China may have built a hospital in ten days, but the country’s rigid efficiency could be its undoing

The communist country is fundamentally lonely, inflexible and led by a coercive state. 

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On 4 February a new hospital opened in Wuhan, the centre of the coronavirus outbreak in China. Construction on Huoshenshan – “Fire God Mountain” in Chinese – had begun on 24 January. Concrete foundations had been laid, a power supply had been installed and 400 rooms (based on shipping containers) had been built. On Sunday 2 February the facility was handed over to the Chinese military. That China built an entire hospital in ten  days is the sort of example that makes  European and American commentators throw up their hands in despair and fear.

It is not an isolated case. Everywhere one looks, Beijing is calling the shots. China is about to exceed the US’s GDP to become the world’s largest economy. Its top technology firm, the state-backed Huawei, is emerging as the world’s leading provider of 5G internet. Late last month, Boris Johnson confirmed that Britain would buy its 5G technology from the firm. Meanwhile much of the world – Europe, Asia, Oceania and South America – is now more dependent on China for its goods than it is on the US. Shanghai’s gleaming skyscrapers make New York look like Athens. It all seems too good to be true.

The question is: what if it really is too good to be true? What if China’s rise does not follow the same straight line as it has followed over recent years?

Delve into the details of the coronavirus and the case is there. The Chinese state wanted to get things done fast. Hospitals were not just buildings but symbols of how the Chinese state wished to see and present itself: top-down collectivist action in the name of harmony and stability, in contrast with the sclerotic West. The response by Wuhan officials, the journalist Jessie Lau has written for the New Statesman website, is “symptomatic of a governing system where power is increasingly centralised at the top and local officials are not incentivised to take decisive action”. It is “not responsible, and not efficient at all”, Li, a retail worker in her thirties, told the NS.

The coronavirus can probably be contained. It has, fortunately, a low death rate and according to most predictions is likely to peak before the end of the month. In any case, Chinese authorities seem to be channelling discontent towards local authorities. A system that prided itself on its ability to get things done is proving brittle and closed in a moment of crisis. Revisiting “Xi Jingping Thought” – the doctrine taught in Chinese schools and universities as gospel – might help. This philosophy behind China’s successes might also have played a role in China’s problems.

Things do not have to be this way. Three decades ago Deng Xiaoping opened up China and eased it towards the path of a South Korea or a Taiwan, where economic growth brought greater freedom of expression and more pluralism. Under such a Korean or Taiwanese model China would have come to treat freedom of expression and pluralism as safety valves for when things went wrong; measures that made it more attractive and less reliant on coercion. Such a reformist China might have built a neighbourhood of allies – with Xinjiang as a constructive link with China’s mostly Muslim immediate west and south-west, Hong Kong as a bridge to the West, and Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and other prospective allies as leading players in a friendly neighbourhood.

Ponder that counterfactual and the weaknesses of today’s China become clear. Instead of the structural benefits of an open and participatory state, the People’s Republic relies on top-down imposition. Instead of the safety valve of democratisation it has a rigid insistence that its current leadership knows best. Instead of allies it has a web of economic satrapies in central Asia and Africa – and a neighbourhood that feels increasingly forced to choose between Washington and Beijing. 

Hong Kongers are taking to the streets to protest Chinese influence. At its election on 11 January, Taiwan backed a Beijing-sceptic president, Tsai Ing-wen. No amount of shiny skyscrapers, high-speed rail lines and rapid construction projects can change the facts that China is fundamentally lonely, rigid and led by a coercive state.

China’s surplus in trade is built on a huge deficit of trust and inclusivity. The country has risen on a strange combination of an each-for-his-own mentality and a collectivist political order in which the law only matters insofar as it bolsters the ruling body. In 2017 a woman who crossed a traffic light on red in Zhumadian, in Henan, was hit by a car; when the light turned green but the traffic continued, an SUV ran over her a second time. She died shortly afterwards, prompting outrage. Such is the state of justice and social trust in China.

In her 2007 book, Day of Empire, Amy Chua of Yale Law School claims relative tolerance – letting different people participate in the rise of society – explains the success of powerful empires such as the Romans, Tang and the modern US. None of these were liberal or compassionate in absolute terms. But in Chua’s formulation they were all relatively tolerant and inclusive by the standards of  their time. Chua quotes Emperor Claudius, who praised Romulus for being willing to “both fight against and naturalise a people on the same day”. 

Empires succeed in other words, by drawing in human capital more successfully than their rivals. The Roman empire naturalised the conquered; the Tang in China was a mixed-blood dynasty that pulled in “barbarians” from the steppe; the US was always a migrant nation.

Today’s China, by contrast, is a conformist and exclusive country by the standards of its time. As an empire, under Amy Chua’s theory, it is not likely to last. For all its shine, in other words, today’s China is set for a reckoning.

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 07 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit