by Francesca Ghiretti & Lorenzo Mariani
This article was originally published by the Rome-based Istituto Affari Internazionali
It seems plausible to argue that COVID-19 will accompany us for most of 2020. Given the little information we have about the new coronavirus, the scientific community is cautious in forecasting the duration and extent of the coronavirus epidemic that is raging across the world at present. Although over a hundred countries already recorded cases of contagion, many still focus on China. Interestingly enough, the country has changed from being the centre of the epidemic into the first success story in the fight against the virus, now offering support to the other affected countries. Recently, as a sign of victory against the epidemic and with the aim of reviving the hearts of Chinese citizens, Xi Jinping visited the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the place of origin of COVID-19. In the meantime, commentators continue to wonder what the impact of the virus and of the consequent extraordinary measures taken to counter the virus outbreak will have on China’s governance.
As mentioned in numerous other analyses, the economic impact of the epidemic is of particular concern to international observers. Weakened by the trade war with the United States and by a moderate but steady decline in its growth, the Chinese economy has already begun to feel the effects of the government’s quarantine measures imposed on its citizens and businesses. If already at the end of 2019 the six per cent growth forecast for 2020 seemed excessive, now it seems impossible.
Furthermore, given the importance of Chinese production in global value chains, the world economy will also be affected by the closure of the factories and the Chinese economy’s slowdown. The apparent improvement of the situation in China has now prompted Beijing to loosen quarantine measures and reopen some plants with the aim of restarting the economy. Despite the government’s exhortation to return to their jobs, many Chinese workers remain reticent about the idea of resuming normal work routine as well as public life, to which must be added the fact that some key production areas, such as the province of Hubei, still remain in lockdown.
The fallout of the epidemic on Chinese society is also important. Of major concern is what Beijing will decide to do in the future with the control measures introduced in the midst of the Coronavirus emergency. Over the past few months, in fact, the central government has found in the new technological solutions developed by the main companies in the country a valid ally in the fight against the virus: from the cameras that in addition to detecting the body temperature carry out facial recognition even with masks, to the applications that monitor the potential contact of people with infected citizens. In the eyes of several international observers, the extensive collection of data that today has helped China to contain the epidemic could tomorrow be used to further limit the privacy of Chinese citizens.
On a political level, the central government is unlikely to be affected by drastic repercussions despite the many speculations of the past few weeks which spoke of a possible stability crisis of the Chinese Communist Party and of the Presidency of Xi Jinping due to COVID-19. Although it is true that many, especially in the most affected areas, have criticised the work of the government and the lack of transparency of information, judging from the online response of Chinese users, most of them genuinely adhere to the line presented by the state media. After all, in China the opacity and the distortion of the news are certainly not new, and it should be noted that the majority of citizens who have not been directly affected by the health crisis have not developed a sense of dissatisfaction with the party such as to lead to political claims of the aforesaid scope.
The containment of criticism in the domestic environment was obviously facilitated by the Party’s communication machine, which was set in motion at full capacity already in the first days of the health crisis and which is now helping the government to recover internal consensus and international support. Much of the initial energy was spent primarily to prevent any blame and negligence from falling on the central government. To pay the costs, as it very often happens in China, was, therefore, the local government of the province of Hubei, guilty of not having contained and managed the infection. In a second phase, the communication of the Chinese press organs concentrated its efforts in promoting a national cohesion campaign under the leadership of the Party which culminated in Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan where the President met the population and, albeit via connection. remote, even the sick.
Finally, over the past few days, the main attention of the Chinese media has focused on the rest of the world and especially on the United States, accused of having chosen to adopt a “selfish” attitude during a time of global crisis. Proposing itself once again in antithesis to the US policies of closures, China is now seeking to recover the ground that it lost over the past few months. An attempt to revive its image as a responsible nation, ready to collaborate multilaterally for the good of the international community and to send out support to its partners in case of need. In this regard, emblematic is the case of the alleged preferential treatment reserved to Italy in the reception of medical supplies from China, often described as the result of the special relationship that exists between the two countries.
It is still too early to know for sure what the consequences of this health crisis will be on China’s internal politics and international ambitions. What seems clear is that Xi appears to have endured one of the most demanding tests since he took power in 2012. Furthermore, it clearly surfaces the idea that if in the coming months Beijing will be able to play its cards well, then China, and with it the Chinese Communist Party, could even emerge from this crisis stronger than before.
Francesca Ghiretti is a PhD candidate at King’s College London where she has been awarded the Leverhulme Scholarship as part of the project ‘Interrogating Visions of a Post-Western World: Interdisciplinary and Interregional Perspectives on the Future in a Changing International Order’. Her thesis is about Chinese FDI in the EU. Francesca is also a Research Fellow in the Asia department at Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome and a geopolitical consultant at CQS, a London-based hedge fund.
Lorenzo Mariani is Research Fellow in the field of Asian studies at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome where he collaborates mainly on research projects dealing with Chinese domestic and foreign affairs, and Inter-Korean relations. Since 2017, he has been Korea Foundation Fellow. He graduated in International Relations at the University of Bologna and earned a Master’s double degree in China Studies from Zhejiang University and University of Turin. During his academic career, he was an exchange student at Peking University (Beijing) and at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (Seoul).