By Calum Muirhead
With the world facing one of its worst public health crises for more than a generation in the form of coronavirus, the mask of benevolence and international cooperation covering Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping may finally be starting to slip.
Following the horrors of the Cultural Revolution from the late 60’s to Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, economic reforms instituted by the Deng Xiaoping government led many, particularly political and business leaders in the West, to believe that the ensuing prosperity would lift millions of Chinese out of poverty and, by extension, towards ideals of democracy and individual freedom.
However, recent events have shown that while the former may have been achieved (the Chinese poverty rate fell from 66% in 1981 to 0.7% in 2015), the latter is if anything further away now than it was at the end of the Cold War.
The anti-liberal practices of the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping have turned the touted goals of globalisation, greater political freedom and prosperity through international networks of both money and people, on their head.
Rather than China becoming more liberalised and open, other countries are instead seeing their businesses, governments and cultural institutions increasingly conforming to the whims of an authoritarian state.
China’s use of globalised systems to further its agenda has been brought into sharper relief since the height of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in the summer of 2019, with the silence of many governments to the abuses meted out against peaceful demonstrators by an increasingly militarised police force.
More disconcerting still has been the frequency with which large international corporations, such as the NBA and video games giant Activision Blizzard, have deemed it necessary to censor those who exercised their right to speak out against the Chinese regime’s treatment of those under its control.
To say these actions are not connected to these companies’ wish for continued access to the Chinese economy and its citizens’ growing levels of disposable income is ignorant at best and deliberate obfuscation at worst.
This incessant drive to gain increased access to China’s economy has also now placed the security of other nations at risk, with telecoms giant Huawei, widely suspected to be involved in the regime’s oppression of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, having for some reason been granted the ability to build critical parts of the UK’s 5G infrastructure by the Boris Johnson government.
Universities across the world are also finding themselves under pressure to censor students who speak out, with those that disobey running the risk of losing the large amount of tuition fees offered by China’s ever-growing cohort of international students.
The extent to which the globalisation of China’s economic boom has left the rest of the world vulnerable to the whims of the communist government is not fully known. But the coronavirus pandemic may prove to be a potent example of how this system has failed to balance the desire for profit with maintaining a geopolitical balance and fairness among nation-states.
With Chinese factories having closed their doors and citizens staying home either voluntarily or under mandatory quarantine, businesses that rely on China’s cheap labour pool or its vast consumer market for their continued viability are facing massive financial shocks.
Meanwhile, the suspiciously slow decision by the World Health Organisation to declare the outbreak a pandemic, delaying the introduction of appropriate containment measures, has drawn attention to the influence of the Chinese government on how international institutions act, particularly if there is a possible ‘loss of face’ for the regime.
However, with cases rising across the world and misinformation circulating (a Chinese diplomat has promoted a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in the US), the invoking of globalisation as a way to liberalise China both economically and politically may have pushed both the country and the world further away from these goals.
Calum Muirhead is a London-based financial journalist and a coordinator of We Are HKers, a bilingual media project that documents the stories of Hong Kong people and those with a connection to the city. He is also involved in pro-democracy activism and has worked with human rights organisations such as Hong Kong Watch.