Many of us have woken up in recent years to the threat we face in the Chinese Communist Party. The danger that the Party presents to citizens of China has been well documented for decades, but it is only recently that this danger has been extended to the rest of the world—or perhaps it is only recently that the rest of the world has caught its first alarming glimpse of a long-hidden menace. This menace comes in a variety of forms. In the arena of infrastructure and investment, there is Xi Jinping’s vaunted “Belt and Road Initiative.” The aim is to create Chinese vassal states all over the world by issuing loans that cannot be repaid. This enables the Party to assume control of ports, pipelines, and power plants, and ultimately to gain leverage over indebted governments.
Then there is the great misinformation war. Beijing has the Western media in its sights—most of the major Australian media outlets are already being paid to publish Communist Party propaganda. At the same time, Party-controlled telecom companies like Huawei and ZTE are planning to build 5G networks across the globe, a nightmare prospect vividly imagined by Robert Spalding, former senior director at the National Security Council: “Controlling another nation’s network will allow the CCP to weaponize the technology that is managed by the network. What does that mean? Think of a hostile force taking over a self-driving car or bus and directing it to crash into a crowded sidewalk. Think of a flock of drones moving into the flight path of an airplane. Think of every digitally controlled furnace shutting down during a subzero cold spell.”
With each move the CCP outflanks its rivals and creeps closer to global hegemony. Indeed, a US congressional report has found that the United States would lose if war was to break out with China tomorrow. China’s leaders no longer hide the fact that they aim to establish a Communist-led world order, with the task due for completion in the year 2049 (exactly one century after the Party first took power).
And yet with all this talk of elaborate Machiavellian plots, it has been easy to forget the sheer incompetence of the Communist Party. Beijing makes careful plans decades in advance, executing some of them successfully, but it also makes the most colossal mistakes along the way. The CCP may give the impression of order and efficiency, but this is order taken to such pathological, inflexible extremes that it frequently results in disorder—from the lethal famine caused by Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” in the 1950s to the massive social unrest caused by Xi Jinping’s Hong Kong Extradition Bill in 2019. Recent history ought to leave us in no doubt. Chaos follows the Communist Party. Now the coronavirus crisis is showing us the very real danger of maintaining close relations with such a regime.
If we were to ignore history altogether, then today’s China might seem an unlikely candidate for turmoil. Xi has created the world’s most heavily surveilled state—the city of Chongqing alone has 168 cameras per 1,000 people. Advanced facial recognition technology is used to record subtle variations in facial expression on public transport and in schools. This monitoring extends to the virtual world, with online behaviour subject to the same intense scrutiny. Private space has all but disappeared in 21st-century China. The floodlights are permanently switched on. In theory, this should make it difficult for anything to happen in secret, while unexpected large-scale catastrophe should be almost impossible.
But it turns out that increased surveillance leads, paradoxically, to greater opaqueness. Xi has eyes everywhere, and because of this he is blind. Netizens have learned to self-censor on social media, fearful of the well-known consequences of “rumour-mongering.” This stops the spread of potentially vital information. The techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufecki gives us a good analogy: China’s surveillance-based system creates an effect “similar to losing sensation in parts of one’s body due to nerve injuries. Without the pain to warn the brain, the hand stays on the hot stove, unaware of the damage to the flesh until it’s too late.”
The Party’s leaders are numb to pain signals in the body politic. As a result, China is ripe for all manner of pandemics and Chernobyls. We should be surprised that it took as long as it did for a COVID-19-sized disaster to arrive. It was always a strong likelihood, and when medical staff in Wuhan began whispering about a new mystery illness back in December, this potential disaster became a certainty. Local authorities moved quickly to crush the “rumours,” summoning the unfortunate doctors for an intimidation session. News about the virus was not allowed to spread. China’s hand stayed where it was, pressed hard against the hot stove. Scores of Chinese travelled to and from Wuhan during the critical weeks from December to January—the busiest time of year, due to the approaching Chinese New Year celebrations. As January came to a close the scale of the problem dawned at last on China’s modern-day emperor, and so the lockdowns began. But by that point, of course, it was already far too late.
The Party’s leaders have actually bungled three epidemics in less than 20 years, and the same weaknesses are exposed each time. First there was the SARS virus, which began appearing in cities in the south of the country towards the end of 2002. After some initial dithering, the Ministry of Health deployed a team of experts to investigate the outbreak, and a report was sent back to Beijing. Labelled “top secret,” it sat around gathering dust for days. None of the available officials had sufficient authorisation to open it. Even after the report had finally been opened and the severity of the situation understood, the public was not informed. Instead, the outbreak was classified as a state secret, meaning that any doctors or journalists who reported it would be subject to the same treatment as traitors or spies.
