COVID-19 leaves China staring at political crossroads

By Jesús Centeno.

Beijing, Apr 30 (efe-epa).- Defending how the Chinese government managed the coronavirus outbreak, taking measures to revive the economy and ensuring the adequacy of a diplomatic campaign to tackle a brewing new Cold War against the West are some of the main issues that could be discussed in the upcoming National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, experts told EFE.

The NPC, set to kick off on May 22, at the capital’s Great Hall of People, has become an occasion for China to show off its success in controlling the epidemic by announcing fresh dates for the gathering of around 3,000 representatives, originally scheduled for March.

The coronavirus pandemic has increasingly generated friction and an ideological battle between China and the West, which is suspicious of the Asian giant, while governments have resorted to blaming each other to distract their citizens from their own mistakes.

“We are facing a risk that the two societies are gradually decoupling from each other… that is created by the increasing information barrier,” said Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Beijing-based Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Tong told EFE that in the beginning of the crisis nobody was blaming Beijing, but United States President Donald Trump started calling the infectious disease the “Chinese virus” after Beijing officials claimed it could have originated in American labs.

Many Chinese “believe that the foreign blame was because those countries have bias and hostility against China. There have been many reports about xenophobia against Chinese people. They don’t get the full picture,” he said.

Meanwhile the Chinese press has been publishing opinion pieces hailing the county’s response to the pandemic as setting global standards and announcing the fall of the US as a superpower.

The pandemic “deepens the impression in western countries that the Chinese system by its nature prevents free flow of information, it promotes government control of the narrative and spreads disinformation,” said the expert, adding that the growing communication gap was reducing the chances of cooperation.

“We might enter a stage that increasingly resembles the Cold War,” said Tong. “A key difference is that today China and West still have a high level of economic and social interdependence, but we are already seeing growing signs of decoupling in those areas. We have never experience this reverse globalization, this decoupling of major powers when their strategic rivalry is growing.”

Tong said that China runs the risk of getting cut off from major supply chains and access to technology, despite its recent industrial and technological progress, and might find it hard to compete with the US and other superpowers in such a scenario.

The expert said that although Chinese interests lie in avoiding a standoff, the situation was now “out of control,” and Beijing’s assertive foreign policy could pose an obstacle in boosting ties with new allies, such as Europe.

Although China had sought to show its commitment to cooperation through medical supplies and donations, it may not counteract other factors, Tong said.

He cited the quest for military superiority in the South China Sea as an example, where Beijing’s efforts to protect its interests – including Taiwan, which it considers a rebel territory – are set to clash with Washington maintaining its supremacy in the Pacific.

“I don’t think China is getting stronger from this crisis,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, the head of International Studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University, told EFE.

He said that Chinese President Xi Jinping had been criticized and his figure was “weaker than before the crisis,” although added that “Beijing has taken advantage of the pandemic to tighten the screws on Hong Kong,” which has witnessed widespread pro-democracy protests in recent months.

Tong said the Hong Kong issue was a matter of “survival” for the Chinese authorities and a “stronger pushback will only lead to more control from the central government.”

Cabestan pointed out other challenges before the government, such as the slowing Belt and Road Initiative – an ambitious international infrastructure mega-project – and fears of unemployment.

“Xi had to compromise and accept some reforms (more market, bigger role for private businesses) in order to stimulate the economy and the job market,” he said.

Tong also cited dissident voices within the country, such as that of businessman Ren Zhiqiang – who is feared to have been detained – and said given the efforts by the government to silence those views it is very hard to tell how widespread they are within the Chinese Communist Party and within the public.

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