China syndrome

May 27 2020


A COMBINATION of the words ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘flu’ may ring a bell for older readers. A little more than 50 years ago, the phrase ‘Hong Kong flu’ briefly entered popular parlance internationally.

It was a matter-of-fact term, not associated, as far as I can recall from my childhood, with any great sense of panic. It’s somewhat sobering to realise, then, that the H3N2 strain of the influenza A virus is believed to have claimed one to four million lives globally in 1968-69.

This included an estimated 100,000 deaths in the US, coincidentally close to the current official Covid-19 toll in that country. There was no concerted effort back then to heap the blame on Hong Kong, which was still a British colony.

As in the case of the Asian flu a decade earlier, which claimed a similar toll worldwide, no shutdowns, lockdowns or social distancing measures were decreed, even though they may well have saved some lives.

This time around, meanwhile, the association between a deadly virus and the now semi-autonomous Chinese territory resonates in a very different sense. Late last week, the delayed National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing was informed that the Communist Party of China (CPC), evidently emboldened by its successes against Covid-19, intends to promulgate ‘security laws’ designed to throttle the sporadic protests in Hong Kong in favour of greater democracy and even independence.

Beijing intends to add the security rules to the playbook.

Hong Kong was in disarray for much of 2019, with massive mobilisations against laws that would have made it possible for suspected offenders to face trial in mainland China. The territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, eventually agreed to shelve the relevant bill.

The local Legislative Council has also failed to pass laws that would effectively outlaw any opposition to the Chinese party-state, invoking terms such as ‘sedition’, ‘subversion’, ‘treason’ and ‘foreign’ intervention. So Beijing now intends to bypass that inconvenient process and simply add the security rules to the playbook.

The usual suspects in the West have vented their fury, but are unlikely to venture beyond testy rhetoric. The US has threatened sanctions, but it can ill afford to completely antagonise Beijing given the extent of its economic reliance on China.

Besides, given the sheer absurdity of the terms in which Donald Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, among various other prominent Americans, are framing their attacks on the CPC as a deliberate progenitor and super-spreader of the novel coronavirus, American rhetoric on this subject — and most others — lacks all credibility.

There is little doubt that the initial response to the outbreak in Wuhan could have been much better, and the likelihood that the local authorities were reluctant to convey bad news to Beijing goes to the heart of the issues unleashed by Xi Jinping’s reinvigorated authoritarianism.

On the other hand, it may indeed have been difficult to tell at the outset whether human-to-human transmissions were a concern. By many accounts, once the government in Beijing fully latched on to what was going on, it lost little time in both clamping down on the virus and conveying to international authorities the details of what it was up against.

China’s organisational skills came to the fore with the strictly enforced lockdowns, beginning in Wuhan, where it commandeered all the restaurants to ensure locked-down residents received three meals a day, while also posting armed guards outside apartment complexes to deter violations of the rules.

Not many other countries could simultaneously have instituted both these provisions, for a variety of reasons, and the upshot is that although the Chinese economy has suffered a severe blow — reflected in the hierarchy’s refusal for the first time in decades to propose a growth target at the NPC — it is better-placed for a revival than most of its rivals. That may partly explain the extent of Western hostility towards China.

On the other hand, though, China has also relentlessly pursued its suppression of dissent, continued with minor power plays in the South and East China Seas, and skirmished with India along their mutual line of control. At the same time, it has sought to extend its soft power by helping other nations cope with Covid-19.

But its efforts at exploiting the ludicrous dysfunction in Washington will not add up to much if China simultaneously conveys the impression of a ‘my way or the highway’ bully. It could compete with Trump on the international playing field in a far more sophisticated manner than the crude sledgehammer method it misguidedly appears to have adopted in the context of Hong Kong.

The portended action has been compared with the Russian conquest of Crimea, although the Indian approach to Kashmir would be a better analogy. Increasing belligerence towards Taiwan is additional cause for concern. Come what may post the pandemic, the ancient Chinese curse will decidedly be in play: may you live in interesting times.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2020