World order is on the pivot of transitioning from U.S. hegemony to shared Sino–U.S. primacy.
Alongside the decades-long growth in China’s comprehensive national power, the collapse of faith in Western values and institutions began with the financial crisis of 2008.
For an example of China’s long march through Western institutions, consider this. A British university ad for a job required “native or near-native fluency in Mandarin” — for a lecturer in music composition. In Australia, an over dependence on revenue from Chinese students and growing research links with Chinese institutions have stoked free speech and national security concerns.
A national self-loathing that consumes many among America’s so-called cultural elite also feeds Beijing’s belief in the accelerated decline of the American imperium and the opportunity to align the emerging global order to its priorities. Since ascending to the middle kingdom’s throne in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power and authority, fostered a personality cult, sidelined critics and rivals, silenced dissent and crushed pockets of resistance in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
He has also asserted China’s role in Asia and the world with unprecedented forthrightness through the militarization of his nation’s South China Sea territorial outposts, unleashed an army of “wolf warrior” diplomats who vehemently defend Beijing’s every move and weaponized trade and economic relations.
In his clear-eyed and hard-nosed determination to attain global centrality for China, Xi has infused the political system with a sense of focus and vision. By contrast, the G7 rambled on in Cornwall with an utterly incoherent vision, issuing meaningless slogans such as “building back better,” and nothing else of any real import.
But with the emergence of the pandemic, China and its reputation began a downward spiral as much of the world grew angry over Beijing’s denials, dissembling, deflections and opacity on the origins of the virus — which may have led to tens of thousands of needless deaths. For their part, the Western democracies responded with chaotic and deadly incompetence even as China brought the disease under control with ruthless, if not brutal, efficiency.
It seemed for a time that the pandemic could mark a moment of ascendancy in the “psychological balance of power” as China moved to fill the global leadership vacuum vacated by a rapidly declining America.
While Western countries suffered big GDP reverses from coronavirus and lockdowns, China’s economy managed to grow modestly by 2.3% in 2020. Its first quarter growth in 2021 was 18.3% and the World Bank forecasts it will grow by 8.5% over 2021, accounting for 25% of total world growth.
But in another reversal, however, the narrative has recently flipped, thanks to the revival of interest in the idea that the virus was caused, not by zoonotic transmission from bats to humans via an intermediary animal in the wet markets of Wuhan, but by a leak that possibly occurred during questionable research in the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
The leak theory was firmly rejected for over a year by many scientists, leading media outlets, intelligence agencies, the World Health Organization and prestigious scientific journals. Still, some researchers, based on the genetic fingerprint of the virus, believe the probability that it emerged naturally is one in a million. Dozens of scientists have now demanded a proper investigation into the origins of the virus and called on China’s labs and agencies to “open their records.”
Josh Hammer, an American correspondent and opinion editor at Newsweek, last year described coronavirus as “China’s Chernobyl.” He recently argued in his publication that COVID-19 has “forever destroyed Americans’ trust in ruling class ‘experts.’”
Among the problems is that many experts and scientists did not wish to give credence to anything former U.S. President Donald Trump had said and feared being branded anti-Asian or racist. Some succumbed to groupthink while others did not wish to jeopardize careers and research grants by speaking out against the scientific establishment. Still others wanted to retain access to Chinese colleagues and institutions or hide their possible complicity in funding or taking part in the deadly research.
Compounding the global damage to Brand China is its vaccine diplomacy is also facing scrutiny. China put on an impressive display of state capacity and power to suppress the outbreak and provide humanitarian assistance to many other countries.
Against the over 90% efficacy of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the efficacy of China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines is 78% and 51%. Bahrain, Mongolia and Seychelles are among countries that relied on the easily accessible Chinese vaccines — only to have recently experienced a surge in infections. On June 26, with 70% of its population fully vaccinated (the world-highest), the Seychelles extended pandemic curbs indefinitely on movement and gatherings because of persistently high infections.
In a Pew Research Center poll taken in 16 countries, just 20% of those who took part expressed confidence in Xi to do the right thing in world affairs; Biden’s rating was 74%. In the 2021 Lowy Institute Poll, similarly, only 16% of Australians trust China “somewhat” or “a great deal” to act responsibly, down from 52% in 2018. Nearly two-thirds now consider China more of a security threat than an economic partner.
As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “our adversaries” must be thinking: “Man, if we can instill panic and fear, we can get them to close down their whole society, cripple the strongest economy in the world.”
Countries will or should work hard to decouple from China, rebuild home capacity and build functional redundancy into critical supply lines so they no longer run solely to Chinese factories.
Such trend lines should worry Beijing.
Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
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