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Is this the end of globalization? That is the question we were supposed to debate at a colloquium in Paris this week before we were all ordered by the government to "confine" ourselves to our dwellings at least for the next 15 days. The concept of globalization attained wide circulation when cheap goods made by cheap labor in China started to flood world markets from Tokyo to Timbuktu. Thus, if globalization is to end, it is only fair that it should also come to a close with a Chinese fanfare in the form of the coronavirus.
Before globalization whatever happened in China reached the rest of the world as a distant echo. The Opium Wars, the black series of famines, the atrocities committed by various foreign occupiers, the civil war, the Korean War, the annexation of Tibet and East Turkestan, the deaths of millions of people under Mao Zedong were all perceived as exotic events in a remote fantasyland that affected the rest of the world only incidentally.
Both fascinating and frightening, China was the stuff of many dreams about Oriental wisdom and many phobias expressed in Kaiser Wilhelm's "Yellow Peril" warning.
Less than three decades after the start of globalization, China has been included into our day-to-day world and banalized as just another as a major economic power in search for access to resources and a growing share of markets.
At the start of globalization, the Chinese economy represented three percent of the global gross domestic product. Today, China's share has risen to around 20 percent. Establishing itself as the world's major manufacturing center, China has contributed to almost two decades of low inflation and economic growth that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in all continents. At the same time China has started to develop an appetite for playing big power.
So far, the model China has chosen is closer to that of Holland during its empire-building period, that is to say focusing on business and trade and steering clear of involvement in politics, local or international, in contrast with British and French colonial strategies that put political domination top of the agenda.
There are, however, signs that China may be developing a new strategy in which tighter political control at home is combined with a higher big power profile abroad. Is China going the way that the European colonial powers went after the Berlin Conference?
The best answer is that even if China did adopt such a strategy it would not be able to implement it. The European colonial powers of the Berlin Conference combined their quest for security abroad with democratization at home. In China today, we witness a different configuration. Regarding almost all its neighbors, with the possible exception of Pakistan, as unreliable if not hostile, China is, in fact, fomenting insecurity through its aggressive power projection. This aggressive option is highlighted with ambitious plans for developing a 19th century style blue-water naval power capable of challenging the United States in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
China's feeling of insecurity abroad is combined with President Xi Jinping's increasingly authoritarian style at home. Chinese friends who had welcomed Xi's rise to power as a promise of liberalization now regret what they call "our childish illusions". To be sure, Xi's China is certainly not as repressive as that of Chairman Mao in its heyday. Apart from the Uighurs and the Tibetans, who are subjected to tighter control, most Chinese still enjoy freedoms that they could not dream of before Deng Xiaoping put the country on a different course. Even in Hong Kong which is bubbling with protests, Beijing has not yet taken its gloves off. Nevertheless, the optimism that we noted in our latest trip to the People's Republic in 2014 now seems a distant dream.
Is the cursed coronavirus the latest result of China's turn towards greater secrecy and tighter control? There is no doubt that the big boys in Beijing knew of the outbreak of the epidemic weeks before they officially admitted it. It is also possible that face-saving considerations and attempts at hiding things contributed to delays in taking decisions needed to prevent the epidemic from becoming a global pandemic.
As always, fear and insecurity foment petty nationalisms that regard globalization as arch-enemy. Last Sunday's local elections in France, the first test of the public mood in a major democracy after the coronavirus, gave petty nationalist candidates a major boost against rivals cast as defenders of globalization. The closing of frontiers all over the world is inspired more by a desire to reassure the people that "virus-bearing foreigners" are kept out than by any proven scientific model for coping with a pandemic.
However, it is increasingly clear that a global pandemic cannot be dealt with by local efforts alone. If anything, a greater pooling of resources is needed to rescue the more defenseless societies from total catastrophe. Global cooperation is also needed to speed up the development of a vaccine, making it available to the rich and the poor alike.
And that is not to mention the need for global cooperation to cope with the economic consequences of what may turn out to be the gravest crisis since the 1920s that pushed the world to the edge of an abyss.
Far from calling for a burial of globalization as a concept, we may have to work for its rebirth in a broader concept that goes beyond business, trade and economic issues to include moral, cultural and political domains as well. To be sure, this does not mean that we should all conform to a single model of existence, something that human nature, if such a thing exists, would shun under most circumstances. But a rule-based global system could also mean a measure of transparency, popular participation in decision-making, free flow of information and a systemic sharing of scientific and technological resources to deal with global emergencies.
The warlike situation that the coronavirus has imposed on almost all of us, rich and poor, must remind us that we live in a single global reality in which the flapping of a butterfly's wings in the Amazons could affect the whole world.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.