China’s socialist state production and global cooperation is equipping the world with the tools to fight coronavirus, offering a vision of a world without Western hegemony
Published on Qiao Collective, Mar 26, 2020
On February 14, just as massive government and popular efforts had begun to limit new COVID-19 cases in China, the leaders of the Western world gathered at the annual Munich Security Conference. A longstanding forum for shoring up the institutional arms of Western hegemony—the UN, the EU, and NATO—this year’s gathering was marked instead by a sense of impending doom. The 2020 conference theme, “Westlessness,” marked the ambivalence of Western leaders towards the project of the West itself. Divided internally by a retreat to populist nationalisms and facing external challenges from a “rising China,” the architects of the West seem increasingly aware of the potential of their own obsolescence. The question at hand: what is the future for a divided West that, in the words of the conference organizers, “seems to be retreating from the global stage?”
The conference was dominated by two contrasting visions, articulated by the divergent speeches delivered by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Where Pompeo described a zero-sum neo-Cold War vision in which “The West is winning” in the face of an “increasingly aggressive Chinese Communist Party,” Wang implored his peers to “transcend the East-West divergence and North-South divide,” articulating China’s vision of a multilateralism that “advocates the equal right to development shared by all countries.”
China and the U.S.’s competing visions of the world order—one committed to internationalist solidarity, the other seeking respite in old national borders and geopolitical alliances—are becoming even more apparent
Pompeo’s confidence in a triumphant West was meant to reassure European allies who have grown concerned about China’s deepening ties with traditional allies like Italy and Serbia. Yet more than a month later, as China has brought new cases down to an essential standstill and the rest of the world has been engulfed by a full-fledged pandemic, Pompeo’s nostalgia for a Cold War redux in which Western-style capitalism emerges as the inevitable end stage of human development appears even more dated. Indeed, as the U.S. doubles down on inhumanitarian sanctions on Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea, while China sends medical aid and experts to nations across the world, the two nation’s visions of the world order—one committed to internationalist solidarity, the other seeking respite in old national borders and geopolitical alliances—are becoming even more apparent. The question posed at Munich—ominous for some, liberatory for others, remains. Is there a future for “the West”—as a geopolitical bloc, ideological consensus, and global hegemon—in the age of coronavirus?
COVID-19 has thrown the United States into a pandemic. Where weeks ago public officials spoke with a smug conviction that a First World quality of life would prevent the virus from taking root, one in four Americans are now under shelter-in-place orders, hospitals are reporting shortages in critical masks and ventilators, and experts are assuming that, given testing kit shortages, the number of infections is many times greater than the already skyrocketing confirmed cases. At the same time, Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, has reported zero new transmissions since March 19. China’s effective eradication of new transmissions speaks to what W.H.O. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called a “new standard for outbreak response”—one enabled, as we wrote previously, by a socialist political economic system in which the state maintains ultimate control over production.
Where China marshaled state-owned enterprises and confiscated private capital to meet the production needs of the pandemic, the Trump Administration’s coronavirus response has been a who’s who of the corporate class.
Where China’s mass production of masks, test kits, and ventilators, construction of emergency hospitals, universal testing and treatment, and regional coordination of food production and distribution speaks to the power and dynamism of a socialist market economy, the U.S. response is emblematic of a system in which decades of neoliberalism have utterly neutered the state’s ability to meet the needs of the people without relying on the cooperation of individual corporate actors. Where China marshalled state-owned enterprises and confiscated private capital to meet the production needs of the pandemic, the Trump Administration’s coronavirus response has been a who’s who of the corporate class. A March 13 press conference saw Trump flanked by the CEOs of WalMart, CVS, and Target, who pledged vague support to continue operating stores and provide parking lot space for drive-through testing sites. Federal and state governments have failed to provide adequate medical supplies for hospitals, leaving hospital staff haggling with private sellers price-gouging protective masks and facing a proprietary monopoly banning third-party repairs on life saving ventilators and other medical equipment. Meanwhile, efforts to expand testing remain contingent on billionaire philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg, shareholders are pressuring drug companies to hike prices, and the pharmaceutical lobby has prevented Congress from including language mandating affordable vaccine prices into its coronavirus response legislation. Meanwhile, a trillion dollar stimulus package currently being debated in Congress has been criticized by progressive Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for giving “a half trillion dollars to big corporations with few worker protections.”
