilisation, on a par, at least with that of Europe (the much inflated Greco-Roman one). But it owed nothing to Christian Europe. They could not square the singular history of Chinese civilisation with the supposedly universal Bible narrative of human history. After diligent studies, they recognised the dilemma: China can never be integrated into European civilisation, but China cannot be ignored by Europe either. The only solution, they reckoned, was learning from each other, hence the idea of cultural accommodation. Today, accommodation” is a dirty word and the West has long developed an attitude: my way or the highway”. Peaceful co-existence between cultures has become heresy. 

In fact, when today’s westerners talk about China’s integration into the world system, they really talk about assimilation, like a colonial mother country assimilating colonies. It is a one-way street, as implied in Lord Hague’s language,“play by our rules, or else”. This persistent imperial hubris has irked the Chinese since the Opium War, not to mention its undertone of racialist prejudice. The once fashionable convergence” theory, typified by Robert Zoellick’s responsible stakeholder’ idea, was doomed from the beginning. The underlying message is clear: We are willing to give you a high table to place the bets, but never challenge who owns the casino”. 

China in recent years has been tempted precisely by challenging this status quo. It also has begun to revive a kind of Middle Kingdom hubris, and unleashed wolf warriors” for offensive propaganda on social media and in press conferences. Behind this new strategy is the idea that an authoritarian system is superior to democracy.” 

It is ironic that the original inspiration of this hubris should have come from a British author, Martin Jacques who wrote the best-selling, When China Rules the World, the Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World (Penguin, 2010). A British Marxist, Jacques who started out not as an expert about China, but a journalist, does have a sharp eye. He also had the ability to catch the moment when traditional Western prejudice toward China seemed to be fading and the usually perfunctory curiosity about China was turning into a genuine intellectual pursuit in the West. Jacques’s book makes a daring effort to promote the so-called Chinese Model”. Not too long ago, such efforts would have been dismissed offhand by the mainstream Western media and China experts.

Jacques’s framework of argument, though quite absurd to me, has a peculiar appeal in communist states, as it provides a deterministic view of the fall of the west. It also appropriated a unique method popular in the English-speaking world: inventing meta-histories to predict the rise and fall” of great powers. This is a tradition that started with Edward Gibbon, was carried on by Arnold Toynbee, Paul Kennedy, and most recently, Graham Allison of Thucydides Trap” fame. 

Jacques’s neo-Marxist twist on this meta-history particularly appeals to the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping: the projection of the new chosen” ruler of the world about to emerge at the expense of the old one will boost his ambitious project of national restoration. But this changing guard” fantasy has led Xi to two miscalculations: first, Jacques, as a Marxist, does not have any sway over mainstream views in the western world, as Xi has thought. Jacques is a journalist rather than an academic scholar. In the Chinese official press, he always appears as professor at Cambridge University” rather than an affiliated researcher there. He is the darling of Beijing’s propaganda machine. 

Second, if, according to Jacques, China is to rule the world, assertiveness in international affairs is more effective in promoting China’s national interest. On both counts, however, the new strategy has backfired. We are witnessing the enormous damage to China’s image done by wolf warrior propaganda before and during the Covid-19 crisis. 

But there are some reasons to be optimistic. Lord Hague’s two-pillar framework is useful for both the West and China to understand the post-Covid-19 world, because the two pillars are not mutually exclusive. To begin with, it is unrealistic for China and the West to decouple. Although China will not accept western tutelage any more, it will not hold its historical grudges against globalisation. US-China relations will suffer, but the China-Europe relationship can continue to flourish in areas of common interest, such as free trade, investment, environment, multilateralism and technology. 

More encouragingly, the Chinese leadership seems to have realised its mistakes during the virus crisis, and begun to curb its Middle Kingdom hubris and restrain its wolf warriors. Finally, China is determined to maintain, together with the EU, the effectiveness of the international institutions such as the UN, WHO, and WTO — especially the latter’s arbitration mechanism. China will collaborate closely with Europe on climate change. More interestingly, despite many crying wolf against Huawei in Europe, the EU needs China to succeed in its plan of finding a Third Way” between Beijing and Washington to fulfil its geopolitical ambition. Ursula von der Leyen is building a geopolitical commission”, a first in EU history. The EU cannot afford to continue its tech dependency on the United States, especially in cyber, AI and space. The EU and China have no geo-strategic conflict, despite disagreements in other areas such as human rights. 

A convergence of long-term interests after the Covid-19 crisis may take place between the EU and China. Will cultural accommodation follow? The recent diplomatic breakthrough between the Vatican and China indicates that a ground-shifting change of the international order may be on the way. 

Professor Lanxin Xiang is Director of the China Center at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He also holds the Chair in International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. His most recent book is The Quest for Legitimacy in Chinese Politics: A New Interpretation (Routledge Studies on Asia in the World) 2019.