It has been claimed that the outbreak of Covid-19 – a type of Coronavirus – and the resulting disaster caused by the rapid spread of the disease could have been averted, similarly to the way that the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union could have been averted in 1986. Indeed, the similarities between Covid-19 and the Soviet nuclear disaster are uncanny, not least because both events were exacerbated by the secrecy, incompetence and negligence of communist regimes.
Both disasters could also have been prevented: had the Soviet regime told the nuclear engineers running Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power station that their systems and technology were not foolproof, the same engineers might not have thought it safe to push their reactor to its limit during a safety test in April 1986. And had local officials taken more robust action in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the people of Pripyat, the town serving the power plant, might not have been exposed to as much lethal and life-changing radiation.
Likewise, had the Chinese Communist Party taken measures to clean up the unhygienic ‘wet markets’ of central China, which were brought to international attention after the SARs outbreak in 2003, Covid-19 – a disease spread to humans from animals – might never have emerged. What makes many of these markets particularly notorious is that they host China’s illegal wildlife trade – including Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the market where Covid-19 probably first emerged. In such markets live and dead animals – and people – mix together in close proximity. Animals are frequently slaughtered on the spot, using barbaric methods, with little attention given to the disposal of the blood and entrails. Those who doubt the role that China’s crude animal husbandry has played in the emergence of Covid-19 will surely wonder why Beijing moved in late February to place a temporary ban on the consumption of wildlife, even if questions remain as to whether the ban will be properly enforced (or become permanent).
Moreover, the way that the local authorities in China handled the outbreak of Covid-19 has been a lesson in what not to do. When Li Wenlaing, a local doctor in Wuhan, tried to warn his colleagues of the outbreak of a potential new respiratory disease, he was detained by the police and forced to sign a confession that he was spreading false and malicious information. And despite knowing that the disease might be able to spread from human-to-human by late December, regional authorities allowed 175,000 people to travel out of Wuhan over the New Year, 200,000 more to take part in the related celebrations, and over 7 million to travel during the course of January 2020. This allowed for the disease to spread rapidly within China, and from China to other parts of the Indo-Pacific and finally, the wider world.
There, however, the analogy must end. Chernobyl may have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union; it revealed as a sham the alleged superiority of Soviet nuclear technology and uncovered the Soviet regime’s inner corruption. But by 1986, the Soviet regime – secretive and autarkic – had already been largely ‘contained’ and forced on the defensive by Anglo-American strategic efforts. Mikhail Gorbachev, a reformer, was already at its helm. Today’s China does not appear to be in the same position.
For starters, unlike the Soviet Union, China has grown progressively more (albeit unevenly) integrated into the world economy, to the extent that the country has amassed considerable wealth – resources that Beijing is now using to pursue its interests on the global stage. High foreign investment, not least from the United Kingdom (UK), has fuelled a sustained economic boom in China that expanded the country’s Gross National Income by an average of 9.1% annually for the twenty-year period between 1999 and 2018. This lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of extreme poverty. Since 1990, the percentage of those in China living on less than US$1.90 per day has shrunk from over 70% to less than 1%.
More importantly, under the forceful leadership of Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, China has become more authoritarian since 2012. Under Xi, China has not moved towards liberalisation and openness, but instead towards secrecy and repression. This can be seen most vividly by the incarceration of approximately 1 million Uyghur people in what Chinese officials are keen to call ‘detention’ or ‘re-education’ centres. But these prisons are more like the concentration camps that existed in Nazi Germany during the 1930s; they detain a specific ethnic and religious group – in this case, the Uyghur people, who tend not to willingly accept the atheist dogma of the Chinese Communist Party. Leaked documents show that Xi personally ordered for there to be ‘absolutely no mercy’ when rounding up them up. Unfortunately, while the Uyghurs’ plight has been well-documented by the BBC, Britain has failed to do anything to compel China to close the camps.
Xi’s Virus will cause a decade of misery for some Britons; for others, it will end the decade altogether, before it even gets underway. Britain ought now to consider how to decouple from China economically, and push back against Xi’s regime geopolitically.
The UK, like most other democracies, has failed to confront Xi’s authoritarian trajectory and excesses. Instead, Britain and its allies have continued with their established approach in trying to ‘integrate’ China into the rules-based international system. Initially, this ‘integrationist’ approach involved the UK investing into the Chinese economy; but as China has grown richer, Britain has sought to attract investment from China, as if it was just another democratic nation. In 2015, George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, even went so far as to proclaim the start of a ‘golden decade’ in British-Chinese relations, while David Cameron, then Prime Minister, rolled out the red carpet in London for Xi during a state visit. The governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson went on to welcome Chinese investment into critical infrastructure such as Britain’s nuclear industry and fifth generation telecommunications system, a move that has angered both Canberra and Washington – two of the UK’s closest ‘Five Eyes’ allies.
If any good comes from Covid-19, it will surely be that Britain and other democratic nations come to realise that the integrationist approach towards China is not working. It is one thing to overlook authoritarian excesses and the plight of a minority group in a distant province in a faraway country, but quite another to look the other way as several hundred British citizens die due to the negligence of Xi’s regime. It should never be forgotten that the Chinese authorities failed to implement the necessary reforms to clean up the notorious wet markets from which the virus probably came, just as it should be remembered that Xi’s regime actively tried to stymie international knowledge of the new disease and then used propaganda from Russia’s playbook to cover its tracks. For these reasons alone, Covid-19 should come to be known as ‘Xi’s Virus’.
More importantly, Xi’s Virus should remind the UK and democratic countries everywhere that they cannot treat a deeply repressive regime like they would treat one another. While China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, it will not integrate as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the rules-based international system; instead, it will only become more aggressive if it is allowed to grow in power.
As the UK moves forward with what Mr Johnson calls ‘the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War’, talk of ‘golden decades’ must end. Xi’s Virus will cause a decade of misery for some Britons; for others, it will end the decade altogether, before it even gets underway. Britain ought now to consider how to decouple from China economically, and push back against Xi’s regime geopolitically.
This will involve not only reducing Chinese influence within the British economy, but also working with like-minded nations like Japan, India and Australia to create a new geo-economic architecture to counter China’s revisionist rise – from the Indo-Pacific to the heart of Europe. A good starting point would be for the UK to mobilise its vast budget for Official Development Assistance – worth £15 billion annually – to create an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an attempt by Beijing to reorder the economic geography of Eurasia. Britain could also provide more active support for Taiwan and other countries that Xi’s regime seeks to dominate and repress.
The UK will not be alone. As Covid-19 – Xi’s Virus – takes its toll, Britain’s leaders will find active international support. It is time for Xi and his regime – those who allowed Covid-19 to emerge and spread – to be held to account. Their acts of negligence have led to the deaths of hundreds of British citizens and tens of thousands of others around the world. If Xi is not censured, he will only push on to repress and kill countless thousands more.