Monday 27 April 2020

The China Syndrome

Part 1: The China Conundrum

This blog post will be in two parts concerning three main issues.  First, on the hesitant flow of information during the first crucial seven weeks between the appearance of the first symptoms of Coronavirus in early December and the Government's decision to lock down the crowded city of Wuhan where the disease first appeared.  Second, on the failures of Chinese officials to warn the wide world about the possibility of the virus having the ability of a human to human transmission.  Third, the fallout from the global economic damage to Globalisation and in particular to the further deteriorating US/China relations. Brushing off the early tsunami failures pointed at Chinese authorities, accusations it should have acted earlier, China has come out fighting in a turbocharged effort to upend what might be construed as failure.  Turning a disadvantage into an advantage.  A time when the rest of the world in lockdown, Red China is succeeding in its propaganda to weaponize and politicize the disease tempting the world to turn East.  

On December 30, 2019, Li Wenliang, 33 working as an Ophthalmologist sent a message to a group of fellow doctors warning them about a possible outbreak of a mysterious illness that resembled Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, where he worked. Days later, he was reprimanded by state officials and made to sign a statement in which he was accused of making false information and spreading illegal rumours. He went back to work only to succumb to the disease, later identified as Covid-19, and died three weeks later.  In the days before his death, Li said "If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier I think it would have been a lot better", in an interview with The New York Times. "There should be more openness and transparency", he said.  At the time the treatment he received from the authorities caused outrage on social media.

Laboratory leakages and mistakes are not so uncommon in China.  SARS, the respiratory disease infected 800 people around the world in 2004 was caused by lax rules at a laboratory in Beijing where safeguards and safety rules were undermined. In Covid-19 China, so far, has denied a laboratory accident to be the case. At the same time, the American Administration is convinced this is what happened, are happy to engage in a blame game insisting on calling the disease the Wuhan Virus.  The World Health Authority (WHO) has joined forces with China in saying there is no evidence the origin of the virus was in a laboratory.  But here I argue searching beyond circumstantial evidence is difficult if not impossible, especially when looking at the jump I refer to below.  The best evidence is on probability or reasoned assumptions and how likely it is for a mistake to happen. An error or an accident is just is, and searching for patient zero is not an option.

China has claimed the source of the outbreak to a "Wet Market" in Wuhan, and in particular of eating Bats.  The great mysteries of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, is how, exactly, made the leap from wildlife into humans.  Moreover, there are reports the virus could have been circulating earlier, in November and even October. Which means there are many other possible places it could have jumped from; a bat, or an intermediary species, to humans.  A characteristic feature of zoonotic diseases can jump from animals to humans. However, a new infection such as the Covid-19 or Coronavirus once in a human it seems it can go on mutating.  This makes it highly challenging to trace the symptoms, whether they are actually originating from this particular virus let alone treating the cause. Sending an international team to investigate would be unlikely, for China could be sensitive to outsiders investigating what they consider interference in an internal affair.  If China decides not to cooperate, it would raise further suspicions at obscuring information which can add to the chorus of doubters.   

Shellfish for sale in the Tai Po market in Hong Kong on January 29. Many customers come to this market to buy live seafood.

Lack of an explanation leaves a controversial vacuum once this disease has abated.  The argument can drag on, and it could further flare up, leading to all sorts of misunderstanding.  The result of which would be added strain to fracture relations between countries at a time when unity is essential to fight the disease. Credibility to the American assumption; the condition started in a laboratory is gaining traction.  Countries like Australia, Britain and Germany have joined the coterie of doubters of the Wet Market theory. Including Emanuel Macron of France who hinted, China has covered up its Coronavirus crisis, saying: "it would be naive to say they've been better at handling this - there are things we don't know about" [...] "unknown things that have happened".  Scientists are also divided on this issue.  According to Nim LeDuc, head of the Galveston National Laboratory in the US about Chinese scientist rubbishing the Lab theory he said we don't know what kind of pressures they might be under from their Government to deny the lab theory. LeDuc says the hypothesis, the animal market played a role in the virus jumping to humans also remains strong. "The linkage back to the market is pretty realistic. 

