How galling it is to see China bouncing back from the global pandemic that it unleashed.
While the rest of the world wrestles with fear, mistrust, unemployment, recession, stagnation, non-Covid health catastrophes, countless blighted lives and a ‘second wave’ of the virus, China is set to enter 2021 stronger than it was in January 2020.
That was the month when Chinese complacency, deceit and the ruthless diktat of the Communist Party allowed coronavirus to get its first foothold among humankind.
The numbers are stark, on both the medical and economic fronts.
How galling it is to see China bouncing back from the global pandemic that it unleashed. Pictured: Chinese soldiers wearing face masks stand guard as tourists visit section of the Great Wall at Badaling
China, with a population of 1.4 billion, now records around a dozen Covid cases daily.
During the annual ‘Golden Week’ holiday at the start of this month — the Chinese equivalent of our Christmas and New Year break — half the country’s population travelled to see friends and family. Yet there has been no noticeable spike in infections.
Compare that with more than 21,000 new cases of infection reported in the UK just yesterday.
Life for the Chinese is broadly back to normal, while here and throughout Europe the announcement of new restrictions is a daily occurrence.
In China, the IMF predicts the economy will have grown by 2 per cent by the year’s end. In Britain, our national income is likely to shrink by one tenth, with the U.S. and much of Europe also showing negative growth forecasts.
Indeed, China will be the only major economy to have the sought-after V-shaped recovery that Western economists spoke so optimistically of just a few short months ago.
George Magnus, author of Red Flags, a book critical of China’s economic success, says that suppressing the virus has indeed helped, but the bulk of the recovery comes from industrial production — the result of the country’s ‘state-directed Leninist economic system’.
Household consumption, a long-standing weakness in the Chinese economy, is still sputtering at about half its usual level.
In China, the IMF predicts the economy will have grown by 2 per cent by the year’s end. In Britain, our national income is likely to shrink by one tenth, with the U.S. and much of Europe also showing negative growth forecasts. Pictured: People walk in a shopping area of Beijing
In one sense this offers some good news for us. Healthy demand in a major economy — our sixth largest export market — gives our beleaguered companies a chance of selling our cars, whisky, fashion and other products.
Some may also feel that the ‘steady hand’ of the Chinese leadership offers thought-provoking lessons for our battered, chaotic and increasingly discredited political system.
Chinese leaders do not crow about mythical ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace systems, or ‘moonshot’ vaccines. They get on with the dull but important business of balancing public health with broader welfare: the country’s economic, social and cultural life.
Progress on vaccination has been striking. China has at least four coronavirus vaccine candidates in late stages of development. More than 350,000 people, including medical workers and border staff, have received a trial jab, with no serious side-effects.
Mass testing is another success story. After a small outbreak in the eastern port city of Qingdao, the authorities tested all its nine million residents within five days.
As Britons grapple with our erratic test-and-trace service, we can only look on with envy.
President Xi Jinping has boasted that one-party rule has been central to his country’s success in conquering Covid: ‘The pandemic once again proves the superiority of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics,’ he says.
Yet, on closer scrutiny, the fabled success story has plenty of holes. The secrecy and back-covering endemic in a closed authoritarian system meant the world lost precious time at the start of the pandemic, which has now killed more than one million people and devastated the world on a scale not seen in peacetime since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
China notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) of a ‘pneumonia of unknown [cause]’ in the city of Wuhan on December 31, although it is now believed that Covid was circulating in late summer.
Indeed, China will be the only major economy to have the sought-after V-shaped recovery that Western economists spoke so optimistically of just a few short months ago. Pictured: Shoppers in Beijing
Those early cases were ignored and even as numbers grew steadily and deaths mounted, an outbreak was still being dismissed.
Doctors and scientists who spoke out were punished.
On January 18, a ‘potluck dinner’ to mark the Lunar New Year went ahead, attended by 40,000 families in Wuhan, even as residents travelled from the city across China to celebrate the Spring festival.
It was only on January 23 that the authorities imposed a strict quarantine in the city.
Today, the total number of deaths from the virus in China remains unverified, while mystery still surrounds the source of the outbreak in Wuhan — which, in case we forget, happens to be the location of a research institute, headed by renowned virologist Shi Zhengli (aka ‘Bat Woman’), that specialises in novel coronaviruses that originate in bats.
In a free country like Britain, it is a fair bet that doctors, scientists, politicians and the media would have sounded the alarm more publicly and promptly, and the source of the outbreak would have been subject to independent scrutiny. For all the confusing shortcomings of our own response, at least the discussion about it is free and open.
Yet the same control-freakery that prevented a proper, early response to the virus also helped the Chinese mount an effective response to it once the danger was admitted. Sweeping quarantines and lockdowns halted infection in its tracks.
The country’s daunting surveillance apparatus — involving armies of snoopers, facial recognition cameras and monitoring of mobile phones — was deployed to ensure infected people stayed at home.
That marked a huge and chilling leap forward in social control, according to Charles Parton, formerly a China-watcher for the British government: ‘It dealt with the coronavirus but also with the political virus.’ Any discontent with the corrupt and authoritarian rule of Mr Xi will be easier to spot — and deal with.
Compare the dozens of cases in China with the more than 21,000 new cases of infection reported in the UK just yesterday. Pictured: Lockdown warning signs on outskirts Manchester city centre
China also seized the opportunity to play the Covid diplomatic card, appearing to play a role in providing medical equipment to other countries, and, unlike the U.S. it remains a contributor to the WHO.
It also supports efforts — backed by Britain but shunned by Donald Trump’s administration — to ensure that poor countries get fair access to vaccines once they are approved for general use.
The strategy appears to have worked, with some key figures arguing that the West should ‘forgive’ China for allowing the virus to take hold.
Economics guru Jim O’Neill, chair of the Chatham House think tank, said last week that the ‘blame game’ was now not just unfair but ‘dangerous’.
But what he and other proponents of rapprochement seem to forget is that the People’s Republic is a ruthless dictatorship, fuelled by sinister visions of racial superiority, that has jailed millions of its own citizens in mind-control camps and embarked on genocidal repression of the Uighur people.
This threat is on our doorstep now. China is bent on becoming the world’s most powerful country by 2050. It already tries to control our media, universities and publishing. In other countries it intervenes directly to influence the political system.
China’s success against Covid indeed looks good — but that is chiefly because of our own failures. A divided, distracted West, missing the American leadership on which we have depended for decades, has been sideswiped by the pandemic.
The stark choice now for Britain and other Western countries is whether, post-Covid, we unite once more against the threat from Beijing, or fall piecemeal over the coming decades into the new Chinese empire, sacrificing our system of freedom under the rule of law.
I know which option I prefer.