China’s adjustment of its policies for dealing with Covid-19 have led to considerable debate, including among friends of China. In this context, we are republishing this article by Martin Jacques, author of ‘When China rules the world’, which originally appeared in Global Times.
Martin does not shy away from controversy and his article suggests that China’s new policies to deal with Covid are part of a pattern that, in his view, also includes adjustments to both economic and foreign policies.
When China announced on December 7 that it was abandoning most of its COVID controls, it took the West by surprise. It never expected such a dramatic shift. Many had speculated that a crackdown would follow the protests against the COVID controls. There was no sign of it. There was a tsunami of predictions that there would be a huge death toll, 1 million, perhaps many millions. It is too early to say how many there might be. At the weekend, the latest official figures indicated around 60,000 so far, no doubt with many more to come.
The Western reaction to China’s move has emphasized the negative. This is not surprising. Ever since January 2020, the West has sought to denigrate China’s approach to COVID-19, a strategy of distraction designed to divert attention from how well China handled COVID-19 in 2020-2021 and how abysmally the West performed. More than any other issue, COVID-19 served to poison the relationship between China and the West. It became inextricably bound up with the so-called new Cold War. The West is finding it difficult to come to terms with China’s emerging post-COVID strategy because its mindset is still rooted in the COVID era, as illustrated by the speed with which many countries chose to impose new requirements on Chinese travelers.
There are growing signs that China’s abandonment of its COVID controls is the first act in a major shift of policy. The West has been slow to grasp the economic implications of China’s opening up. The term opening up, of course, is synonymous with China’s rise after 1978: COVID-19, alas, became all too symbolic of its opposite, closing down and partial isolation. Once more China is now opening up and the effects will be huge. Its growth rate in 2023 is likely to be in excess of 5 percent; its enormous domestic market is returning to growth as Chinese consumers start spending again; global tourism will receive a huge boost; blocked supply lines will be freed; Chinese entrepreneurs can once more travel the world in search of new business. China has long been the engine of global growth. It can now resume that role in a post-COVID context.
Important policy shifts are underway. There is a commitment to reboot the property market. The strict regulation of big tech, the other major economic driver, looks as if it is reaching its end. China’s economy suffered greatly during the pandemic, partly because of lockdowns and partly as a result of a weakened commitment to economic growth. China cannot afford to continue along this path if it is to realize its ambitions for the future. We can expect a new emphasis on economic growth. And there are wider signs of new thinking beyond the economy. When Qin Gang, the new Chinese foreign minister, was ambassador to the US, he sought to find common ground with the US, to find bridges, to acknowledge the country’s singular historical achievements. This is a far cry from wolf warrior diplomacy. The world should not be surprised if China seeks to emphasize areas of agreement and in the process offer a more benign face of China to the world in the post-COVID era.
This would be a far cry from those dispiriting years when COVID-19 dominated everyone’s thinking, governments and individuals alike. There is as yet not much sign that the West is ready for such a rather different Chinese approach. Indeed, the West has baked into its thinking on China that the latter is unbending and dogmatically committed to a particular course. That, of course, ignores the flexibility China has shown on major issues over a long period of history, most notably in the extraordinary historical shift from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping. China’s decision to abandon the dynamic zero-COVID policy in December similarly speaks to this kind of flexibility. Do not believe too much in your own propaganda: it can be thoroughly misleading.
There is a deeper reason why the West finds it difficult to think afresh in the post-COVID era. The West is in long-term historical decline, and this tends to engender a hardening of the intellectual arteries, an inclination to think fondly of the past and prefer familiar ways of thinking. There are two factors that reinforce this. The Western economic outlook is dominated by concerns about inflation and the need for strongly deflationary and anti-growth policies. While Europe, for the first time since 1945, finds itself at war in the Ukraine.
It is time for the West to rethink. China’s decision to abandon its dynamic zero-COVID policy means that – barring the emergence of another dangerous variant – the world can now move into a new post-COVID era. There are strong signs that China is embracing this. In contrast, the West is behind the curve, still living in a COVID-dominated era of international relations.