In February 2003—several months after the first cases had been detected—health officials went public at last. In practice this just meant swapping secrets for lies. They declared that the disease was “comprehensively” under control. By March the virus was raging through Beijing. As luck would have it, this was the same month that the Party’s leaders were carrying out their once-a-decade handover of power (from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao). Nothing could be allowed to disrupt proceedings, and so most information about the outbreak was simply suppressed. There was no full transparency with the World Health Organisation until April. Representatives were not allowed into hospitals in Beijing, and they were not allowed to enter the southern province of Guangdong (where the outbreak originated) at all. By this point the Communist Party had wasted almost half a year.
Guangdong officials were not to blame for the lack of progress. Article 23 of the Law on Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases dictates that regional authorities wait for authorisation before taking any action relating to an epidemic, and the top secret nature of the original Ministry of Health document meant that Guangdong’s apparatchiks were strictly prohibited from discussing the outbreak with other provincial health departments. It was the Party’s leaders who created this crisis, and they did so with their secrecy and inflexibility.
After SARS came the great swine fever epidemic that killed one-quarter of the world’s pigs between 2018 and 2019. Once again, the Communist Party just exacerbated the situation. Local authorities were entrusted with compensating farmers for their lost livestock: a policy that backfired completely. Regional governing bodies soon found themselves facing a debt in the region of 21 trillion yuan ($3 trillion). The debt was their responsibility—there was to be no help from Beijing—and this gave cash-strapped officials an incentive to hide the full extent of the problem from the central authorities. Sure enough, many outbreaks went unreported. Helpless farmers ended up burying their infected pigs. They knew their complaints to officials would be ignored, the necessary reports would never get written, and Beijing would be none the wiser. Party leaders made things even worse when they ordered that hogs be slaughtered only at specifically appointed abattoirs. Contaminated pigs from all around the country were transferred to these abattoirs, bringing them into needless contact with large numbers of healthy animals (and humans, who can also pass on the infection), and the fever kept spreading.
These crises showed us that the Party suffers from a chronic case of regulating at all the wrong moments and failing to regulate when regulation is most needed. This is a consequence not only of Xi Jinping’s neurotic monitoring, but also of the rigid hierarchy and centralised power that has characterised the country’s leadership for centuries. At its highest level, the Chinese Communist Party still suffers from a moth-eaten imperial mindset—all rituals behind closed doors; all dusty tradition and twitchy paranoia.
Today’s failures of communication are not so different to the Party’s famous mistakes under Mao. In 1958 regional authorities began reporting massive increases in grain and rice production, despite the fact that Mao’s misguided agricultural policies had actually caused a collapse in food production. There was plenty of incentive for these officials to lie. On the one hand they were greedily hopeful of reward, and on the other they were terrified at the thought of how the Great Helmsman might respond when faced with the results of his incompetence. Mao was encouraged by their reports. He advised the nation to begin eating five meals a day, and to throw away anything they couldn’t finish. Soon enough, China was in the grip of the single worst famine in world history—within four years the death toll had reached 40 million. The principles behind this failure remain the same six decades on, and the lesson has still not been learned. The leaders of the so-called “People’s Republic” remain deaf to the true voice of the people.
For those of us who have been paying attention, the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the perils of friendship with a communist state. Every nation has suffered directly as a result of the virus—and whether wet market or lab leak, this all began with the Communist Party’s chaotic mismanagement. But for some the damage has been compounded in ways less obvious. The countries closest to China—relationally, not geographically—are frequently the countries that suffer the most.
Italy provides us with a good case study. Having become increasingly estranged from the US in recent years, the nation now appears to be cutting ties with the EU too: 49 percent of Italians apparently want to leave the Union. These Eurosceptics are looking east instead. As the main European participant in the Communist Party’s Belt and Road Initiative, Italy might be China’s closest friend in the West today. The CCP has invested billions in the country. Chinese banks own stakes in major companies, Chinese businessmen have been buying up the biggest football clubs, and so on. But this close relationship has come at a terrible price for Italy. The China connection has proven costly in a variety of ways since SARS-CoV-2 first emerged in Wuhan.
