A year ago next Wednesday, the Chinese authorities finally admitted that the Covid-19 virus found in Wuhan was capable of human-to human transmission. They knew earlier, probably before the end of the previous year. By withholding this knowledge from the world, they gave the disease a head start. Globally, well over 90 million people have been infected. More than two million have died.
It is possible, too, that the virus did not originate in the famous wet market. This was implied by the findings of a scientific paper by Birger Sorensen and Angus Dalgleish last summer (see this column, 6 June 2020). A recent long, carefully evidenced article by Nicholson Baker in New York magazine, sets out the hypothesis: a series of “gain-of-function” experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology “rewired” the bat virus found in a mineshaft in 2012. Designed to study the dangers of such viruses, they produced “chimeric assemblages” which added what the original virus lacked – transmissibility. The new virus accidentally leaked.
Just before the anniversary, 10 World Health Organisation (WHO) inspectors have reached Wuhan. They are in quarantine, asking questions by Zoom, which they could have done without leaving home. Will they be allowed to find anything? Will there be anything to find? The Chinese regime has spent the past year effacing physical evidence and imprisoning whistle-blowers, journalists and “netizens”.
The WHO’s head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, got his job through China’s backing and appears reluctant to criticise. When he visited Beijing at the end of January last year, his organisation’s statement praised the regime for “the transparency they have demonstrated”. In his article, Nicholson Baker also points out that one of the WHO inspectors currently in Wuhan, a British-born “virus-hunter” working in the US called Peter Daszak, was closely involved in supporting the Wuhan Institute’s gain-of-function experiments, directing American money their way. If that is accurate, it must be difficult for him to inspect neutrally.
Anyway, it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has strengthened its interior control. Infectious disease, like war, always seems to justify totalitarianism. Covid has given the CCP an excuse to lock up its critics, shut down independent human activity and extend its surveillance so widely that the word “privacy” becomes obsolete. The recent Covid death of one person in China was news, which implies China’s methods worked, compared with those of the muddly old West.
The CCP has continued its systematic persecution of the Uighur people. It has spat on the Anglo-Hong Kong Agreement of “one country: two systems” which by law governs Hong Kong until 2047. That once-free territory is now under effective direct rule from Beijing. The Hong Kong puppet government has the honour of being represented by a British QC to prosecute the businessman Jimmy Lai under its new anti-subversion law.
It is true that, internationally, China has encountered some resistance. In a horribly divided America, opposition to Beijing’s behaviour is pretty much the only bi-partisan policy left. Australia – China’s nearest “Western” neighbour – has bravely led the challenge to the CCP. Britain has done well to offer citizenship to large numbers of Hong Kong people. This week, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab announced measures to make British firms do due diligence so as not to buy the products of Uighur slave labour. Since China will surely refuse inspection, this might help close down an exploitative market.
It is also true that Western public opinion has woken up to CCP oppression, galvanising opposition. This week’s report by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission is an unusually high-powered document and includes good new information. The Labour Party is, if anything, a bit stronger on these matters than the Conservative Government. As Stephen Kinnock, its spokesman, says, “This is about right and wrong, not Right and Left.” The Alton amendment to establish genocide as a bar to trade opens interesting possibilities.
But by and large, if I were Xi Jinping, I would survey the past 12 months with satisfaction. I would consider that my country has escaped the greatest potential PR disaster of this century. It has recovered economic growth while Western rivals face a “double dip”. It has presented itself as a new leader towards Net Zero by 2050, although China’s demand for thermal coal is rising fast.
Yes, if I were Xi, I would be annoyed that Britain has at last woken up to Huawei’s penetration of its information systems, but I would note that it remains extremely easy to buy Western academics, businessmen and retired officials. I would, for example, be pleased to see HSBC’s smug television advertisements, which present the bank as anti-nationalist although it is in fact in thrall to my ultra-nationalist regime and freezes the accounts of Hong Kong dissidents. My country’s military power advances. So does the Belt and Road Initiative, its scheme for global imperium, which now has 140 countries on board. I might even make a tasteless joke: Covid-19 is, for China, a rather successful “gain-of-function” experiment with human societies, with all the gains accruing to control.
Xi could even get perverse satisfaction from the way China is seen in the West as a “human rights” issue. Dictators notice that Western leaders have a way of putting human rights in a separate box and then getting back to advancing their interests. If criticisms of China come chiefly from “do-gooders”, the CCP feels reassured that the realpolitik stays the same.
So the question confronting the West about China is really about ourselves. How much do we believe that freedom is not a luxury, but essential to our existence? There sometimes comes a moment when people despair of their own civilisation and become overawed by its opponents. In Vichy France, for example, the weaknesses of the Fourth Republic in 1940 persuaded most that it made sense to treat with Hitler.
We may lose faith in our own way of life or become consumed by our own quarrels. One sees elements of this in Black Lives Matter versus Make America Great Again in the US or in Remain versus Leave here; and in British universities which want to take down statues from our former empire while accepting money from China’s new one. Since our own Big Tech has now found ways to spy on our lives and invigilate our opinions, why not succumb to Alibaba or Tencent? As every significant Western democracy flounders in the mire of Covid, we may develop the creepy sort of respect for the country which started it all that victims can develop for their torturer.
China can seem to offer a haven. I am regularly sent the weekly edition of China Daily, the CCP’s main English-language mouthpiece. It interests me that the picture on the front is never a photograph, but always a drawing of a lovely scene. In one (about investing in Europe), beautiful Chinese cranes entwine themselves round the Colosseum and Big Ben. In another (about ending disease!), a compassionate Chinese nurse, depicted with angel’s wings, hugs a dear little African baby. All is harmony and peace. Banished are the struggle and discord of the West.
No discussion of totalitarianism is complete without mention of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. People forget the end. Freedom is defeated. The hero, Winston Smith, stares up, “gin-sodden”, at the huge poster of the great leader, and gives in. The last line is “He loved Big Brother”. It could happen here, and now.