ince emerging from its isolating hardline communist cage some forty years ago, China — previously known to the West only as Communist China — has eluded most algorithms intended to make sense of its maneuvers and ambitions, both political and economic. The only certainty is that a heavily populated but still immensely poor and undereducated state has grown, despite back-and forth glitches, into a massive commercially-driven state with financial claims the world over. It has invested in Asia, Africa, North America, and to a lesser extent Europe, which at times has had to behave defensively, fearing a Chinese commercial invasion that would undercut economies previously dependent on trade between European states. But in the period between 1995 and 2010, China turned Europe’s insider game on end by supply a plethora of needed goods as well cheaper than market prices. Giant Panda China was transformed in the minds of many as hostile takeover China, its ascent — some of it based on stealing high tech and construction secrets — all but assured. So ferocious was the Chinese onslaught and the global desire for cheaper goods (even if assembled in near 19th-century work conditions) that former President Donald Trump felt compelled to slap tariffs on Beijing, at the same time knowing full well these breaking mechanisms would only slow, and annoy, Chinese resolve.
This simplified preamble is necessary in making any effort to understand the extraordinary events of the last two years, which have at times confounded the best Western Sinologists and strategic analysts.
If put to paper, the role of China since early 2020 might resemble nearly unreadable Richter scale readings, with large quakes subsiding into small ones to then begin a new set of odd shocks.
By now, the medical world has concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the COVID-19 virus originated in China in mid or late 2019. Since China is an authoritarian state, as is neighboring Russia — an authoritarianism high on money and capitalist in its cash goals — little can be absolutely confirmed let alone empirically supported. The Wuhan virus, as Trump called it, moved to Italy in early 2020, beginning a calamitous spread nourished by mass media alarmism and the absence of hospital beds to treat the ill, a terrible shortcoming as seen by Western states but not so in China, where health and welfare, never mind transparency, play only a small role in day-to-day life. It soon became clear China had concealed the existence of the virus, thus slowing any potential medical efforts to get ahead of its spread, For this, as death tolls mounted in North America and Europe, China was for a year publicly humiliated and pledges made in Western circles that the Eastern giant would be made to pay dearly for its deceit.
This never happened. China worked actively with Western nations toward the creation of a vaccine and was instrumental in promoting the policy of lockdowns that would become, and remain, a global norm. The virus crisis did hit the Chinese economy hard, and COVID-related commercial slowdowns caused noticeable cracks in the Chinese economy.
But the China-bashing was short-lived. A variety of vaccines emerged, and over time the most predominant strain of the virus — and the one now dominant, Omicron — proved but a benign spinoff of the original COVID-19 virus, so benign in fact that countries such as England began massively relaxing its reams of restrictions. With tens of millions infected with Omicron, at times no worse than a short flu, it opted for heard immunity, reckoning that as so many of its citizens were either already infected or would soon be that measures against the variant no longer made practical sense. Even the World Health Organization announced the pandemic was over, though the variant, undaunted by vaccines and boosters, would likely linger for some time, producing waves of mostly manageable illness.
The United States also relaxed restrictions, as did many European states. By early 2022, two years after the outbreak, China seemed out of the woods.
But history is both capricious and serpentine.
In February, defying assumption it was merely playing another round of geopolitical chess, Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded its sovereign southern neighbor, Ukraine, culminating a decade of tension.
From that moment on, China was again in the tuck of all conversations. Would it back Russia, a one-time edgy communist ally, or follow the lead of the West, which has all but isolated Russia in ways no modern state has ever before been sealed off, in effect cut loose from the global compact. So where did China stand? At times with the Russians, at times against them, at others watching as the war “game” played out. The Administration of President Joseph Biden all but supplicated the Chinese to please hold hands with the West, which it refused to do while at the same time making it clear it had no affection for Putin’s conquering mood.
Suddenly, China was the wildcard all were watching, India as well because it has enjoyed strong trade ties with Moscow and Putin.
China stood pat, looking on as the European Union, with Biden’s backing, turned Russia into a pariah state as if to pay if back for decades-old Cold War wounds.
Now comes the most extraordinary part, which is still unfolding, and whose full ramifications are far from clear.
China announced a major nationwide Omicron breakout, and despite WHO advice to let the mostly non-lethal variant run its course, chose instead to lock down the whole of China in a way it had never done before. An observer might applaud, saying China had finally learned its lesson about vigilance and the importance of the health and welfare of its citizenry, which composes an eighth of the planet’s population. Yet to many, the move didn’t, and doesn’t, feel quite right since a lockdown of this magnitude means China’s global exports are essentially placed on hold, putting a deep dent in the tech and other industries long dependent on Chinese spare-parts industry, the largest in the world. American companies such as Apple computers, a China mainstay, found themselves flummoxed. It informed European suppliers of Apple products that long delays could be expected in deliveries of new units and repair of broken ones. Apple is not alone.
In one sudden burst, breaking with its business-first approach, China said it no longer would tolerate mass infection of any kind on its soil, and all would have to adjust to this new and full-stop approach.
Again, many wish to insist China is merely being prudent after being pilloried following the original COVID-19 outbreak and such logic cannot of itself be spurned.
Those who think more deeply and critically and know China well have begun taking a slightly different approach to the events at hand. They suggest that while the virus is playing a very real role, the reason for China’s Draconian measures concern the events in Russia. If the self-righteous West can attempt to essentially starve Russia into backing, all the while pumping funds and Western weapons into Ukraine, in essence providing it with all the tools it needs not only to repel Russia but to rebuild and thus become a key Western player, why shouldn’t China use this moment to remind the West that it, too, can be humbled, and that China matters, and will never accept similar treatment. And China is perfectly positioned to impose its will in the most damaging of ways because the West, so busy punishing Russia, didn’t calculate the full range of possible Chinese responses. China’s move is also decisive enough to suggest it will stand on its own if and when it decided to do as Russia has done and retake what it considers a part of its essence, namely the island of Taiwan.
Of course, such thinking may be overblown, or simply incorrect, but it’s hard not to see a broader statement in China’s total shutdown. It tacitly supports Russia by depriving the West of cheap goods it took for granted, even while raging at Chinese commercial trickery and arrogance.
China has been around longer than Russia and Europe combined, never mind North America, and knows a thing or two about the nuances of global gamesmanship.
It will not be up to the West to respond, not against China but by stopping to look at itself in the mirror. Has the time come, costs and inflation notwithstanding, to de-globalize and begin to make products long ago farmed out to China, India, and a host of Asian countries at home? Is the clock slipping slowly by inexorably back to the nation-state, pre-colonial era, when all that a population used was made at home? In this, the U.S. has an enormous advantage, self-sufficiency, but a lightbulb or motherboard made by American workers will cost considerably more than one made by the far poorer and often neglected Chinese working class (and the West, busy hating Russia, has long been complicit in what amounts to Chinese slave labor — albeit not as squalid as the likes of 19th-century London).
Omicron killed relatively few Britons because its overall standard of living is far high. More, far more, will die in China, yet neither death tolls nor raising its medical prudence standing in the world can entirely explain what Beijing’s Communist Party chief have chosen to do.
The shutdown may last only a month or two, causing only modest trade problems, but that’s not the point. This seems, intentionally or unconsciously, like a warning shot across the West’s bows. Not because China loves Russia but because it wishes to serve notice it can go it alone, and when it does, others will suffer.
Let the 21st-century order begin in earnest.