Wuhan virus finally alters global perceptions of the PRC: William Stanton

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Visitor wearing face mask walks through Forbidden City in Beijing May 1, 2020. 

Visitor wearing face mask walks through Forbidden City in Beijing May 1, 2020.  (AP photo)

Twenty-nine years ago, on April 18, 1991, I delivered an informal talk at the Hoover Institution about the People's Republic of China (PRC), which I recently found among my papers. What surprised me in re-reading the talk I had given so long ago is how the views I held then have only been reinforced over the last three decades. Reflecting on the Tiananmen Square Massacre that occurred two years earlier, I wrote:

For many of us working in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing … the brutal ruthlessness of China’s leaders came as no surprise. Many of us had, in fact, anticipated a violent outcome, not necessarily because we were especially perceptive about what was going on in the minds of China’s aging Communist leaders, but because our daily experience in China had predisposed us to expect the worst. We were not ... so easily deluded by the mistaken conceptions of China which have molded public opinion in the West and … have also continued to shape the thinking of American policymakers …

I increasingly perceived a dissonance between the professed nature of our relations with China, the supposed direction of Chinese society, and the abstract iteration of our policy, and the actual experience of living in China and dealing with the Chinese government on a daily basis. The dissonance was strongest when I listened to the effusive comments on China and Sino-U.S. relations by visiting Americans, whether they be politicians, academics, or tourists, and heard the overly upbeat assessments of China’s future and our relations with the country that we generally offered visitors.

We were always acting as if the Chinese were friends, if not allies, but the Chinese certainly did not treat us in the same manner. Whether the issue was PRC missile sales to the Middle East, efforts to begin a dialogue on human rights, or simply reciprocal treatment of PRC and U.S. diplomats, I saw an enormous gap between what the Chinese expected from us and what they were themselves willing to deliver.

I believe most countries around the world shared a starry-eyed vision of China after Deng Xiaoping famously “opened up” China, and it appeared nothing could alter it. There was certainly a temporary pause in many countries’ relations with the PRC following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but it was clear that even the most liberal Western democracies were eager to get beyond Tiananmen and get back to business as usual with the PRC.

Too Many PRC Misdeeds

There nonetheless continued to be almost too many PRC transgressions of internationally acceptable behavior for the world to track, much less protest: the relentless crackdown on Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism; the incarceration of a million or more Uighurs; the suppression of Christian churches and Muslim mosques; the ceaseless arrests of dissidents, human rights lawyers, and authors; the expulsions of foreign reporters and newspapers; ongoing reports of organ harvesting; the gradual erosion of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong; massive intellectual property theft; huge exports of addictive fentanyl; continuing militarization of the South China Sea (SCS) despite a 2016 International Court decision that PRC claims were unlawful; the intentional sinking of Vietnamese and Philippine fishing boats; the support for nuclear and missile programs in Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea; the shipment of fuel and luxury goods to North Korea in violation of UN resolutions that the PRC had supported; and the seduction of developing countries into “debt traps” in support of the PRC’s “Belt and Road” scheme.

The list goes on and on. Collectively, the world has failed to respond with any effect.

PRC Agents of Influence

The key reason for the world’s unwillingness to act in response to such behavior has been the subjugation of values to perceived interests, whether strategic, economic, or both. Former Secretary of State (1973-77) Henry Kissinger famously typified these incentives when he criticized U.S. sanctions imposed on the PRC in response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre and repeatedly called for the preservation of a “special” Sino-U.S. relationship. To justify the hundreds or more people killed at Tiananmen, Kissinger argued in an editorial on July 30, 1989, that “No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators.”

But as commentator Anthony Lewis pointed out on Dec. 19, 1989, in The New York Times: “So if the Czechoslovak ‘authorities’ had sent tanks against the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Prague's Wenceslas Square last month, the United States should have been understanding. After all, governments must be able to govern. But the lesson of Eastern Europe is the opposite. Tyrannical governments do not have to go on governing. The people, though seemingly powerless, can bring about change. The ideals of democracy and humanity have a power of their own.”

Henry Kissinger’s strategic views almost certainly were reinforced by monetary incentives. After leaving government, Kissinger continued to serve as a loyal supporter and advocate of the appeasing policies toward China he initiated. While few doubt Kissinger’s personal belief in the strategic importance of Sino-U.S. ties, it is also true that the consulting firm he founded, Kissinger Associates, earned many millions of dollars over the years arranging access to senior PRC leaders in Beijing for U.S. corporations. Unfortunately, many other former senior U.S. officials — Democrats and well as Republicans — followed the path Kissinger pioneered as an honored intermediary.

