Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Revelations from COVID-19: Beijing’s Untrustworthiness

By Eric LeePublished June 8, 2020

As the global effects of the pandemic rage on, Western countries should take heed of the growing danger Beijing poses to the future of democracy and the liberal international order.

Why is it that we in the West have come to grimace at even the slightest talk of China? Is it because of coronavirus? Have negative stereotypes and fearmongering taken the best of us? I would say, probably not.  Although I have encountered my fair share of racism as an ethnic Korean, the better part of me is inclined to believe that my tanned yellow skin does not incite such bigotry and intolerance in most people. Instead, I believe a rising China today is so difficult to stomach not mainly due to some vague notion of racial animus, but rather due to a fundamental distaste for its government.

If the pandemic has revealed anything about the Communist Party and its leader, it is that authoritarianism left unchecked – however benevolent and well-organized – poses a serious risk to any country that practices it. As many experts have pointed out, in the past decade, China has departed from a collegial system of shared power between inner-party elites to one centered around an indispensable autocrat. Granted, there were tremendous flaws in the old system that still vested power in elites ruling from a centralized apparatus headquartered in Beijing. And chances are that, under such a system, an outbreak on the same scale of COVID-19 today would still have transpired.

Be that as it may, Beijing’s response to this pandemic under Xi has shed light on the pernicious motives driving the country’s foreign and domestic policy, motives that risk subverting the very foundations of our Western-led liberal international order. Let us be clear: China under Xi has increasingly transformed into an authoritarian state with both revanchist and nationalist ambitions for international domination. Back in 2001, when the World Trade Organization granted Beijing membership and, therefore, privileged entry into the world economy, Washington’s foreign policy establishment and the world might plausibly have hoped that an opening-up of China’s economy would lead to democratization. However, recent developments have shown international observers two things: Beijing’s unrelenting drive to consolidate the regime’s authority within its territory and its desire to play geopolitics in order to weaken the liberal order led by Western Europe and the United States (albeit reluctantly).

As stated previously, the pandemic and the ensuing crisis have obviously made China’s long-term agenda of eventual supremacy more apparent than ever. This can be seen with the recent passage of the Hong Kong security law in Beijing that would significantly limit civil liberties in the city. This agenda is also apparent in the recent charm offensive by which Beijing sent medical supplies to struggling southern European countries to weaken the latter’s solidarity with the rest of the European Union. But even in the years immediately preceding today’s global health crisis, there was already ample evidence that Beijing was an unreliable partner for Western countries. Admittedly, British and European officials are only now starting to sound the alarms on a much-needed reevaluation of close relations with China. But whether it be the bedlam in Hong Kong, the forced “reeducation” of ethnic Uyghurs, or its diplomatic and economic advances to seduce and manipulate weaker states, Beijing under Xi has been following the same playbook for several years now. Therefore, it is rather unfortunate that Western leaders—from Australia to Germany to the United Kingdom—are only beginning to see or, should we say, acknowledge Beijing’s true colors.

The investment and cash coming in from the world’s second-largest economy, with the world’s fastest-growing middle class and consumer population, were undoubtedly good while they lasted. This was probably the reason that Australia stayed silent as Communist Party-backed Chinese Student Associations limited academic freedom on university campuses, or that the United Kingdom acquiesced as Chinese businessmen bought out companies in strategically important industries. Alas, the day of reckoning has come whereby leaders will have to think more cautiously and strategically before engaging with the Middle Kingdom.

From the get-go, the COVID-19 outbreak revealed that, when forced to choose between regime stability and human wellbeing, Beijing will choose the former without a second thought. Revelations have emerged from reports about the degree to which China concealed the severity of the initial outbreak from countries it calls its trusted partners. News has come out of China pressuring the World Health Organization to downplay the danger of the virus and overstate its own success at tackling it. Such deception and scheming have further delegitimized multilateral cooperation and international organizations to the benefit of personalities like President Trump at a time when these forces are all the more crucial to solving increasingly global problems.

The core issue with the regime in Beijing is not exclusively its divergence from a liberal, multi-party political system. Singapore is another country that diverges from this norm of Western-style democracy, yet it displays a high degree of transparency, cooperation, and competence in its dealings with the international community. But China’s brand of authoritarianism is characterized by a lack of transparency and an outsized ambition for geopolitical supremacy running counter to the status quo liberal order. Perhaps a Western-dominated system is past its prime. Indeed, if we consider the economic and political problems that we face in many Western democracies today, change and reform are overdue. However, we cannot afford to let an authoritarian state with little accountability to its people and even fewer civil liberties to take over the world order.

Autocracy is great when the autocrat governs well. However, for every Marcus Aurelius and Augustus, one gets a Nero or a Caligula. At least in modern-day liberal democracies, one has the means of civil strife and the ballot box to remove them.