The 11 million people of Wuhan in China, where the pandemic began, are starting to return to a more normal life, with the city’s subway system running again and businesses reopening. In the province of Hubei (Wuhan is the capital), 4.6 million people returned to work last week, while another 2.8 million returned from quarantine in Hubei to jobs in other parts of China, a mass migration that seemed unthinkable a month ago.
This look at the COVID-19 pandemic in a few countries around the world is only a snapshot of what are facing now. The numbers of cases and deaths are higher every day, and no country except China has the virus contained. But, as a greater number of poorer countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America become infected, few have the healthcare infrastructure of Vietnam or Cuba. So where are countries going to turn for help when large numbers of their people start falling sick and dying?
The United States is also failing miserably to provide a good example of how to successfully combat COVID-19. By March 31, the U.S. already had more coronavirus deaths than China, a country with four times the U.S. population, and the future for Americans is terrifying, with the Trump administration talking about the death of 100,000 Americans as a “good scenario.” The terribly botched U.S. response to the pandemic is undermining already weak global confidence in U.S. leadership.
China, on the other hand, has largely eliminated the virus from its own population and is already lending its expertise and resources to others. Many of the goods the world depends on to fight this virus, from masks to medicines, were already produced in China and the government has mobilized local companies to significantly crank up production and sell directly to the government to help fulfill global demand.
China is also sharing information about the pandemic and lessons from its own experience with countries around the world. Western views of China’s role in this crisis have shifted from blaming China for its initial denial of the outbreak and criticizing its restrictions of personal freedom in Wuhan to accepting its help and expertise as other countries and governments confront the same difficult choices.
With the U.S. failing and China taking a leadership role in the international response to this crisis, could this mark a turning point in the transition to a multipolar world in which China will be just as important as a world leader as the United States? And could this become an effective check on the destructive aspects and dangers of U.S. imperial power?
For several decades, China has defined its place in the world according to Deng Xiaoping’s “24-character” strategy, which has served it very well until now: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”
Since Xi Jinping came to power in China in 2012, he has implicitly been entrusted with guiding China into a new phase in its history, moving beyond the 24-character strategy into a position in which China will be the economic and diplomatic equal of the United States.
As many analysts have noted, and as the 24-character strategy implied, China has to walk a fine line to assert its influence in the world without militarily provoking the United States or taking actions that other countries will see as aggressive or threatening. That’s why it has tried to exercise extreme caution in disputes over islands in the South China Sea and other potential military flash-points. China’s One Belt One Road initiative, a massive economic development project aimed at strengthening China’s connectivity with the world, has so far been the centerpiece of its gradually shifting strategy.
But the crisis the world will face over the next six months or a year is one that cries out for competent leadership. The WHO is already playing a critical role, but it is dependent on major economic powers to provide the resources to fill its prescriptions. If China takes the lead in providing the equipment, the therapies and the expertise the world needs right now, it can do so in a context of respect and deference to the U.N. and the WHO. After decades of U.S. unilateralism, aggression and disdain for international law and institutions, most of the world would welcome this kind of internationalist leadership.
Unless China overplays its hand or makes serious mistakes, nobody but Donald Trump and the imperial hawks in Washington will begrudge China its role in helping to resolve the worst public health threat the world has faced in recent history. This is China’s chance to provide constructive international leadership in a way that will save many lives. And in the reshuffling of world power that this represents, we can only hope that the United States will also find a more constructive and legitimate place for itself in a multipolar world that is more peaceful, just and sustainable.