U.S. business leaders also directly sought Beijing’s “friendship” in pursuit of their business interests. A more recent egregious example is former New York City Mayor and billionaire business magnate Michael Bloomberg, who as a Democratic presidential candidate last year argued that Xi Jinping “is not a dictator” and took a very soft line on trade with the PRC. Despite Bloomberg’s apparently liberal leanings, his company — fearful of losing its hugely lucrative financial data business in the PRC — in 2012 suppressed further reports by a Bloomberg News journalist on the wealth of Chinese Communist Party leaders, including Xi Jinping, and their families.

Attitudes toward the PRC have been Changing in the U.S. and Elsewhere

Negative views of China have nonetheless continued to increase among the American public, according to a March 2020 survey by the widely respected Pew Research Center. Two-thirds of Americans polled said they had an unfavorable view of China, the most negative rating for the country since the Center began asking the question in 2005. These unfavorable views have, moreover, consistently exceeded positive views since 2013. It would not be too much of a leap to see this trend as at least partly related to the 2012 ascension of Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and his introduction of even more oppressive domestic policies and more aggressive foreign policies.

According to the Pew survey, Americans saw as “very serious” or “somewhat serious” a range of threats from China: its impact on the global environment (91 percent); its cyberattacks (87 percent); its trade surplus with the U.S. (85 percent); the loss of U.S. jobs to China (84 percent); the country’s growing military power (84 percent); its policies on human rights (82 percent); its growing technological power (78 percent); and PRC-Hong Kong tensions (76 percent). Given such views and the unlikelihood of significant progress on any of these issues, in addition to the devastating spread of the Wuhan virus, American views of the country are unlikely to improve.

Surely a reflection, in part, of such unfavorable public views, but also as a result of the tougher policies of the Trump administration and a rare bipartisan consensus in Congress, Washington has forced the closure of Confucius Institutes at many universities by threatening to withhold Department of Defense funding for research.

Disaffection toward the PRC has more remarkably been evident in other countries as well. As of mid-April, Sweden became the first European country to shut down all of its Confucius Institutes and a Confucius classroom as well. The decision partly stemmed from Beijing’s decision on Feb. 25, 2020, to sentence Swedish national Gui Minhai to ten-years’ imprisonment for publishing books in Hong Kong that had been banned by Beijing. He was accused of "illegally providing intelligence overseas.” Such decisions also reflected an overall distrust in the views the institutes were purveying to Swedish students.

The Wuhan Virus Will Be a Game Changer for Global Attitudes

The principal reason for any reconsideration of policies toward the PRC, however, is of course the Wuhan virus. As of this writing, there have been 3,578,301 identified cases of the pandemic virus and 251,059 deaths recorded worldwide. We are still counting and there is no end in sight. Moreover, there is a consensus — in most democratic countries at least — that, as U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo said on May 3, “The Chinese Communist Party had the opportunity to prevent all of the calamity that has befallen the world” but:

Instead, China behaved like authoritarian regimes do. It attempted to conceal and hide and confuse. It employed the World Health organization as a tool to do the same. These are the kinds of things that have now presented this enormous crisis, an enormous loss of life, and tremendous economic cost all across the globe.”

Blame for the initial cover-up and disinformation about the threat of the disease crystalized for many countries where dissatisfaction with China over multiple bilateral, regional, and global issues already existed. Its monopoly on the production of medicines and health supplies also reinforced already strong doubts about globalization, which has so hugely benefitted China. The PRC’s new breed of “wolf warrior” diplomats and journalists aggressively attacking anyone who criticizes the Chinese government's handling of the crisis only deepened divisions. As early as March 3, the official PRC news service Xinhua published a commentary threatening the United States with an embargo on shipments of medical supplies and a future filled with more diseases:

“If China retaliates against the United States at this time, in addition to announcing a travel ban on the United States, it will also announce strategic control over medical products and ban exports to the United States. Then the United States will be caught in the ocean of new coronaviruses.”

Such language has been a wake-up call. As Republican Senator and former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote in an editorial for the Washington Post on April 23:

“America is awakening to China. The covid-19 pandemic has revealed that, to a great degree, our very health is in Chinese hands; from medicines to masks, we are at Beijing’s mercy ... but China’s stranglehold on pharmaceuticals is only a small sliver of its grand strategy for economic, military and geopolitical domination. The West’s response must extend much further [than remedying our medical dependence] — it will require a unified strategy among free nations to counter China’s trade predation and its corruption of our mutual security.”

