China seems to have much to cheer about. There is every sign that this vast nation is well on the way to post-Pandemic recovery. Ever since the disease that has wreaked havoc around the world as nothing had in this generation originated in one of its cities, Wuhan, the Chinese authorities had relentlessly endeavoured to bring the situation under control. Their efforts seem to have produced results. Over the last three weeks no new case has been recorded. It became the world’s first major economy to rebound positively, posting a 3.2% GDP growth in the second quarter of the current year. Aviation within China is close to normal. As is life in most cities and in the countryside. These have been no mean achievements. The Chinese, who place great store by demonstrating success as an indicator of the excellence of their political model, had no qualms about celebrating. This was done with great pomp and circumstance in Beijing on the 8th of September.
At a massive ceremony held in the magnificent opulence of the Great Hall of the people in Beijing the Chinese authorities honoured more than 2000 health care and sanitation workers, police officers and volunteers. Also, importantly, a number of scientific researchers to led the way in China’s combat against the pandemic. The renowned respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan was conferred the highest national honour, the Medal of the Republic. The next set of “national heroes” whose contributions were also recognized, were Dr Zhang Boli, a traditional medicine expert; Dr Zhang Dingyu, the head of Wuhan Hospital; and Dr Chen Wei, a researcher-lead with regard to treatment and vaccines. The awards were handed out in person by President Xi Jinping who delivered a speech to mark the occasion. As always, the speech was minutely studied and parsed by analysts to better understand China’s post-Covid policies and behaviour.
During this crisis one major target of the western critics was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The main reason for this is that the CCP is viewed by them as central to the Chinese model of governance, now so vehemently criticized by President Donald Trump of the United States and some of his western allies. Xi attributed much of the credit of China’s effective handling of the crisis to the Party. He described the CCP as “the most reliable backbone of the Chinese people when the storm hits”, and praised its strong leadership in steering China out of this difficult period. He lauded the Chinese political model under attack by insisting that the fight against this virus has once again proven “ the significant advantage s of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics in defending risks and challenges and improving the effectiveness of national governance”.
Xi took a swipe at the United States. As the US polls, due on 3 November, approaches, Trump has been taking an increasingly hostile position against China, largely to mobilize his extreme right-wing base. Xi is naturally eager to wean away support to this position both domestically in the US, as well as internationally. Xi, therefore, called for global unity and cooperation in dealing with the Pandemic and warned that “any practice that is selfish, that blames others, reverses right and wrong and confuses black with white will not only cause harm to the country and its people , but also to the people of the world”. He did not mention the US by name, but doubtless hopes that his description of that country would not leave others in any doubt. The US has to date recorded the highest number of infection and fatalities in the world; at writing, six million infections and nearly 200, 000 fatalities, with no end to the raging spread of the disease in sight.
The Chinese have been careful not be seen entirely focused on their own travails. They too suffered 85000 illnesses and 4600 deaths. But, as discussed, they were able to take the bull by the horns, reducing and ultimately eliminating Covid’s onslaught. However, they have not been shy of pressing their successes to obtaining international diplomatic and political mileage. They have also been the world’s largest provider of Covid -related medical supplies. Spread over the last six months they have exported nearly 210000 ventilators, 1.4 billion protective suits, and 152 billion masks to countries all around the globe. China is also forging ahead with its efforts to quickly produce a vaccine against the virus. The Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech is already conducting tests with its product, CoronaVac which is said to have increased antibodies among three groups of people injected. Indeed, 50 percent of the world’s vaccines, four out of eight, that are on third phase of trials are from China. Countries where Corona Vac is on trial on humans included India. There it has a high probability of success. Given that China and India are in the midst of a major military and political spat along the Himalayan borders, the success of their vaccine in India could have a positive impact on the conflictual bilateral relations between the two countries.
As China works its way out of the pandemic crisis, it is confronting another. This is its worsening relations with the US. The major cause for it of course is the US disinclination to accept a rising China as a peer. The immediate reason appears to be the upcoming US Presidential elections in November, in the approach to which, for both the Republicans and Democrats, China-bashing provides an easy access to votes. Trump alleges that China failed to warn the US and the world of the deadly nature of the virus. However this argument may not hold water with current revelations that in an interview with the writer Bob Woodward , as early as in February, he seemed to be aware of the its severity but now admits that he underplayed it to avoid panic.
Be that as it may, the rest of the world must not be hostage to the US-China dispute. Even this may be tamped down post-election as benefits of cooperation become salient. There may be important lessons to learn from China, and one must not allow the opportunity to pass. ‘Vaccine nationalism” or sentiments like “my country first “ will have deadly consequences. As the World Health Organization has urged, what is called for is global collaboration. The alternative is not an option.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, National University of Singapore. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg