HONOLULU – Crises bring out the best and worst of individuals and organizations. The COVID-19 outbreak highlights what some would say is a strength of the Chinese political system: the ability to make quick and bold policy adjustments, such as shutting down travel between large Chinese cities and enforcing restrictions on banned public activity.
But the health crisis also reminds us of an unpleasant truth about the Chinese Communist Party: For all the talk from Chinese officials and state-approved commentators about how the rise of China is good for the world, the overwhelming and driving objective of the CCP is its own survival.
The world increasingly understands that the Chinese government is bent on controlling the discussion of China-related issues not only within but also outside of China.
In recent years we have seen many examples of this, including the controversy in the United States over the Confucian Institutes; Beijing punishing multiple countries for hosting the Dalai Lama; the Chinese television blackout of National Basketball Association games over a team executive’s tweeted support for the Hong Kong protesters; Beijing drastically cutting Chinese tourism to Palau because the Pacific island nation has diplomatic relations with Taiwan; the Chinese government’s threat to close the China market to large U.S. corporations because their websites implied Taiwan is a separate country from China; and Beijing forcing Hollywood to alter the content of movies before allowing them into China.
Foreigners might think the price they pay for their addiction to Chinese money is limited to accommodating Beijing’s sensitivity on a few sovereignty issues. This is relatively painless, as foreign businesses are largely indifferent about these issues, considering them arcane. In any case the access to Chinese wealth seemingly makes the required adjustments worthwhile.
What the beneficiaries of China’s economic largesse fail to realize is that when Beijing perceives it can exploit its leverage to make demands of a partner, those demands are likely to grow in variety and scope. Eventually Beijing will call in a favor that causes a business partner difficulty and pain.
In return for economic development assistance from China, the Cambodian government is ceding national territory to Chinese control (probably for a Chinese naval base). The president of the Philippines is weakening his country’s alliance with the U.S. China used an economic boycott to enforce a Chinese veto over a South Korean policy to deploy a defensive system against North Korean missiles that China disapproved of.
When Papua New Guinea, the recipient of much Chinese aid, hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in 2018, the Chinese delegation felt entitled to attempt to force its way into the PNG foreign minister’s office and demand a revision of the final group communique, prompting a call to security personnel to expel them.
The COVID-19 crisis has seen similar but perhaps more serious behavior by the Chinese government. The origin of the virus in China, and particularly the bans within foreign countries against travel from China, are embarrassments to the CCP leadership. Therefore Beijing has demanded early lifting of the travel bans, despite the continued high number of cases in China and justified suspicions that the Chinese government is not reporting the full extent of the problem. On Feb. 18, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, publicly threatened that if the Philippines did not lift its travel ban, China might retaliate by cutting its imports of Philippine bananas. This was a moment of clarity about how the CCP operates.
The travel bans against China through the month of February were amply justified. Indeed, by late February the Chinese were themselves doing what they condemned foreigners for doing, as provincial governments tightened their screening and quarantines of foreigners entering China out of fear that outsiders would bring in more of the virus. So the CCP was telling a trade partner: “Your policy makes us look bad. We will use our economic leverage to punish you if you don’t change your policy and we don’t care if that would put your citizens at greater risk of illness and death.”
When the CCP feels threatened, we should not expect to see anything other than Beijing utilizing any available means of influence to reduce the threat, to shift the blame away from the central government and to pass the costs of protecting the party onto others. The foreign businesses that profit from their dependence on China march themselves into this realm of vulnerability, where the CCP’s internal insecurities become problems for outsiders, and nothing matters more than saving the face of the Chinese leadership.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.