When Donald Trump publicly called into question China’s Covid-19 death rate claims at a recent White House press conference, the chart he pointed to had an asterisk next to China’s name. Thanks to Beijing’s lack of transparency during the pandemic, and subsequent coverup, scepticism over its official statements is now the norm. While seemingly trivial, the asterisk is the powerful symbol of a new era, in which distrust is perhaps the salient feature of the world’s relations with China.
Americans are familiar with the asterisk from professional sports. Since Major League Baseball decided to put an asterisk next to Roger Maris’s name after he broke Babe Ruth’s single season home-run record in 1961 (as Maris had 162 games to hit his record-breaking 61 home runs, compared to 154 games when Ruth hit 60 in 1927), it has become the custom to append it to anything where the truth is not what it seems.
Now it’s China that is earning the asterisk. Because the CCP assured the World Health Organisation that Covid-19 could not be transmitted between humans*, the world was unprepared for the spread of the virus and was plunged into its worst crisis since world war two.
After months of publishing suspiciously low numbers for coronavirus infections and deaths, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally acknowledged it had consciously undercounted cases, initially excluding those who were asymptomatic, and belatedly revised its official death total in Wuhan by 50 per cent, to 3,869*. Even so, many believe that is still too low.
Moreover, Beijing trumpeted that it donated* huge amounts of medical supplies* around the world. That has turned out to be a double asterisk: one for the fact that the Chinese government and companies sold many of the supplies, the second for the fact that much of the equipment was defective or otherwise unusable.
The coronavirus debacle is representative of a decades-long trend whereby the world accepts at face value Beijing’s statements, only later to find out that the truth does not match what it had been told. Indeed, the Chinese party-state built its global influence and power in no small part on falsifying the facts, leading nations around the world to shape their policies to suit Beijing’s national goals.
Take economic growth, the most powerful claim Beijing has to being a great power. For years, the world watched in awe as China’s GDP officially grew by 10 per cent* or more. Now, as that growth officially has slowed to barely 6 per cent (and contracted by nearly seven per cent in the first quarter of 2020), a 2019 study by four Chinese economists found that the government consistently overstated growth rates between 2008 and 2016. Some economists believe that China will soon barely register two per cent growth, once government spending is discounted.
In light of the effects of the corona-crisis, asterisks might well be appended to Beijing’s political claims, as well. In 2015, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping promised Barack Obama in the White House Rose Garden that Beijing would crack down on cyber hacking.* Today, the FBI concludes that China is the world’s greatest cyber threat, continuing to steal untold billions of dollars each year in intellectual property as well as personal information of global citizens and other national secrets.
At the same Rose Garden ceremony, Xi made another promise to Obama, that China would not militarise the islands it had built in the South China Sea.* Within months, satellite imagery proved that the islands had been turned into fortified bases, shifting the balance of power and threatening freedom of navigation in the crucial waters of eastern Asia.
For months, the party-state publicly denied that up to a million Muslim Uighurs were being held in relocations camps*, only finally to admit that a massive ‘re-education’ programme was indeed imposed in Xinjiang province.
Even the CCP’s grand geopolitical initiatives should be scrutinised. Xi promised £800bn ($1 trillion)* in infrastructure spending for his lauded One Belt One Road plan, designed to link Eurasia and beyond to China through trade and political links. Yet misallocation of money, shoddy workmanship, and fears of debt traps have left unfinished construction sites around Eurasia and numerous failed projects.
For far too long, the CCP dazzled the world with questionable statistics, misleading statements, and false promises. In return, Beijing gained unprecedented global influence. Countries rushed to do business with China, despite losing intellectual property; governments made trade agreements, ignoring unfair practices; and global institutions welcomed China to leadership positions, despite Beijing openly undermining global governance.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the global dynamic, perhaps permanently. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab made it clear that Britain won’t go back to ‘business as usual’ with Beijing after coronavirus. Much of the rest of the world is likely to follow, starting with putting an * next to China.
Michael Auslin is a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics.