Did China manufacture Covid-19?

The 73rd World Health Assembly began on May 18th – and it soon became yet another battleground between the US and China. Back in March, the Trump administration started repeatedly addressing the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”, causing huge offence in Beijing. Since then, the two countries have been engaging in a mediatic war over who is responsible for the pandemic. The underlying assumption of this blame-shifting is that the virus has been bioengineered to serve as a weapon.

This conversation has proved dangerous on both sides: it not only provoked several attacks in regard to China and Chinese communities abroad, but it also injected a renewed sense of nationalistic pride in the Chinese and eventually reinforced an “East versus West” paradigm and the idea of an inevitable conflict between the two.

Narratives of this kind are as ominous as they are misleading. In the US, it is mainly conservative politicians who speculate that China created their virus out of their biosafety level-four laboratory located in Wuhan, where they suggest the outbreak originated. The first raising questions as to the possibility of a manufactured Covid-19 was American social scientist Steve Mosher, who published an opinion piece on February 22 entitled ‘Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab’. Mosher, the president of the Population Research Institute, has also written a book entitled Bully of Asia: Why China’s ‘Dream’ Is the New Threat to World Order, which sheds a bit of light on his stance on the country.

Chinese criticism has been equally sharp but quite different in nature: allegations of a US-manufactured virus were framed more as a (not very) diplomatic response than as an actual inquiry into the American medical research. Xinhua, China State News Agency, has instead released a video advertisement that mocks the U.S. government and blames it for having underestimated the virus and having poorly handled the crisis causing many people to die. A type of criticism that may somehow be more constructive than blaming a government to have deliberately released a new-type disease as a weapon.

What is more important, however, is that none of this is backed by science. Experts worldwide have been debunking theories that Covid-19 originated in a lab. According to a study recently published on the biomedical journal Nature Medicine the molecular features of SARS-CoV-2 that are essential to initiate infection are so perfect that they can only be the result of natural selection and not the product of a genetic engineering process, even if performed by very clever scientists.

In interviews published on Business Insider and Scientific American, Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with and trained Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers in the past and Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli warn that there are at least four reasons why a leak would be unlikely. Besides the rigorous safety protocols implemented by the lab, it appears that the lab’s samples simply don’t match the new-type corona-virus.

The most likely explanation for the appearance of Sars-Cov-2 may be instead that it was transmitted to humans after a process of natural selection in an animal host – probably bats – that were sold in Wuhan wet-market. This theory has been leading many to mistrust or mock the Chinese for their backwardness and unusual alimentary habits. While part of this criticism is justified – as China grows it should start taking responsibility both over its society and its engagement with the world – it is not reasonable for other countries to assume that China should just abandon its culinary traditions however strange they might sound. At the origin of the pandemic is the problem of unregulated animal markets anyway, not the ingredients of a Chinese soup.

One last consideration: it may be worthwhile to engage in a mental exercise for a second and imagine what would have happened if the virus originated, let’s say, in Italy. Would have the conversation been any different? It suddenly becomes harder to picture anybody accusing the Italian government of having evil plans to conquer the world. A sign that most of the current discourse on Covid-19 might have more to do with politics than with health.

 

Italy’s phase two: what (not) to do

After Europe’s longest lockdown, Italy has entered its much-anticipated phase two on May 4th but it seems only few will have reason to celebrate.

All non-essential activities were banned and severe restrictions on people’s movement were imposed in Italy as early as March 10th, to contain the virus and avoid the risk of overwhelming the National Health System. On April 26th, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in a video message to the nation, outlined his plan to slowly ease quarantine causing millions to express their anger and disappointment at what became labelled a “false reopening”.

Phase two has been presented as ‘coexistence with the virus’, meaning that people will be able to move within their region of residence to visit family or go to work, and many activities allowed to restart. Conte’s plan was predictable: the lifting of the lockdown, however gradual, must simultaneously involve the areas of production and of social life. After all, market rules teach us there is no significant movement of goods without the movement of people.

What Italians contested was the set of criteria used by the government to formulate cans and can’ts in the new phase. Only export-oriented manufacturing and public sector construction activities reopened on 4th May, leaving many small and medium-sized private sector businesses still at high risk of shutdown. Freedom of movement is still limited to essential activities, such as shopping for groceries or medical supplies, with the sole addition of visiting family members within the same region.

The decision to limit individual contacts to blood relatives alone has been sharply criticised by the public. Many emphasized how the choice of the state to prioritize blood ties is the expression of a backward and familial conception of social life, typical of Italian institutions. As a result of this criticism, the government decided to extend visit permission to all people that constitute “stable relationships”. A vague concept that makes law enforcement much harder.  The Prime Minister has explicitly said that “the success of the second phase rests upon Italians’ common sense”.  

Other changes involve the reopening of public parks – daily exercise is now allowed, provided that it is done alone and in full respect of social distancing – and the food sector, within bars and restaurants set to reopen to serve takeaway and delivery food.

Thus, Italy’s second phase is intended to look like the UK’s current ‘first’ phase of containment. The country is still far from the ‘phase two’ model set by China, where schools and most work activities have been reopened for weeks, although with strict rules of hygiene and social distancing. And this is what ultimately annoyed Italians, worn out by eight weeks of seclusion.

Other measures, however, are certainly understandable. For instance, the price of face masks has been capped at 50 cents, to make it easier for companies and shops to ensure respect for the rules that will grant their reopening.

Overall, the Italian government has been willing to negotiate. Regardless of its success, Italy’s second phase will set the precedent on the basis of which other countries could – and should – start to outline their strategies. 

 

Stronger UK-China relations? First try and understand China

In 2019, the United Kingdom ranked 9th among the People’s Republic of China’s top trading partners in terms of export sales. That is to say, the UK imported around 62 billion dollars worth of Chinese shipments in 2019 alone. The same year, the PRC ranked 5th among major trading partners of Britain, meaning Beijing imported around 30 billion dollars worth of British products. Against all odds, trade and investment have been peaking after Brexit, with the UK being the first recipient of China’s FDI (foreign direct investment) in the real estate sector in Europe since 2017.

There is more: England is a decisive pawn on the Chinese geopolitical chessboard. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a massive plan for infrastructure investments covering the route of the ancient Silk Road to promote trade, diplomacy, and people-to-people exchanges, to exert influence abroad and – according to some observers – to reshape the US-led global order into a Sino-centric one. It is no coincidence that the first-ever “Silk Road train”, inaugurated in 2017, connects London and Yiwu (one of China’s main production hubs). The BRI was also the main sponsor of the 2019 London’s Chinatown Chinese Spring Festival, signalling that China-UK relations go beyond business and trade to cultural exchange.

Looking at data, it seems clear that chances for the UK to thrive without dealing with China are shrinking. However, many in Europe are still sceptical about China being a responsible actor to be entrusted with large shares of power and influence over others. The reason is a legitimate ‘fear of the unknown’: the PRC is an unfamiliar country, geographically, politically, and culturally distant from Western liberal democracies.

Doubts on the eligibility of China as a partner worthy of trust have been the result of both warnings from the United States and lack of knowledge of the Chinese context. Concerns have been raised in many European countries about whether it is acceptable to promote closer ties with the PRC. But given its growing involvement in international affairs, it seems unlikely that – for the foreseeable future – any major country will be able to avoid doing business with Beijing.

What is suggested here is a medicine for uncertainty. That is a need to depart from binary Cold-War-logic in favour of a more comprehensive understanding of the Chinese context, beyond the domain of business and trade. Filling the gaps in knowledge of China’s civilisation, history, society, and institutions is essential to better understand the country’s current strategy and policy-making.

The Chinese are devoted students of Western history, philosophy, and political theory: without relinquishing their identity they managed to take over those aspects of Western thought that they believed would be beneficial to them. Greater understanding of factors of this kind would enhance the ability of Western governments to predict China’s behaviour and, possibly, to find a framework for mutual understanding under which to operate.

The PRC is experiencing impressive economic and technological development. At this pace, the capacity of China’s economy will outstrip the U.S. within the next few decades. Likely, the templates of economic – and eventually, political – power will be shifting from West to East. Greater knowledge of China will provide policy-makers with useful tools to promote national interests through an effective relationship with Beijing.

Furthermore, with power shifting from the U.S. to China, Europe might draw strength from acting as a mediator. In the geographic middle ground, European countries – especially the UK, given its traditional diplomatic ties with the United States – might be in a position to make the best of both worlds. Such a repositioning should start now and be consolidated over time if it is to be an effective reality at the time of the shift.

To this end, it is essential for the UK to get the big picture: if Brexit really does mean that a more independent Britain will have the chance to reboot its foreign policy and build healthier, equitable and ethical bilateral relationships with its international partners, then China would be a good place to start. For this to be possible, a holistic approach to China should be pushed forward to become the bedrock for a new topic of conversation within the English public discourse.  

 

Covid-19: Lessons from the East?

Are there lessons still to be learnt about the way the East has handled coronavirus? As Europe and the US adopt increasingly draconian measures to stop the spreading of the virus, Asia is slowly recovering. Within a similar period of time, the virus has made a greater number of victims in Europe and the US than in Asia. This imbalance is not only a matter of governance or national health systems – a lot of it is cultural.  

The People’s Republic of China, a country of 1.4 billion people, managed to contain the virus in about ten weeks reporting the first day without deaths on April 7th. Vietnam, one of the PRC’s neighbours and home to the first registered case outside of China back in January, has only a few hundred infections within its territory and, seemingly, no deaths. The government in Hanoi was even praised by the World Health Organisation for its performance. South Korea, one of the virus epicentres back in February, managed to slow down the spread and now has about 10,000 cases (one seventh of those registered in the UK) and only 222 deaths.

What made Asian countries’ response to the virus effective? Many have found an answer in the ability of governments to strictly control their citizens. This capacity is seen as the direct result of the presence of authoritarian governments – China, Vietnam – or authoritarian traits within formally established democracies – South Korea – and has been dismissed in the West as something neither possible nor desirable. But this view might be simplistic. As much as a country’s policy-making reflects the nature of its political systems, political arrangements result from the mindset, customs and social behaviour of a people or a society. To put simple, politics rests upon culture.

There are a few societal behaviours shared by China, Vietnam and South Korea that are absent in the Western cultural tradition. First, the general tendency to value the collective over the individual. This fundamental premise is a legacy of Confucianism and an underlying concept to the notion of citizenship in China and culturally proximate countries. Confucius preached that the virtuous individual should be willing to sacrifice for the family, the neighbouring social circles, and ultimately the state.

Valuing the collective over the individual is a two-fold asset at a time like this: first, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the South Koreans have arguably had less troubles than Europeans or Americans in accepting the idea of suffering any form of discomfort – isolation, in this case – for the common good. As such, they proved more disciplined. This is evidenced by the Chinese experts that were sent to Europe to help fighting the virus: “The main problem is that too many people are still out in the streets,” they declared to China’s State News Agency.

Secondly, the importance conferred by the individual on the state, combined with centralized policy-making, allowed the government to adopt cost-cutting strategies to deal with the crisis. For instance, central governments in China and Vietnam have been able to elude market rules in order to prioritize production of certain goods over others: this allowed to avoid the risk that key products – such as food, surgical masks, and sanitary products – get out of stock or become overly expensive.

Most European countries and the United States have been taking on some of the measures that proved successful in Asia, but recovery is nowhere near in sight. As Westerners, we feed into the idea that this imbalance is the result of the ideological premises of liberal democracy that grant citizens’ individual freedom instead of controlling and restraining them. This might be true. But on closer inspection, we might find that some aspects of existing liberal democracies exceeded those premises: undeterred individualism, the rule of the market, and the lack of state intervention, if unchallenged, may be our doom in the world of the future.

 

The UK should not use Huawei’s technology to develop its high speed internet

The current coronavirus crisis originated in China and has become – quite naturally – the only issue about which most of us care. But there are other China related issues that affect our future, and the overarching crisis should not allow other issues to slip under the wire unchallenged. The most important of which, as far as the UK is concerned, is Huawei, as the following implies:

Huawei’s access to the UK’s 5G network is a political matter – one the UK government shouldn’t underestimate.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson allowed Huawei to be part of the country’s 5G network, although setting a strict cap of 35% on market share. The decision triggered criticism among Tories, as it was taken whilst ignoring US warnings of alleged links between Huawei’s administration and the Chinese Military. UK citizens may be wondering whether the country should use Huawei’s technology to improve high-speed internet. The answer is no.

Without detracting from Huawei’s technological capacity, it does not seem in the UK’s strategic interests to increase the involvement of the Chinese company in its 5G rollout. Aside from the alleged relationship between Huawei’s CEO, Ren Zhengfei, and the People’s Liberation Army, the reason that should keep Johnson from letting the company free access to the country’s 5G network is the USA.

The race to dominate tech and the cyberspace is part of the trade war between China and the US – a solution to which is nowhere near in sight. Choosing a partner to implement 5G broadband nationwide is thus a matter of picking sides: regardless of the deepening of China-UK relations, the US is still the island’s first trading partner – whereas China ranks fifth – and the US is a traditional political and military ally.

Americans, who are now in a phase of retraction from world economy under Trump’s leadership, might further hold back from engaging economically with partners they don’t consider trustworthy: if that is the case, fast-speed downloads and uploads allowed by Huawei’s 5G coverage might be more expensive than the UK can afford.