First, there is the issue of illegal immigration. China’s cheap manufacturing costs have been particularly attractive to the Italian fashion houses, many of which outsource their manufacturing to Chinese factories. This labour force has also flowed back into Italy in recent years, much of it coming on direct flights from Wuhan (a city with a long history of textile manufacturing). These workers have been taking advantage of a great new opportunity. After China was granted entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, the dam burst on a flood of cheap imports, leading to job losses at many Italian companies. Their factories were soon abandoned, and Chinese entrepreneurs began moving in. An estimated 90 percent of Italy’s 300,000 Chinese nationals now work in the garment industry in the north of the country, but there are no available figures for undocumented migrant Chinese in the same industry. These are workers who spend their lives sleeping, eating, and working in the same cramped sweatshop quarters—conditions ripe for the spread of infection.
Second, there is the issue of censorship. The CCP has become adept at taking advantage of its opponents’ weaknesses in all conceivable areas, from the economic to the ideological, and Western culture’s shift towards so-called “social justice” has presented the Party’s propaganda division with another perfect opportunity. Cries of “racism” now greet critiques of Party policy wherever they appear—an extremely useful method by which Beijing can shut down debate and deliberately confuse the issue, whatever the issue may be. Because of this, the Italian government was never going to isolate or ban Chinese travellers in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, however logical such a step may have been. The prospect of appearing racist proved to be far more frightening than any virus. So frightening, in fact, that in February the mayor of Florence decided to launch his now infamous “Hug A Chinese” Day initiative. Florentines were encouraged to demonstrate their virtue by going out and hugging as many Chinese people as possible. These new intimates surely contained within their number plenty of recent arrivals from Wuhan, considering the city’s close connection with Italy, and some of them will certainly have been carrying the virus.
Third, there is the problem of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Now widely believed to be a mere puppet for Beijing, and even derisively dubbed the “Chinese Health Organisation” in some quarters, the WHO has made a point of following the CCP’s lead at all stages of this pandemic. China’s leaders refused to allow WHO representatives into Wuhan’s home province of Hubei to investigate the origins of the virus, just as they had barred access to Guangdong 17 years earlier. But the WHO has changed greatly since the days of the SARS outbreak, and this time no complaint was made. Quite the opposite: WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus publicly praised China’s “new standard for outbreak response.” By the end of January Wuhan was in a state of emergency and the global danger was well understood, but the WHO still maintained that countries should not close their borders to China. Tedros toed the line laid down by Party diplomats, who were making a great deal of noise about how the border issue was a “test of friendship” between China and the rest of the world. When states like Italy trust the authority of a compromised institution like the WHO, then they become candidates for disaster.
None of this is meant as an argument against immigration: whether legal or illegal, Chinese or other. Each of the accidents mentioned above points—indirectly but unmistakably—to another source. Northern Italy’s ongoing tragedy is the chaos that travels in the wake of the Communist Party’s meddling. Without Beijing’s manipulative manufacturing strategies, cynical propaganda tactics, and political contamination of United Nations agencies (all attempts to “protect China’s interests”), there would be fewer Chinese illegals crammed into Milan workshops, fewer politicians terrified that perfectly sensible policies might be “racist,” and more reason to trust in the WHO. It was a mistake to forge a close relationship with the blundering leaders of the CCP. Italy was like the fool who first shackles himself to a blind man and then follows him as he charges across the highway. The blind leading the partially-sighted.
Other factors have played their part in the death toll, no doubt. A disproportionate chunk of northern Italy’s population happens to be over 65, and therefore highly vulnerable to a brand new virus like SARS-CoV-2. But this explanation alone is not enough—if it was, then the greatest suffering should have occurred in Japan, the world’s most aged society, living much closer to the source of the outbreak. Instead, Japan has done remarkably well. The demographic issue was certainly significant, distinguishing Italy from other Western countries that share the same concerns about racism, the same vast hidden Chinese workforce, and the same comfortable trust in the WHO. We should remember, however, that those other countries suffered enormous, needless tragedies of their own. These were tragedies exacerbated by the same China connection but mitigated by younger populations, and they were tragedies that, crucially, did not occur in states less friendly to communist China. Japan is one such state, but there are other examples (more on that in a moment).
In March, at the peak of the crisis, China’s leaders pledged to send Italy 1,000 ventilators, two million masks, 100,000 respirators, 20,000 protective suits, and 50,000 test kits, which is rather like the person who has just burned down your house offering you a watering can, as the writer Douglas Murray put it. And it’s a leaky watering can they’re offering, because hundreds of thousands of the face masks ordered from China have turned out to be defective. Worse, millions of China’s exported coronavirus antibody tests are faulty. Now that the chaos is subsiding, Italy’s nightmare is far from over. Having accidentally burned down the house, the CCP is snapping into action, moving in stealthily on the country’s newly-vulnerable companies, buying up whatever it can, giving ruined entrepreneurs offers they can’t refuse.
