A Communist Coronavirus
China’s political system is eventually going to damage the world, by accident or by intent.
Jan. 29, 2020 6:51 pm ET
Opinion: A Communist Coronavirus
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Opinion: A Communist Coronavirus
Wonder Land: The coronavirus is a metaphor for two political ideas that are incompatible with the realities of the modern world: China’s Communist Party and isolationism. Image: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images
The Wuhan coronavirus is a metaphor for two political ideas that are incompatible with the realities of the modern world: The Communist Party of China and American isolationism.
We now live in a world in which everything travels everywhere all the time. People, products, ideas and data have become uncontainable. Centuries-long attempts by authorities to control their populations are ending.
The internet phrase “going viral” implies minimal controls over flows of information and a phenomenon that is by no means benign. Malicious software code that spreads quickly and is difficult to treat is called a computer virus. The coronavirus itself jumped from a “wet” meat market in Wuhan to other countries. All these modern viruses inevitably migrate to the U.S.
The most familiar photograph in the news this week is of crowds of Chinese people in antibacterial face masks. Is this the way we want to live?
Those masks and the mass lockdowns of Chinese cities are themselves striking metaphors of the attempt by the Communist Party, since 1949, to control what the people of China can say and do. But the party’s tools of information control, notably its divisions of internet monitors, are collapsing beneath the coronavirus, even as President Xi Jinping told his censors this week to “strengthen the guidance of public opinions.”
If ever an epitaph is written for the People’s Republic of China, it may be Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang, trying to apologize for delays in informing the public about the coronavirus: “If in the end you say someone has to be held accountable, you say the masses have opinions, then we’re willing to appease the world by resigning.”
But the Chinese people know they are not allowed to hold anyone in Beijing accountable for this virus, or for the sickening pollution of their air and water. Mr. Zhou made clear who calls the shots: “As a local government official, after I get this kind of information I still have to wait for authorization before I can release it.”
This Communist control model in recent years arrived at its beyond-Orwellian endpoint in the Chinese region of Xinjiang with the creation of a high-tech, always-on surveillance state put in place to contain the area’s Uighurs.
The political and personal reality of life inside such a grand-scale authoritarian system is the reason citizens of Hong Kong have been massed in the city’s streets the past year. It is the reason the people of Taiwan last month voted overwhelmingly to re-elect President Tsai Ing-wen, who promised continued independence from mainland China.
They don’t want to live like that. They already knew what this crisis is making clear everywhere else: China has become too complex and too unavoidably open to the world for its people to survive—perhaps literally—under the closed and obviously unhealthy ideology of communism.
The coronavirus has also exposed the fallacy beneath an idea promoted in some corners of the American right and intermittently by the rhetoric of President Trump—isolationism.
Isolationism is the political belief that bad problems elsewhere in the world are their problem. But the coronavirus obviously is our problem.
The stories of attempts at global containment of the virus are astonishing. Planes are evacuating foreign citizens out of China, and business travel into China is virtually at a halt. Facebook has reportedly asked U.S. employees recently returned from China to work at home for now. The Centers for Disease Control are testing travelers from China at 20 U.S. airports. British Airways has canceled flights to China.
Reacting like this to an infectious virus may seem obvious, but why should the U.S. think it can isolate itself—politically or physically—from the challenges of a modern world that is constantly pushing past previous boundaries?
Huawei’s threat sits unsolved—an important 5G technology and a clear danger to U.S. and international cybersecurity. China’s military penetrations into the South China Sea are a form of man-made political virus designed to weaken the orientation of the Pacific region toward the U.S. China’s Belt and Road initiative is in more countries than the coronavirus.
The spectacle and symbolism of planes evacuating foreign nationals fleeing a Chinese bat-borne virus represent an unappealing future. China has to change, but how?
The U.S. president’s opposition won’t want to hear it, but Mr. Trump’s trade negotiations with China may offer a rough model.
Despite global agreement that China was cheating, it was also clear that dealing with it inside the framework of traditional, 20th-century diplomacy was simply too slow, archaic and out of sync with the tempo of the modern world. The alternative Trump model was to lean in and not let up.
The real China problem is bigger than one trade deal or this virus, but the coronavirus has focused minds. This looks like a moment for the U.S. to enlist its allies to lean in again and not let up. Publicly support Hong Kong, a model for what China indeed should be.
On current course, China is liable to do significant damage to the rest the world, by accident or intent.