What started as a viral catastrophe for China is shaping up to be a moment of strategic opportunity, a rare turning point in the flow of history. Suddenly, the protests in Hong Kong, carrying a mortal threat to political stability in the mainland, led to Hong Kong's egregious absorption by mainland China. The Wuhan Virus has set in motion a global competition, including to contain the virus, for which China and the Chinese Communist Party seem uniquely prepared.
This is consistent with the Whistleblower model of the three Chinese Fs, which we have translated to TWD: turmoil, weaken, defeat. If we look at Hong Kong through this lens, it fits well: the turmoil set in motion by mainland China which in turn provoked protests -more turmoil. This followed a weakening of the region of Hong Kong. Now we have seen the defeat of the free Hong Kong that we held so dear.
As the Wuhan Virus has spread to the whole world, it has become apparent that Western societies — Beijing’s true rivals — do not have the ability to quickly organize every citizen around a single goal. As opposed to China, which remains to a large extent a revolutionary society, our political systems are built for normal times. Chinese society is a mobilized army, which can quickly drop everything else and march in one direction.
Chinese diplomats stationed all over the world now spend their time raising the stakes to a dangerous level. Following instructions from the very top, they have taken to the media to issue a challenge to America, to point out its failure, and to compare the chaos in American cities and hospitals with what they see as a singular success in stopping the epidemic in China.
There are other ways for China to use the coronavirus pandemic to upturn the existing global order.
One is the direct comparison between the situation in China and elsewhere. If the United States fails to return to a semblance of normalcy, its prestige will suffer a severe blow. People all over the world will quickly change their perceptions about relative power and capacity.
As well, consider industrial value chains. General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler closed all their automotive production plants across the United States and Canada. Other sectors have followed. In the meantime, China contained the worst of the pandemic to Wuhan province, allowing economic activity to quickly resume elsewhere. The most recent data show renewed activity in the flow of goods across the country, as well as at ports worldwide that do business with China. If the freeze in Europe and America continues for much longer, Chinese companies will be able to dramatically expand market share and replace Western-led value chains. Prepare for a worldwide wave of Chinese acquisitions at knockdown prices.
Additionally, important countries could experience the kind of economic shock that leads to widespread social and political collapse. China would have a unique opportunity to step in, provide aid, and refashion countries in its image.
There was always an argument that only a momentous war could change the existing world order and world wars have become impossible. But in pandemics — and soon in climate change — we may have found two functional equivalents of war.
We thank the many authors contributing to our understanding of China's role in the COVID-19 pandemic.
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