But the spectacular contrast between the Chinese and American political and economic systems is made even more clear in the realm of global geopolitics, where out of this global pandemic has emerged the multilateral world presaged by the Munich Security Conference’s requiem for the American Century. Where Mike Pompeo praised a triumphant neoliberal ideology of “individual freedom [and] free enterprise,” this very Western consensus on neoliberal austerity has left Western governments politically subservient to the very industries they now beg to work in the public interest to meet the needs of this crisis. Lacking the state-owned enterprises that spearheaded China’s crisis response, the U.S., for instance, has turned to prison labor and Korean War-era war powers which require private manufacturers to prioritize government orders for medical supplies—making clear that carceral and military logics are the last recourse of a state emaciated by the tenets of neoliberalism. Leaders in the United Kingdom and Sweden are now floating “herd immunity” as a potential strategy, refusing to slow the economy and expose the weakness of their national health care infrastructures. After decades of evacuating state oversight of health, educational, and housing to the private sector, the emaciated, neoliberal West is crumbling under the weight of a crisis of its own making.
Turned inwards by crisis, the United States and EU have abdicated even the pretension of leadership over the liberal world order: leaving nations across the world turning increasingly towards China for support. Take, for instance Venezuela, which received 300,000 test kits, technical consultation, from China, as Cuban medical specialists arrived to assist the Venezuelan response. At a press conference, Venezuelan vice-president Delcy Rodriguez announced that Venezuela and China would create a special airlift cooperation to facilitate the flow of life-saving supplies during the crisis. Chinese aid came just days after the IMF rejected a Venezuelan appeal for an emergency $5 billion loan to fight the pandemic and the World Health Organization has struggled to bypass U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba to coordinate an effective response—sanctions that Chinese officials said they refused to honor during this humanitarian crisis.
Iran has similarly struggled to address the pandemic amidst U.S. sanctions that restrict Iranian access to international financial markets despite supposed exceptions for health supplies. Majid Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, called for an end to sanctions and criticized U.S. “lip service” to humanitarian exceptions that are failing the Iranian people in practice. Alongside urging the U.S. to lift its unilateral sanctions on Iran, China has also sent significant aid: on March 17, the Iranian ambassador to China announced the arrival of a shipment of 15 tons of Chinese relief supplies including test kits, ventilators, disinfectant, and protective masks. Iranian media likewise reported that China had sent some 18 medical consignments to help Iran fight the coronavirus outbreak, in addition to expert delegations sent by the Red Cross Society of China and the Chinese Center for Disease Control, and a crowd-sourced fundraiser posted by the Iranian embassy in China on Weibo, which raised over a half million USD for Iran’s medical response. That the U.S. has insisted on continuing its sanction regime on Iran and Venezuela, while China has refused to honor those sanctions despite the risk of secondary sanctions, speaks to the two superpowers’ very different approaches to diplomacy.
China’s aid has not only filled crucial shortages produced by inhumane U.S. sanctions—it has emerged as a key support for European nations left behind by traditional Western alliances such as NATO and the European Union.
But China’s aid has not only filled crucial shortages produced by inhumane U.S. sanctions—it has emerged as a key support for European nations left behind by traditional Western alliances such as NATO and the European Union. Serbia, which is not an EU member but has been petitioning for ascension since 2009, asked for support from China in the wake of a European Commission statement that limited EU medical exports pending authorization from individual member states. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said that his country “now turns its eyes to China,” saying: “we need everything, from masks, gloves to ventilators, literally everything, and most of all we need your knowledge and people who would be willing to come here and help.” The Chinese embassy in Belgrade quickly coordinated a shipment of test kits, ventilators, and medical masks alongside a delegation of Chinese doctors to consult with Serbian health officials. In an extraordinary rebuke of the West, Vučić proclaimed that “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help.”