Further controversy was generated when new death figures in Wuhan were recently uncovered.  The numbers were revised by 50%  adding 1,290 fatalities to the city's toll, taking the confirmed count to 3,869 from a previously reported 2,579 in a city of 11 million people. According to the officials, "there has not been underreporting or misreporting, but there has never been any coverup, and we do not allow coverups." The miscount is also fuel to the fire. By any reasonable sense of imagination, one can tell the figure is too small considering a city of that size, especially where the virus was in free circulation for a month before any containment took place and when these figures are compared to those of London, New York or Paris.   Even those local people living in the area are blaming both the national Government and local agencies for not warning then early enough.  They also believe the death toll should be much higher than what the Chinese Government have admitted. 

As officials have battled the epidemic, they have also tried to stifle widespread criticism that they mismanaged their response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan city then in China itself. Missteps are also pointed at officials who underestimated and underplayed the threat of the Coronavirus all the while dragging their feet to arrive at an accurate position. The Irony is after SARS, Chinese health officials built an infectious disease reporting system to evade political meddling. But when the Coronavirus emerged, so did fears of upsetting the hierarchy in Beijing.  Numbers were only counted by hospitals of patients with known connection to the Seafood market and such narrow criteria discounted possibilities of human to human transmission of this new disease.  This is well over a month after the virus was first detected and after 217 people were infected in Wuhan and somehow much later, infected people in Beijing and Shanghai. Reasons for delays is the Chinese system of control.  Doctors had to have their cases confirmed by bureaucrats before they were reported to higher-ups.  

Head of the national health commission team investigating the outbreak, confirmed two cases of infection in China's Guangdong province had been caused by human-to-human transmission and medical staff had been infected.   Xi Chen, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said the likelihood of human-to-human transmission had appeared large given how many cases were confirmed. "It's hard to see all these cases coming from animals in the same market," With infections detected in nearby Thailand, Japan and South Korea the Chinese Health Authority were still saying the disease was "controllable". At this stage, even WHO was again linking the Virus to Animal to Human focusing on Wuhan Wet Market, since closed as the source of infections. Eyebrows raised when the world was becoming aware that other than from Wuhan, no cases were reported in other areas in China while increasing number of countries were starting to report incidents inside their borders. It is also worth noting the timely sharing of information related to events, which may cross borders and threaten international public health remains a central feature of the International Health Regulations.  As things stand leaked documents are showing, even after officials knew they faced an epidemic, they delayed warning the public for six days. The world is demanding answers about whether there was a coverup, and China must respond in full if only to abide by the rules.   

Part 2: The Coming Meltdown of Liberal Democracy.

Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, more than anything was an iconic symbol for the end of the Cold War between the Western world and the Soviet Union.   Liberal Democracy emerged triumphant against a communist system more often engaged in fascism and oppression of its people than egalitarianism.  After the liberation of East Germany and the subsequent fall of the Iron Curtain, Liberal democracy had nowhere to go. Still, it was quickly harnessed in bringing the world together under a new political and economic internationalist order.  For new members wishing to join as China did, it would play by the rules, open its markets, and privatize its economy. As the country became more prosperous, the Chinese Government would respect the rights of its people and liberalize politically.  China has significantly benefitted. It has since grown, after the US, the second-largest economy in the world but is steadfastly proving a gamechanger, refusing to abide by the rules it signed up for. Globalization put China on the map as an Industrial and Technological powerhouse with equally impressive leverage for world power status but now sees itself on an economic and political collision course with the US for strategic supremacy.

The vulnerability of liberal democracy is freedom.  A blind spot that goes to challenge Orwellian fear of illiberalism, surveillance and control; conditions people of China live under.  In the days of Mao Tse Tung,  there was his Red Book today China has the Xi App an equivalent instrument for the control of free-thinking.  A unit connected to a central point, time spent on it reading XI's thoughts and speeches earn points which can go in his or her favour when applying for jobs.  For students to pass exams and help them go into universities of their choice.  The points are automatically recorded while the app is in use.  It also tells the authorities Age, Gender, timed whereabouts and assesses their opinions on current matters which can earn extra points. Control and surveillance against all religion imprisoning Muslims for 'educational' purposes and destroying places of worship, including churches.  The App reached number one in the Chinese App Store, a 24/7 monitoring unit of all aspects of life.  

