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"Is China Winning?" This was the cover headline that the British weekly The Economist unfurled earlier this month for a lengthy report on how the major powers might emerge out of the current coronavirus crisis.
This is not the first time that a section of Western media, often including The Economist, pronounce the Western democracies, especially the United States, as losers in comparison with rivals and/or enemies.
In the 1980s, the magazine beat the drums for "Japan As Number One", echoing Ezra Vogel's book-length rodomontade for the so-called "faultless economic model." In the 1990s, The Economist, with President Suharto on its cover, predicted the rise of Indonesia as one of the world's top economic powers. And in 2005, the magazine offered another sensational cover with the headline: "Has Iran Won?"
But to return to China "winning", the issue at hand, one might question the very premise of the presumed game in which the People's Republic is supposed to emerge ahead of the pack. As a global catastrophe, rather than a stage for international competition, Covid-19 is unlikely to produce any winners.
Even if "winning" is intended to refer to refer to the extent of the human and economic damage caused by the pandemic, predicting China's triumph may be open to question. At the time of writing, Beijing has admitted to 82,000 cases of Covid-19 and 4,632 deaths, remarkable for a population of over 1.5 billion.
If true, the figures are even more remarkable when compared with figures concerning Western Europe and the United States. However, the key here is the phrase "if true". Should we take at face value the assertion that Covid-19 has claimed six times more victims in Spain than in China with a population 30 times higher?
The assumption that China is "winning" is also based on the clam that Beijing has been in the forefront of rushing aid to nations across the globe to face the Covid-19 challenge, thus enhancing the reputation of the People's Republic as a true international player.
But even that claim is open to scrutiny. While the European Union, acting through the Paris Club, has decreed a moratorium on the repayment of debts by the world's poorest nations, Beijing has refused to offer the slightest relief to more than 70 nations, mostly in Africa, that it has dragged into debt since the 1990s. During the crisis, the People's Republic has also embarked on a number of shenanigans unworthy of a great power.
Last January, no doubt underestimating the threat to France itself, President Emmanuel Macron made a gift of five million surgical masks to the People's Republic. When it became clear, just three weeks later, that France itself might urgently need the masks, Beijing came out with a barrage of excuses to avoid restitution. And when the French agreed to buy masks at three times the price, China signed the contract but sold a good part of the masks at five times the price to last-minute private buyers from the United States. Beijing has played the same trick on a number of other countries, notably Chile, which last week lodged formal protest.
The People's Republic's insidious claims that the pandemic may have been concocted by foreign enemies has done much damage to China's reputation. In several Chinese cities, African students and migrant works were assaulted by mobs or driven out of their jobs and apartments after being fingered out as "virus carriers." The result has been a deterioration of relations with a number of African states, among them Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda.
The Chinese ambassadors to Paris and Tehran did even better by running to intervene in the domestic debate about how to deal with the pandemic. In Paris, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned Beijing's envoy to Quai d'Orsay and read him the riot act. In Tehran, the Islamic Republic officials lacked the courage to do the same with the Chinese ambassador because Tehran thinks it may one day need Beijing's veto at the United Nations. However, the media, including social media, did what was needed to remind Beijing of its man's diplomatic faux-pas.
The suspicion that Covid-19 may have leaked by mistake through a laboratory in China has affected the People's Republic image in many countries, notably the United States, Italy, France, Germany, South Korea and Japan. We cannot express any definite opinion on the claim because we lack the needed evidence. But one thing is certain: public opinion in many countries is today more hostile to doing business with China. And that could adversely affect both normal trade and "sweetheart" deals like the one Britain planned to conclude with Huawei.
Campaigns to boycott Chinese goods have already started in more than 40 countries on all continents. These may fizzle out as the world returns to normal; but the damage done to China's image should not been underestimated.
Claims that China may have been manipulating some international bodies, including the World Health Organization (WHO), can't be substantiated but open a whole new chapter in probing Beijing's behavior.
What about the economic aspect of the crisis? Could China do better than other major economies? Predictions for most major economies, including the US and the EU, indicate a fall in the gross domestic product of 8 to 10 percent for 2020 with mass unemployment hitting the 30 percent mark. Figures projected for China by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are less dramatic. But the trouble as always with statistics concerning the Peoples' Republic, is whether the official data on which they are based could be trusted.
However, guessing the economic impact of the pandemic depends on how one sees the current crisis. Ben Bernanke, former boss of the US Federal Reserve, sees the crisis as "much closer to a major snowstorm or a natural disaster than a 1930-style depression." In contrast, Bernard Cohen, former economic adviser to the French prime minister, foresees a depression deeper than the one triggered by the classical Wall Street crash.
Well, we don't know what will happen.
But, in this opinion, even if we assume the classical "crash" as a model, democracies from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea to EU and the US and Canada are in a better position to absorb the shock than could be what in 1932 Chesterton called China's "coolie capitalism."
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.