Of course, some governments may have botched their response to the pandemic all by themselves, even in an alternate scenario where they were receiving no assistance from the Chinese Communist Party. Recall the confusion that we saw in Britain back in March. First there was the confident and consensus-defying herd immunity approach. Then came the failure of nerve and the sudden shutdown. We can easily imagine that the British authorities would have behaved in much the same way in the absence of a compromised WHO. But if we think further back to February, before all the confusion, we will remember the country’s mood of complacency—a complacency resulting in part from the WHO’s assurances that there was nothing to worry about.
The government was also content to trust the recommendations of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), which had been asked to investigate the possibility of temperature screenings at airports for arrivals from Wuhan. The conclusion from two NERVTAG meetings in January—one on January 13th and one on the 21st—was that if the Chinese authorities said they had introduced exit screenings at Wuhan airports, then that was good enough. Why bother repeating the process in the UK? This happy confidence in the dependability of the Communist Party was somewhat undermined two days after the second meeting, when flights were apparently stopped from Wuhan’s home province of Hubei to other parts of China, but not from Hubei to other parts of the world. (This claim, originally made by the historian Niall Ferguson, has been challenged and he has responded.) Still the advisory group trusted the CCP, and the British government trusted the advisory group. There can be little doubt that the United Kingdom’s spiralling death toll is connected as much to January’s inaction as it is to March’s indecision. In the end, the more that national leaders align themselves with a paranoid, secretive, authoritarian state—and the various associates of such a state—the more they will jeopardise the safety of their own countries.
Closeness to the Party is not only dangerous, but also corrupting. Like the WHO, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has been close to Beijing for many years now. This means that both organisations are forced to agree with the Party’s fantastical worldview, which includes, among other things, the idea that Taiwan is actually a Chinese province. They are barred from engaging with Taiwanese representatives at all. To interact with the country’s government would be to implicitly recognise its independent status. Such a move might still have been possible during past administrations, but Xi Jinping has made the absorption of Taiwan a primary issue. The ICAO and the WHO know full well that China’s emperor brooks no dissent. They followed orders obediently when the coronavirus hit, refusing to share vital information and advice about the disease with Taiwanese authorities. In doing so, they indirectly endangered the lives of the island’s 23 million inhabitants.
Luckily, the Taiwanese authorities have a long-cultivated suspicion of their Chinese counterparts (born of Beijing’s repeated threats of invasion). This distrust may have effectively saved the country from the current pandemic. To date, Taiwan has reported a grand total of seven deaths—a figure that becomes all the more remarkable when we remember that the island is just next door to China. Life has now largely returned to normal for the Taiwanese. It’s a success that has little to do with luck. Taiwan’s leaders understand that the WHO effectively represents the CCP, and so they treat its advice with all the contempt due to associates of communism.
As late as mid-January WHO officials were still dismissing reports of human-to-human transmission, and they initially declared face masks ineffective. Accordingly, Taiwanese authorities have taken the opposite position on these issues from the very beginning. They sent health officials to Wuhan in December, at the start of the outbreak, in order to confirm that the WHO was wrong and human-to-human transmission was indeed occurring. On December 31st they began inspecting plane passengers arriving in Taiwan from Wuhan. Face masks became a national priority, and were no longer exported. In mid-January the Taiwanese Central Epidemic Command Center was activated to coordinate an outbreak response—three days before such a response began in Wuhan, where the outbreak had originated. Testing and contact tracing began in earnest. All arrivals from Wuhan were banned on January 23rd, and all tours to China were suspended on January 25th.
The international community would do well to take note of Taiwan’s example. It’s entirely possible that we are headed, over the coming decades, for a China-led world order. The coronavirus crisis has given us some indication of the kind of world that will turn out to be. The Party’s volatility is hardly going to change once this particular pandemic is behind us. Xi Jinping is far too much of a control freak to ever dream of scaling back his surveillance state. Because of this he will remain blind and aloof, closeted away in the Party’s headquarters at Zhongnanhai, far removed from all rumours and distant pain signals.
The Chinese Communist Party is one of the most powerful organisations on the planet, and at the same time it is never more than a short step away from disaster. Many commentators (myself included) have seen in these looming disasters the Party’s imminent demise. We could be wrong—the Party’s leaders could continue to hold strong through crisis after crisis—but the international community is going to pay a terrible price each time. More outbreaks of various kinds are coming, and in a globalised world these outbreaks will very quickly become everybody’s concern. When that happens, the governments that have already cut their connections to the Communist Party will have a head start.
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