Moreover, PRC sales — or “donations” — of defective medical masks, ventilators, and other supplies to countries such as Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Pakistan, have only sown further distrust and dissatisfaction.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Australia, and the executive chief of the EU, among others, have called for a full investigation into how the virus got started. In contrast, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said the agency would carry out an “after-action” review when the pandemic is over.

In addition, President Trump, other senior U.S. officials, and even the state of Missouri have talked about seeking reparations, as unsuccessful as this is likely to be. Others have talked about, and are writing articles about, what might be legally feasible. Meanwhile, the popular German newspaper Bild published a front-page article on April 15 demanding that the PRC pay Germany €148 billion for damages caused by the Wuhan virus.

On April 17, the former vice president of the Africa Region of the World Bank wrote an editorial in the Washington Post calling on China to write off all of the more than US$140 billion that China’s government, banks, and contractors extended to African countries between 2007 and 2017 as compensation for the severe impact the Wuhan virus was having and would continue to have on Africa.

The PRC Will Face Serious Economic Challenges

While I doubt the PRC will ever pay reparations, it will certainly continue to face serious, if not severe, economic consequences from the pandemic. We know that many countries have now lost confidence in supply chains centered on China, and this will almost certainly lead to a reconsideration of production there. There will also almost certainly be legislation requiring companies producing vital products to leave the country. Japan has already set aside US$2 billion of an economic stimulus package for companies shifting production back to Japan, according to an April 8 Bloomberg report. Since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in 2016, Taiwan businesses have already increasingly diversified their production capacity in other countries.

South China Morning Post columnist Cary Huang in a May 3 commentary also observed that “One of the more worrying consequences of the coronavirus is that it looks likely to become a catalyst for de-globalization … At the center of this will be the decoupling of the Chinese economy with developed economies and the U.S. in particular. The world’s three largest free economies — the European Union, the United States, and Japan — are all drawing up separate plans to lure their companies out of China … China has been the biggest beneficiary as its economic rise has come hand in hand with globalization.” As a result of de-globalization, China may well become the biggest loser.

In addition to de-globalization, the PRC already bears one of the heaviest debt burdens in the world, and as a result of the pandemic, the dozens of developing countries already heavily indebted to China that are now coping with the pandemic will unlikely be able to meet their debt obligations. The PRC will face the dilemma of wanting to add to its debt burden to stimulate the economy but also the growing problem of finding anyone willing to buy PRC debt at a time when foreign direct investment in the nation will also be dropping.

As the rest of the world struggles with weakening economies, the PRC will increasingly find it difficult to secure customers for its export-driven economy.

Taiwan, the Virus, and the WHO

The World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s decision-making body, will hold its annual meeting in Geneva on May 18. It is likely to be an extremely contentious meeting. A key issue will, of course, be the question of Taiwan’s participation. Taiwan took part in the assembly as an observer from 2009 to 2016 but has not been re-invited since President Tsai took office. China also blocked Taiwan’s participation following the SARs outbreak in 2003. The EU, Japan, Canada, Australia, and the United States have all called for Taiwan to be allowed to join the WHO, while the PRC will oppose even putting Taiwan’s participation on the agenda.

One important factor that will weigh heavily in Taiwan’s favor will be the worldwide acclaim it has earned for its enormously successful management of the pandemic — certainly the best of any developed country in the world. Moreover, its generosity in sharing medical supplies with other countries, its excellent public health system, and its scientific expertise in fighting diseases are widely recognized. In addition, the provably false accusations of racism that WHO Director General Tedros leveled at Taiwan and the concurrent evidence of racist attacks against Africans living and working in the PRC might swing some African votes in Taiwan’s favor.

There may also be a major WHA battle over the demands of many countries for an immediate investigation into the outbreak. The assembly will also have to address Australian Prime Minister Morrison’s call for the establishment of a system of independent WHO inspectors, along the lines of weapons inspectors, with the power to enter a country to carry out immediate investigations when there is evidence of an epidemic.

The PRC will oppose these reasonable proposals. The immediate reaction of its ambassador to Canberra’s call for an investigation was to threaten to boycott Australian products and halt the flow of Chinese students into the country. The PRC had already been accused of blocking and forcing revisions to an internal European Union report stating that China had spread disinformation to absolve itself of guilt for its role in the pandemic’s outbreak.

Such continuing opposition to ascertaining the truth will in itself be a telling reminder that China does not want the truth to be known. It will also reinforce the growing perception worldwide that the PRC is the source of, rather than the solution to, global problems.

William A. Stanton is vice president of National Yang-Ming University. He previously served from August 2017 to July 2019 as a professor at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. Dr. Stanton previously worked for four years as the George K.C. Yeh Distinguished Chair Professor and founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice president for Global Affairs. Dr. Stanton previously served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).