To borrow from a biblical saying; what Globalisation giveth Globalisation taketh away, the Coronavirus may do just that if China missed a cue with America.  With Trump at the helm steering the US in almost everything, from science to law to economy and to the rights of abortion, a China misstep, however, is highly unlikely.  Come what may world experts were predicting 2035 China would overtake the economy of the US. But, seeing how America is run, the Coronavirus pandemic is anything to go by, a revised date of 2030 is more likely. The only thing, which may slow down China is America's market power, underpinned by the dollar's status as the unrivalled global reserve currency. Undoubtedly clash of Titans is on the horizon rivalling over a system where America aiming to prevent China from becoming a "global hegemonic power" and China calling it "the grand game of the century".

A likely high score by China can come from its arsenal of the highly technologically tuned propaganda machine and surveillance operation; typical state activities of a controlled authoritarian government. Being ahead of the game suppressing information from the world about the spread of human to human infectious, it built a fence around the vulnerability of their communist party system.   China is weaponizing this lead, converting early missteps to its advantages giving clear signals it would no longer play by the rules of democratic engagement.  Clearly emerging as the front runner in leading the world in new regulations and a new international order.  Two underlying tremors that would make the world less free and less safe.  Furthermore, China would be engaged in weaving a web of deception, ransoming truth for trust, in an effort of pursuing their dream to rejuvenate the glory of a once-great nation.  It is rumoured: China is negotiating with the British Government for supplies of hospital requirement by putting 5G contract on the table.  A bully thy neighbour tactic.  

China's growing influence is mostly made by coercion.  The Belt and Road initiative investment costing over a trillion dollars is in the same vein.  It comes at a price landing most signatories in debt and politically subservient to China.  Same goes for investments in Africa, charging poor countries high-interest for loans on projects only to see them abandoned later. It is now helping it to act out a caring scene, a charm offensive no less, obscuring attempts to dominate their economic infrastructure.

China produces half of the masks of the world, but the head start on the Coronavirus recovery meant it had cornered its own supplies of masks as well as buying and hoarding other world supplies before the pandemic. Coming to the rescue when other countries are strapped with their own problems.  Those beleaguered countries with not enough hospital beds, suffering from overcrowding of dying patients are forced to turn to China for supplies.  Europe put out a statement saying "This is the case of China, which has moved on from being the cause and the epicentre of the crisis to being perceived as a strong supporter of efforts by affected third countries to contain the mess.

The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of production in Europe and the United States. Globalization, specialization, no inventory and slack production spaces at a premium have meant a just in time deliveries.     This goes to show in China, a specialized factory stopping its production of parts could have an immediate effect on another dedicated factory needing the same parts, say in Italy or Germany to complete a part of Fiat or Mercedes cars. The rat race, an essential ingredient of Globalisation has meant cutting the cost of production to the bone, to create ever more specialized producing units.    

Globalization is not a one-way ticket to utopia. To feed the consumer appetite of  Europe, demand must look elsewhere; syphoned off to other Asian countries, such as India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia etc. Also for easy reach, there is East Europe and Turkey. In the Americas, Mexico can cooperate as it has slack space to use up for production and would welcome the opportunity to increase its supply to the US market. With such highly tuned production units, it is not easy to turn the wheel, but Europe and the US look within for a turnround in cost efficiency.  Increase the use of Robotic and automation technology for products such as computer hardware, medical equipment and other products it has assigned to China.   Trade with China would need not come to a sudden stop, but by gradual displacement of priorities in supply and demand.  Whatever the shape of the fallout, when counting the cost, it would be painful for all regions. 

The same goes for technological know-how in the IT industry in America's Silicon Valley. It doesn't stop its wheel of fortune hunters, the flourishing entrepreneurs are on a conveyer of enterprises. Their innovation can find different supply chains no longer risking copies and imitation of their best products while negotiating a maze of intellectual lawsuits as in the case with phones and tablets.

Standing against such a scenario and to gain the initiative, is the new China government scheme announced by Xi Jinping "Made in China 2025"  a state-led industrial policy, which seeks to make China dominant in global high-tech manufacturing.  Ten years plan to develop electric cars, next-generation information technology, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence.  It is a state-led to make China dominant in IT, and in high-tech manufacturing by 2025.  The trade war has turned into a system war; Liberalism against Authoritarianism at a time when Europe despite the EU name is cracking up, and social distancing is no longer confined to individuals but to Europe and the United States.   China, with its propaganda machine, is poised to gain the upper hand.   But seeing November 2020 is just around the corner, and the Republicans getting nervous, the likely hood that Trump is becoming a liability and a one-term president.  There is hope yet for Liberal Democracy to live another day. 

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