By Nathan Li
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The ongoing pandemic has taught us a hard-learned lesson. The fact that China is an authoritarian regime that refuses transparent governance and freedom of speech, compounded by the reality that it is deeply ingrained in the global economy, makes the current crisis a worst-case scenario.
If China were more isolated, the outbreak in Wuhan might not have escalated into a once-in-a-century catastrophe. When the SARS epidemic burst out in November 2002, the government did not acknowledge it until five months later. When the disease was finally contained in July 2003, a total of 8,000 cases were confirmed, resulting in 774 reported deaths in 17 countries. That pales in comparison to the Wuhan virus. As of today, there have been over 30,000 reported deaths among 650,000 confirmed cases in more than 170 countries, and the figures continue to climb by leaps and bounds. The high fatality rate of SARS may have been attributed to the slow transmission, but one cannot overlook the fact that China’s interaction with the world was relatively inconsequential back then. Only one year into the WTO, China’s share of the world economy was 4 percent instead of the 16 percent it is today; and its position as the world’s factory hadn’t taken shape.
If Beijing were transparent and allowed freedom of speech, the situation could also have been different. A March study by researchers at the U.K.’s University of Southampton showed that, if an intervention took place just three weeks earlier, 95 percent fewer people would have been infected. Three weeks is exactly the time period between the end of December, when the whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang and his colleagues sent out warnings on social media, and January 23, when a lockdown of Wuhan was ordered. By January 20, the official word was that the disease “doesn’t spread from person to person.” In early January, according to the Chinese media Caixin, the Health Commission of Hubei province ordered medical institutions and professionals to destroy all samples of the Wuhan pneumonia virus and not to share the information with the public. On January 3, the National Health Commission issued a notice stipulating that “biological samples and related information must not be provided to other institutions and individuals without approval.” It is less likely that a democratic government in an open society would cover up such a major epidemic and miss the best time to contain the virus.
Unfortunately, neither of these suppositions is true. The world faces high stakes when an anti-democracy regime that routinely suppresses the free flow of information is also an important component of the global economy.
Based on an unproven idea that trade and economic prosperity promote freedom and democracy, the West has, for decades, provided China money, technology, and market access. Be it an excuse for the corporations to profit from the country’s cheap labor or policymakers’ naivety and wishful thinking, the theory turned out to be wrong. China’s economy has grown, but so has the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) domestic control and its global ambitions. People in China shun and shy away from sensitive political topics on social media. “Spreading rumors” or “groundless criticism of the central authority” is a crime punishable by years in jail. Overseas, the regime has been trumpeting its “Belt and Road Initiative,” an infrastructure investment project and a vehicle to expand its ideological influence. In a word, the West’s trade and investment has built a most formidable authoritarian machine. With a larger economy, greater global influence, and a strong position as the world’s factory, Beijing has little to fear when resisting Western ideas.
China has therefore refused to change. In its handling of infectious diseases 17 years ago, it covered up SARS and arrested Dr. Jiang Yanyong, who exposed the outbreak to the outside world. 17 years later, it covered up the Wuhan virus, silenced Dr. Li Wenliang, and detained activists who leaked uncensored coverage of the disaster. Even worse, China denied the cover-up, fueled anti-American propaganda, expelled the journalists who could report to the rest of the world, and blamed the U.S. for originally spreading the virus, while not providing any evidence.
The West must come to terms with the reality that the Chinese regime has not changed and will never change. If another epidemic happens, it will still cover it up and deny all responsibility for it. Delinking China may be the only option to protect ourselves and mitigate the potential damage to the world. If history has proven that the engagement policy is wrong, why not correct it by reversing course? Why should we make friends with someone who refuses to share our values? Why should we trust someone who has repeatedly lied to the world? Why continue to allow a bad government to hold the world hostage? These are all the million-dollar questions we need to ask ourselves.
It’s time to give up the fantasy and learn the lesson that is being taught to us at such a great cost of human lives. If we cannot change China, we should stay away from it!