The COVID-19 outbreak has reshaped the world's emerging superpower both at home and abroad, making China emerge as a more efficient power and helping Chinese overcome their inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West.
BEIJING — We are now entering the third year of the pandemic since the outbreak of COVID-19 in January 2020. During the past two years, the coronavirus has spread from China to the whole world. Not only is this pandemic a testimony of every government and social response, but it has also had an impact that goes beyond public health, especially among the major powers. To some extent, the pandemic has brought about changes in our way of life and has reshaped the world's geopolitics.
China is the original epicenter of where the virus was found, and the propagation of the infectious disease occurred at a moment when China and the United States were plainly engaged in a trade war. The Chinese government's response to the crisis has been significantly different from that of other countries.
There's not yet any easy way to draw a conclusion about the pros and cons of the unique way in which China has dealt with the pandemic. The consequences of the epidemic in China are particularly complex and multi-faceted.
However, we can still observe changes that have taken place so far.
The first direct change brought about by the pandemic is the arrival in China of a semi-militarized system of lifestyle and social control. It can also be called a "wartime control."
After the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, the Chinese government resolutely took the measure of a strict citywide lockdown. Various other places across the country quickly followed suit. In the past two years, "Zero COVID" policy of the closure and control of fixed cities and areas — including strict quarantine, the imposition of PCR tests for all people in targeted places, the epidemiological tracking, and the control of the movement with a green health code — have all been normalized as the government's routine response to the infectious disease.
The Chinese authorities call this "dynamic clearing." According to a report recently released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, if China had adopted the way the U.S. or Europe handled the pandemic, it would have caused at least 200 million contaminations and more than three million deaths.
However, what lies behind this "dynamic clearing" is ubiquitous social surveillance, supported by technology, at the cost of large-scale intervention in public and private lives, as well as the loss of personal freedom. Even though the authorities were already monitoring people, the degree and scope of the surveillance were not as pervasive and seamless as it is now.
The Chinese government had never before found an opportunity to rehearse the control measures it would use were social unrest or a situation similar to that of war to occur. From this perspective, the COVID-19 is an unexpected "win" for the Chinese government.
Challenging the U.S. with 'vaccine diplomacy'
The second substantive change is the intensified confrontation between China and the United States. This has led to a deterioration in China’s relations with the West and its moral damage, which in turn makes China's geopolitical environment grimmer than ever.
Just before the outbreak of this pandemic, China-U.S. relations were already subject to a state of sharp antagonism because of Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement, because of forced labor in Xinjiang, as well as the ideological and geopolitical conflicts between the two countries, in particular the trade war.
The damage to Sino-U.S. relations caused by the pandemic is largely due to the fact that President Donald Trump’s ineffectiveness in fighting the disease had turned people against him in the presidential election which was originally in his favor. He thus blamed China for the catastrophe occurring in the U.S. by playing the anti-China card.
The Chinese government has achieved the goal of its vaccine diplomacy
Since President Joe Biden took office, he has continued to confront China on the issues of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, while at the same time rallying allies to contain China. He also inherited the rhetoric of the Xinjiang genocide that was put forward at the end of the Trump administration, and increased pressure on technology companies, supply chains and financial markets to decouple from China.
During Biden's first year in office, Sino-U.S. relations did not get better, instead, the two countries have moved closer to a new Cold War.
However, what the pandemic had brought to China is not all negative; there are gains. By providing anti-epidemic assistance, especially vaccines, to a large number of developing countries, the Chinese government has achieved the goal of its vaccine diplomacy.
According to Chinese official data, it has offered more than 2 billion doses of vaccine and other materials to more than 120 countries and international organizations in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South Pacific island countries, and Latin America.
China has always relied on developing countries diplomatically, so the vaccine has certainly played a critical role in the past two years. Most developing countries have sided with China in the U.S. challenges to China with reference to tracing the origin of the virus, and the issues over Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.
Public opinion started to downplay China's status as the "world's factory"
Another change is in people's mentality. The pandemic has altered the Chinese public’s long-term inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West and has made them more confident, especially in relations the United States. It has also resulted in the Chinese government’s estimation that "The East is rising while the West is descending," and to regard the U.S. on an equal footing with confidence.
The pitifulness of the West’s handling of the pandemic has made the Chinese government and its people suddenly realize that the Western powers’ strength and governmental efficiency are nothing but a legend. Looking up to the West and holding on to previous superstitious beliefs in these countries are completely unnecessary; only the Chinese government has a strong executive power. The national-interest-oriented system with Chinese characteristics and the values of collectivism can defeat the selfish individualism of the West.
No major Western country has handed over a qualified answer in the fight against the disaster, especially the United States. Due to Trump's contempt for the virus and the fact that a considerable number of Americans believe in virus conspiracy theories and refuse to be vaccinated, the number of infections and deaths in the U.S. far exceeds that of other countries. Biden's rise to power did not change that outcome either.
The world’s dependence on the Chinese market has deepened
From China’s perspective, whatever the reasons, the failure of the U.S. and the West reflects the distress of U.S.-style democracy and the capitalist system, at least when dealing with public health crises.
When the setback in the fight against the pandemic is combined with the chaos of the U.S. election, it will make the Chinese government and its people believe that the U.S., as well as the Western systems have inherent hidden and mortal shortages, to be not worthy of China's learning. The Chinese system is the most suited for China.
Global supply chain shift
Before the pandemic, due to the trade war and the U.S. attempt to decouple from China economically, some part of the foreign capital and local manufacturers in the Chinese market began to relocate to India, Vietnam and other countries. Public opinion started to downplay China's status as the "world's factory." This was especially evident in the early stages of the global health crisis.
However, the rapid spread of the virus has spared no country in the world. The originally dense economic ties have been suppressed whereas the globalization has halted. Countries such as India and Vietnam are limited by medical conditions and their governments are also short of concentrated resources like those of China in efficiently fighting the pandemic.
As a result, they were quickly paralyzed when businesses stopped operating and workers stopped working. Certain enterprises have finally realized that staying in China would have been a better choice and have since backtracked.
Don't put all your eggs in China's basket.
The Chinese economy is estimated to grow by more than 8% in 2021 making it one of the fastest growing economies. At the same time, it has exported large quantities of medical supplies and other products to the world during the global health crisis. This has deepened the world’s dependence on the Chinese market.
In considering that the pandemic is very likely to recur in the future and also the size of the Chinese market, though China has lost its cost advantage over countries such as Vietnam and India, companies that have returned are unlikely to transfer out again after the crisis. Certain companies that originally wanted to move out may also hesitate now.
Nonetheless, it is also the pandemic that has made a lot of countries realize that they cannot put all their eggs in China's basket, and that they must spread their risk. Therefore, we don't know whether the so-called "superiority" of China's system and the favorable conditions for its economy are sustainable if the global pandemic is prolonged.