James Forsyth

Prepare for China’s nationalist turn

Prepare for China's nationalist turn
Xi Jinping (Getty images)
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In recent days, it has been striking how many people in Westminster and Whitehall now think the lab leak theory is the most plausible explanation of Covid’s origins.

China’s apparent success last year at stamping out the virus at home — with technological competence and sheer brutality — while cases spiked in the West, created a fear that the future belonged to Beijing. 

But, as I say in the magazine this week, the growing plausibility that the virus leaked from a lab highlights the Achilles’ heel of the Chinese system: its lack of a mechanism for error correction. It is not that a lab leak couldn’t have happened in the democratic world, but it is far harder to imagine it being covered up here.

The truth is that China is not as strong as it appears. As the Stanford scholar Elizabeth Economy points out, the country spent $216 billion (£150bn) on domestic security in 2019. This is three times its expenditure of a decade before, and even more than what it spends on the People’s Liberation Army. No healthy polity spends this much on domestic security.

Yet if Beijing’s internal problems continue to get worse, it will fall back on nationalism as a source of legitimacy. This will not be a comfortable experience for the West. As one influential parliamentarian warns, ‘Communist China is bad, Han nationalist China will be worse’.