'How do you deal toughly with your banker?' This was the not quite rhetorical question that Hillary Clinton asked Australia’s then-prime minister Kevin Rudd at a lunch back in 2010. In the prophylactic language of the diplomat she was then, Clinton was asking how the world should deal with an ever more aggressive China, and she was prescient. Ten years on, Beijing is ascendant. It holds over a trillion dollars of US debt (banker indeed); as of writing, one of its major companies is set to control Britain’s 5G network; and it has spent years hoovering up Africa’s resources with little care for the (admittedly scant) international condemnation it receives or the human rights it violates so egregiously along the way.
Now, through a mixture of quixotic dietary regulations and systematic evasion, it has helped to unleash Covid-19 on the world. We sit imprisoned indoors while the economy withers; every day thousands die from a disease that likely originated in one of the Chinese city of Wuhan’s ‘wet’ markets, those notorious graveyards of food hygiene. On discovering they were facing an epidemic (it was then not quite yet a pandemic) the ruling Communist Party chiefs covered it up; and then imprisoned, gagged and persecuted anyone who dared speak up about what they knew was coming to us all.
And that was just the beginning. As the weeks have rolled on and Beijing has begun to get the virus under control (after imposing the kind of total lockdowns only possible with the vertiginously autocratic powers it has at its disposal) the focus has turned to something else: spin. If you thought Russia was good at muddying its crimes with state-sponsored lies and diversionary tactics meet Beijing in the age of the coronavirus.
China is in full propagandist mode – by both word and deed. Eager to distract from its own culpability, it now sends millions of face masks to Europe alongside doctors and medical experts of varying stripes, especially the desperately needed epidemiologists. Companies like Huawei are suddenly major crisis donors. President Xi Jinping recently told Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that he hopes to create a 'health silk road' from China to Europe. Beijing has become a whirr of philanthropy. But this 'mask diplomacy' is bogus. For a start, what they send often just causes problems. Spain and the Czech Republic are throwing out thousands of testing kits sent by China that don’t work properly. Turkey claims their Chinese-made kits are yielding inaccurate results while Holland says almost half the kits it has received are faulty.
And alongside Chinese 'aid' comes the unuttered but clear propagandist rebuke: we have to step in because you won’t. Unsurprisingly, this makes the Europeans furious. 'France just sent a million masks to Italy. As many as China did. Time to stop EU-bashing' said a Macron aide recently. Germany, accused by fellow EU states of ignoring their suffering, now sends ventilators to Italy and takes in patients from overstretched hospitals in Alsace – while making sure everyone knows what it’s doing of course. In the midst of the greatest health crisis of the modern age, the #Corona wars are playing out, in our hearts and minds and on our (donated) ventilators.
Then there are the flat out lies, which come on an industrial scale and from the highest levels and daily. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian now regularly claims that the US military engineered the coronavirus to infect Chinese citizens – a narrative several embassy Twitter accounts have picked up and peddled. This is the Kremlification of Beijing’s messaging. This is the Chinese Communist Party state in the contemporary moment. From Confucius to confusing us: disinformation with a Chinese twist.
True, we must shoulder some responsibility ourselves. We were due a plague. 'There is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people,' said the first annual report of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (an independent panel of experts convened by the World Bank and the World Health Organization) - in 2019. We were warned – repeatedly, and we failed to listen. True also, we have not acted quite as we should since things began. We most likely should have gone into isolation sooner; we should have hunkered down faster. The government’s reluctance to force us into our homes is to its credit (an act that especially sits ill with the Prime Minister’s liberal instincts) but it was probably a mistake.
Nevertheless, we are here because of China. Against this fact, there can be no retreat. The Mail on Sunday reports that No.10 is now rethinking the Huawei 5G contract and plans a diplomatic 'deep freeze' with Beijing until it reforms. The world is angry. But will it stay that way? Will the desire for a reckoning remain six months or a year down the line once the crisis has passed and thoughts naturally turn to renewal? I think it must. I think it is both a political and a moral imperative to make sure that it does, because by then I think it will be a question of national self-determination. If we really want to understand how robust our politics is, and if we really want to understand where the global balance of power truly lies, it will become clear when all this ends.
We ignored China’s threats over 5G. We ignored its imprisonment of over a million Uighurs. In truth, we have ignored pretty much every crime it commits. We cannot ignore its role in Covid-19. If we do, it will be an unequivocal admission that the West will not now or ever stand up to China. And if this happens, then, 25 years into the digital revolution, we will have finally come to understand the true cost of virality.