Of course, Western pundits have been quick to denounce what they see as opportunistic Chinese “mask diplomacy,” a self-interested power play designed to bolster China’s image on the world stage. Yet, when asked if China’s aid was truly humanitarian and not simply a geopolitical power play, Italian economic advisor Michele Geraci put it plainly: “I don’t know and now I don’t care. If somebody is worried China is doing too much, the gap is open to other countries. This is what other countries should do.” Facing the highest number of reported cases after China as of March 25, Italy welcomed a team of nine Chinese medical staff and 30 tons of medical equipment coordinated by the Chinese embassy in Italy and the Red Cross Society of China. To the contrary, the U.S. Air Force last week shipped a half million test kits out of Italy to meet the country’s own domestic shortages.
The list goes on: France received what it called a “solidarity shipment” of supplies through the Chinese embassy in France; Iraq welcomed critical supplies and a Chinese CDC delegation, Pakistan president Arif Alvi visited China March 17 to discuss coronavirus support with Xi Jinping, during which China committed to providing technical assistance and more than 30,000 coronavirus testing kits, protective clothing and masks; Namibia received 1,000 testing kits; and Chinese philanthropist Jack Ma announced a donation of 1.1 million testing kits, six million masks, and 60,000 protective suits and face shields to 54 African nations. China’s diverse aid realizes Wang Yi’s vision of multilateralism which transcends traditional East/West and North/South divides—instead reflecting an internationalism which “see[s] the international community as one global family.” Thus far, China has sent teams of doctors and disease control experts, hundreds of millions of masks, tests, ventilators, protective gear, and other resources to 82 countries across the world.
Many will simply chalk up China’s productive capacity to supply the world with critical medical supplies to China’s post-1990s integration into the global economy as “the world’s factory.” China’s centrally-planned economic production and its vast state-owned industrial infrastructure is at the center of its capacity to meet the pandemic public health demands of China and now the world. Simply put, socialism is beating this pandemic where capitalism has failed. State-owned construction firms rallied to build up China’s emergency care capacity, building two 1,000 bed hospitals in Wuhan alone in a matter of 10 days. State utilities firms cut electricity bills and rents—including guaranteeing electric service to Hubei residents unable to pay; state banks mobilized billions of dollars in low-interest loans, state-owned property developers such as China Resources lowered rent costs for small businesses; and regional coordination ensured stable prices and supplies of pork, grains, and other food necessities. And crucially, China directed the full force of its state-owned industries to prioritize the production of the very medical necessities now criss-crossing the globe via Chinese foreign aid: state-owned oil giant Sinopec built 10 new production lines for melt-blown fabric, the core material of N95 medical masks; China Construction First Group converted an industrial building a new mask factory in just six days, producing 250,000 masks a day; from automobiles to high-tech manufacturing, state-owned entities have shifted production schedules to prioritize medical necessities—bringing China to a productive capacity of some 20 million new masks per day. Meanwhile, cities such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou introduced laws to empower officials to seize private property from individuals or companies if necessary to produce items needed to control the outbreak. These measures make clear that decades of global integration and market reform have not altered the fundamental relationship between capital and the state: the Chinese Communist Party retains ultimate control over the means of production and is prepared to use that power to serve the people in times of crisis. As wealthier capitalist nations struggle to cajole private production towards public interest over profits, the benefits of a socialist market economy in which the state controls society’s means of production and can swiftly pivot resources is becoming clearer than ever.
China’s centrally-planned economic production and its vast state-owned industrial infrastructure is at the center of its capacity to meet the pandemic public health demands of China and now the world.
The coronavirus pandemic, then, is clarifying an emerging world order in which Chinese economic and political multilateralism is challenging the hegemony of a long American Century. In the Global South, this is far from new: for years, China has provided an economic lifeline for nations suffering under U.S. sanctions and turning away from IMF-brokered austerity. China has provided a recurring economic, political, and military lifeline to nations such as Venezuela (where China remains a major buyer of oil despite U.S. sanctions), Bolivia (where Evo Morales’ government spurned Western transnational companies to partner with Chinese state-owned firms to nationalize Bolivia’s lithium industry), and North Korea (where China provides crucially-needed food aid and has advocated for an easing of U.S. sanctions) as these nations have attempted to survive U.S. sanctions, expel Western capital, nationalize key industries, and chart an independent course from the U.S. world order. And on March 26, China joined Russia, Iran, the DPRK, Venezuela and others in a joint statement calling on the UN to call for an end to U.S. sanctions amidst the pandemic. Even more, China is building deepening partnerships with European nations spurned from the EU and frustrated by U.S. ultimatums to “choose a side” and refuse economic partnerships with China. After emerging from a three year IMF loan package which eroded state industries for private-sector investment in 2018, Serbia joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2019, which has since propped up Serbia’s aging steel industry, saved thousands of steel manufacturing jobs, and targets key road and railway construction. In March 2019, Italy became the first G7 nation to join BRI—a move which comes on the heels of an acrimonious battle over the EU’s financial austerity requirements for member states and which experts said could give Italy more independence in its relationship to the EU.
