The speed and massive scale of China’s response to the coronavirus “showed China’s efficiency and the advantages of China’s system”, said Tedros Adhanom, director-general of the World Health Organization, during a visit to Chinese president Xi Jinping on 29 January. This was also the message that Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi brought to the Munich Security Conference.
In reality, the opposite is true, of course: it is a classic example of the downsides of an authoritarian system. Fearing for their careers (or worse), officials dare not report bad news upwards, until the problem explodes in their faces. Then follows overreaction, which usually is effective, though the impact on the life of the average citizen can be quite brutal.
Will the coronavirus have political consequences?
First of all it strengthens factional strife within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In order to shield himself, Xi has already fired several high-ranking officials, and he has sent premier Li Keqiang into to the field to master the crisis. Yet the crisis does affect his image: that cannot be avoided if you profile yourself as the omnipotent leader.
Xi has plenty of enemies in the party, as his anti-corruption drive made many victims, and far from everybody is happy with his bid for life-long power (by doing away with the two-term limit). If the crisis were to escalate and result in a severe economic slowdown, that may strengthen Xi’s opponents and, who knows, have consequences for the succession.
Of course the crisis undermines the party’s legitimacy with the people. I do not speak Chinese, so I certainly do not pretend to be a China-expert, but teaching in Beijing every year does give me a feeling for the aspirations of the big new middle class from which my students hail. People certainly want security, and the government does provide that: Beijing is more safe at night than Brussels. People are optimistic about the economy: they expect that prosperity will increase, eventually for all Chinese, but the outbreak could slow this down. Those who already are more prosperous seek quality of life: a government that cares about food safety, the environment etc. Certainly in Beijing one does feel that the government is doing better. But the way China initially dealt with the coronavirus brings back memories of the worst excesses of Mao’s regime, during which the life of the individual counted for nothing.
Could the corona outbreak herald the end of CCP rule? It seems unlikely. People also desire stability, and the fear for chaos if the centre of power were to collapse has deep historical roots. The Chinese know full well, of course, that compared to Europe their rights and freedoms are limited. But if the party guarantees security and ever-increasing prosperity, they seem willing to accept their situation – to a certain extent. The question is whether there is an upper limit to the degree of repression that the public can take. Perhaps the trend to more authoritarianism that Xi started could now be reversed again, without this leading to the end of the CCP.
A fully democratic China is not now in the cards therefore, even though it could drastically improve the lives of 1.4 billion Chinese. Naturally, the European Union and the United States would also like to see democratization. But let us not have any illusions: this would not bring an end to great power rivalry. A democratic China would still be a global power, with enormous economic needs and great ambitions. Do not think that the US is about to say: oh, China is a democracy now – congratulations, let’s cut the cake in two then! (In two, not in three: they would not likely think of the EU in such a context). The US seeks to stay the undisputed world leader, no matter who the other players are.
It is a mistake to see world politics as a confrontation between democracy and dictatorship. World politics is about states that defend their interests. They cooperate or compete with other states depending on whether interests coincide or clash – quite regardless of the domestic political system of those other states.
Moreover, the democracies do not always show much respect for human rights and international law themselves. How India treats its province of Kashmir is not that different from how China deals with the Uighurs in Xinjiang. China has created an illegal military occupation of the South China Sea, but the world has not forgotten the illegal American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The EU must continue to engage China therefore, now more than ever, and cooperate when it can (and push back when it must). Not in the hope of a regime change, but we can hope for a return to the previous trend, before Xi arrived in power, of a gradual opening of the system.
2020 will actually be a crucial year for EU-China relations, with two summits planned: the regular one in the spring, and an extra summit including all 27 EU heads of state and government in Leipzig in the autumn. The aim: to deliver a bilateral investment treaty, as envisaged at the 2019 EU-China summit. The coronavirus does impede on the preparations. Moreover, on the Chinese side the idea has arisen that the EU wants a success so badly that it will accept a suboptimal treaty. That is a serious misconception.
For the EU, this is the test of its China strategy. If Beijing does not now deliver, then it should not be surprised if, in the wake of Washington, Brussels will begin to see it in more antagonistic terms as well.