98. Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of China’s ambition to be ‘the’ global superpower

06 April 2020
Publication: Daily Maverick
Image courtesy of REUTERS/Sergio Moraes – RC2NMF9C03Q6

At the official opening of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017, President Xi Jinping outlined his strategies with regard to China’s emergence as a global power that would lead the world in the political, economic, military, cultural and environmental spheres. In 2019, during the celebration of the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule, the Chinese leader asserted that “no force can shake the status of this great nation”.

Jinping’s declarations seem prescient in light of China’s recent rise as a global power, due partly to the double blow experienced by the United States – the 2003 war on terrorism and the 2007-08 financial crisis – that punctured Washington’s image and economic strength, respectively. Donald Trump’s presidency and its “America First” posture and the United States’ disengagement from international affairs, with the attendant decline in America’s global influence also fast-tracked the emerging multipolar world.

However, the recent outbreak of Covid-19 and China’s initial response has shattered its status as a global power. A global power is supposed to solve global crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic, not cause them. The outbreak of the pandemic in China’s Wuhan province and Beijing’s initial response resulted in the global crisis that we face today. This creates a feeling of déjà vu as the deadly H1N1, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) coronavirus broke out in China in 2002-03, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing almost 800 across the globe before it was eventually contained. The spread of Sars and the attendant havoc were attributed to China’s slow response and concealment of the extent of the threat.

In similar fashion, China was slow to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic that emerged in the city of Wuhan. A report by the South China Morning Post reveals that the Chinese government became aware of the virus in mid-November 2019, several weeks before an official public announcement. There were accusations that Chinese policymakers had attempted to conceal the outbreak as there were arrests, detentions and crackdowns on some doctors and other concerned citizens who attempted to inform their colleagues and the public about the outbreak of the pandemic in its early stages. The government informed the public about human-to-human transmission only on 21 January 2020.

This has had devastating consequences across the globe. Around 200 countries are now affected and total global cases as of Sunday 5 April stood at 1,213,000 with 65,652 deaths. Thanks to Trump’s shenanigans, the US has outstripped China as the country with the highest number of people infected, with 312,000 cases and nearly 8,500 deaths. Spain and Italy now occupy second and third place respectively.

China is ranked fourth and has experienced remarkable success in terms of recoveries. While this is laudable, it does not demonstrate global leadership as the virus originated in China and the Asian power has not made significant inroads in containing its spread at the global level. Instead, Chinese officials have accused the American army of bringing the virus to Wuhan. In response, Trump has consistently described the pandemic as a “Chinese virus”.

China’s posture in relation to this pandemic is best illustrated by what has been described as “illusory hegemony”. This implies that in order to counteract potential negative perceptions of its status as a global leader, China will do anything, including engaging in mendacity and propaganda to conceal its weaknesses.

In the case of Covid-19, China’s adoption of illusory hegemony has had the unintended effect of highlighting its incapacity in disaster management. Just as the global financial crisis exposed the United States’ vulnerability as a global leader, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed Beijing’s inefficiency in tackling the China-born global pandemic. Thus, Beijing still has a long way to go before becoming a true global leader.

The recent retreat by the United States from international affairs dictates that the global leadership void needs to be filled. Surprisingly, China has portrayed itself as providing benevolent leadership during this crisis, evident in its swift action to remove barriers to the export of medical supplies, as if it were not benefiting from this move as a major global supplier, and the disease did not originate in the country.

A global leader cannot rely on its economic and military might alone; its moral authority is equally important. Beijing’s actions and inactions on the pandemic have revealed that it lacks the moral authority to lead the world. China is not a messiah, the world needs to look elsewhere at this critical moment.

Dr Oluwaseun Tella is a senior researcher at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.