China’s painful gains from Covid-19 crisis

posted by Xi Sun on March 10, 2020 - 10:42pm

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis can probably be seen as a “black swan” not only for China but also the whole world. It is largely unpredictable but with severe consequences.

There is no doubt that China has suffered the most from this crisis economically, socially and politically. However, it is highly debatable whether China or the Communist Party is approaching an inflection point of possible breakup or imminent revolution.

In my opinion, this Covid-19 crisis presents a rare chance for the Chinese government and people to undertake serious, calm and thorough self-reflection, and likely China can turn the crisis into an opportunity with several unexpected gains.

First, the Covid-19 crisis is a real test. According to Chinese President Xi Jinping, this epidemic is a major public health emergency with “the fastest spread, the widest range of infections, and the most difficult prevention and control” since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and “this is a crisis for us and it is a big test.”

It is still too early to say if China has successfully passed the test, but the whole nation surely has been educated and honed by this tough disaster. From the chaotic panic at the beginning to the comprehensive response and systematic recovery recently, China has demonstrated remarkable resilience, adaptability, resourcefulness and self-reliance.

Second, the Covid-19 crisis is a precious catalyst. Obviously, China has shown certain weaknesses in this crisis too, but it is determined to learn from obvious shortcomings exposed during its response, especially how to prevent such crises from happening in the first place, rather than controlling them by drastic measures and Herculean efforts after outbreaks.

China has vowed to reform and improve its health-crisis response system, as well as to strengthen its health-care system. China’s national legislature, the National People’s Congress, has fast-tracked a decision on thoroughly banning the trade and eating of wild animals. China will also speed up biosecurity legislation.

Last but not least, the Covid-19 crisis is a rare touchstone. First, it is a touchstone of China’s influence. When China coughs, the rest of the world catches a cold. This crisis has vividly displayed China’s important role within the global value chain and its influential purchasing power.

When China simply stops producing and buying, many other countries suffer significantly. This demonstrates that the Chinese vision of a “community of shared destiny for humanity” is valid.

Second, it is a touchstone of effective governance. It was easy to criticize China’s so-called “Leninist” polity when this particular epidemic mainly happened within China. But now, outbreaks are occurring globally.

Dr Bruce Aylward, who led a World Health Organization team to China, stressed that the country’s counterattack can be replicated, but it will require speed, money, imagination and political courage. Then we will see if other (especially the democratic) countries can handle their crises much better than China. Comparison will make things clearer.

Third, the crisis is a touchstone of bilateral relations. Although it is a hard truth that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests in international relations, the Chinese people traditionally, and even President Xi himself, firmly believe that “a friend in need is a friend indeed” (huànnàn jiàn zhēnqíng). Therefore, this Covid-19 crisis has delicately modified China’s perception in many other countries and may have a profound impact on its future foreign policies.

There is an old but popular Chinese saying: “Much distress regenerates a nation” (duōnàn xīngbāng). The idiom reveals both China’s strength and weakness. China is good at coping with crises during which the Chinese society becomes more motivated and united, but it is not good at preventing crises in advance, lacking a sense of crisis. That is why the Chinese nation has been able to overcome much adversity in history, but similar tragedies may repeat again and again.

The painful lessons of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) crisis in 2003 seems not to be effectively remembered by the whole of Chinese society. Will the bitter gains from this tragic Covid-19 crisis last much longer? Only time can tell.

This article was firstly pubished by the Asia Times.

Sun Xi, a China-born alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is an independent commentary writer based in Singapore. He is also founder and CEO of ESGuru, a Singapore-based consultancy firm specializing in environmental, social and governance issues.