Of course, the fracturing of G7 and other bedrocks of the Western alliance has not come without opposition. Just as Italy entered BRI, the European Commission slammed China as a “systemic rival,” threatening to tighten restrictions on Chinese investment in Europe. The U.S. has taken an even more belligerent stance, unsuccessfully lobbying European allies to ban Chinese firm Huawei from supplying 5G network infrastructure, and threatening to withhold sensitive security intelligence from nations like the UK and Portugal which plan to accept Huawei 5G infrastructure. Myths of Chinese imperialism and “debt-trap diplomacy,” despite debunking, remain the U.S. and European Commission’s core propaganda pitch in the face of a fracturing Western alliance.
The coronavirus crisis has presented new threats and opportunities for U.S. hawks aiming to ramp up their New Cold War front against China. In the early days of the virus’s spread, a particularly egregious headline in Foreign Policy called COVID-19 the “Belt and Road Pandemic”—a symptom of a rising China that can no longer be contained by the West. Rather than exposing the weakness of states ravaged by neoliberal capitalism to respond to the pandemic, the U.S. has attempted to turn coronavirus into a crisis of legitimacy for the CCP and proof of the threat of China’s supposedly parasitic relationship to the rest of the world. When the virus was contained largely within China, Western media railed against Chinese governmental ineptitude, painting the Chinese people as a subjugated mass just waiting to revolt, rather than a nation mobilized by crisis towards mutual cooperation and solidarity. Now that China has beaten the virus, the media has turned to painting China’s foreign aid as a propaganda play designed to “drive wedges” between European allies and “weaken democracy.” Amidst an obviously inept Trump Administration response to the pandemic, the White House has instructed officials to redirect blame for the current U.S. pandemic on China’s “cover-up”—covering down on a misleading and debunked timeline of Chinese censorship and denial in the early days of the outbreak. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers took a break from pushing its corporate bailout to coalesce behind a new resolution condemning China for its handling of the outbreak. A CNN Democratic Debate question prodded the candidates to explain what “consequences” China should face “for its role in this global crisis.” Unsurprisingly, the media blitz has proven effective amongst the American electorate: a national poll found that a plurality of registered voters (33%) blamed the Chinese government for the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, while just 19% blamed President Trump.
Cold War visions of zero-sum geopolitics no longer hold in a global pandemic that demands internationalist solidarity.
The American recourse to xenophobia, nationalism, and Cold War antagonisms attempts to foreclose the revolutionary potential of this crisis, in which the fundamental incompatibility between capitalism and public health is becoming clearer to millions every day. Where a Cold War framework insists that Chinese “authoritarianism” has now contaminated the West, we must insist on the real roots of a which has manufactured by decades of neoliberal austerity which has left Western powers with emaciated health infrastructures unprepared to meet the needs of a pandemic. Cold War visions of zero-sum geopolitics no longer hold in a global pandemic that demands internationalist solidarity. Yet the ruling class has found an easy recourse in this time of crisis to simplistic ideological binaries of East vs. West, U.S. vs. China. As one pundit put it in Foreign Policy just this week: “China cannot be allowed to win.” This is a vision of the world antithetical to Wang Yi’s call to “to see our shared planet as a community for all.” America’s zero-sum framing reflects the fact that hegemony, power, and violence have always been core to the project of the West—one founded in the structures of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. For too many, the West was not just a fairy tale, but a nightmare. As the world comes together to heal from this pandemic, we might all finally awake from the nightmare of neoliberalism and colonialism and realize the dream of another world.
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