Martin Hála: Pandemic as Symbolic End to Three Decades of Buoyant Globalization

The following essay is by Martin Hála of Project Sinopsis, Charles University, Prague.

Pandemic as Symbolic End to Three Decades of Buoyant Globalization

The past is over, and the future’s not what it used to be  

When we come to take stock of the present pandemic, most likely we’ll see it as the symbolic end of the historical optimism that followed 1989. In that memorable year, the fall of the Berlin Wall famously brought human history to an end, and inaugurated an era of unbridled liberalism and globalization.

A Minor Historical Aberration

The triumphant march of “democracy’s third wave,” in Huntington’s phrase, was paused by the tanks of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on Tiananmen Square. After a brief shock, the conviction nevertheless prevailed (with the help of Dr. Kissinger and other “realists”) that economic development and the growth of the middle class in the People’s Republic of China would soon smooth out this small historical anomaly.

In the middle of the optimistic 1990s, Bill Clinton looked into the eyes of General Secretary Jiang Zemin and saw there the determination to steer China, if not directly toward democracy, then at least toward a liberal, benevolent autocracy. In 1994, he delinked the annual American ritual of awarding the Most Favored Nation status to China from its human rights record. In 2000, the U.S. canceled MFN status altogether, paving the way for China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) the next year. China at last could fully take part in economic globalization.

Waiting for the Convergence

In 2001 China clearly did not fulfill conditions for WTO membership, just as in 1994 it hadn’t fulfilled the conditions for Most Favored Nation status, which Clinton had set the year before. All the same, Clinton believed in the iron logic of history: by globalizing, China would gradually liberalize, and possibly in the end become a democracy. Even the Leninist political system of one-party rule could not affect this, just as all the efforts of the Chinese government to control the internet were pointless. Freedom was hardwired into the internet and any attempts at censorship were like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall, as his memorable statement had it.

That optimism then became the U.S.’s default policy setting for engagement with China. The U.S., and the rest of the world with it, tolerated Beijing’s various idiosyncrasies for a good 20 years (among these, human rights violations and questionable commercial practices) in the hope of a gradual “convergence” with political and economic liberalism, which was, after all, the logical consequence of the recently proclaimed end of history.

Long March of History

In contrast to the Cold War, when the possibility of historical catastrophe was taken as an option, after 1989 the West gave in to the complacent position that, in the end, the long arc of history “bends toward justice” (Martin Luther King), and that ultimately “the better angels of our nature” would prevail by default (Abraham Lincoln, and also the influential and outstanding 2011 historical study by Steven Pinker).

Against this Hegelian interpretation of history as a long march toward human freedom, Chinese communists held firmly to their own lessons of historical materialism. History bends, not toward human freedom, but toward the victory of the proletariat, as represented by its vanguard the Communist Party, and specifically to the victory of the Chinese Communist Party. In particular, the New Era of General Secretary Xi Jinping is characterized by the conviction that several decades of economic expansion and new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and big data, offer China the chance, in the Party euphemism, “to move towards the world’s center stage.”

Jell-O on the Wall

Anyone who’s taken Marxism-Leninism 101 knows that “convergence,” especially in Dulles’ concept of “peaceful evolution” is taboo for hardened comrades. The Chinese Communist Party never intended to “converge” with liberalism. The comrades have a different plan. In joining the WTO, the Party was not “converging,” but rather was using globalization to galvanize its own historical mission to usher in a new historical era.

China used WTO membership for unlimited access to world markets, even as it continued to zealously guard access to its own markets. Access is conditional on the transfer of technology through joint ventures, and often on political compromise. Further tech transfers are abetted by cyberattacks. The authorities succeeded not only in censoring the internet in China, but also in implementing a truly Orwellian electronic surveillance of its population. The internet has, in the end, been nailed to the wall, and the WTO is now gradually falling apart under the sustained pressure of China’s mercantilist practices.

Things Fall Apart

In the present COVID crisis, in addition to the WTO, another international institution has been undermined – the World Health Organization. Despite the fact that China only contributes a fraction of its budget, it has succeeded in gaining a disproportionate influence on the organization’s leadership. When Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was elected as Director General of the WHO with Beijing’s support, he immediately canceled observer status for Taiwan. Under his directorship, the WHO did not publicly question information coming from China (whether delayed or erroneous) at the beginning of the epidemic, which contributed to its transformation into a pandemic.

Such a practice of influencing the U.N. by co-opting leadership of its individual agencies is far from limited to the WHO. From the Czech point of view, the corruption of top representatives of the U.N. General Assembly is of interest, because of the involvement of the Chinese conglomerate CEFC that dominated the Czech–China relationship for about two and a half years before it collapsed, as the Leninists would say, under the weight of its own contradictions.

The whole system of Global Governance is falling apart under Chinese pressure. Beijing pushes through its “reforms,” in the same manner as it “reformed” the internet. How such a “reformed” system might look, the present crisis vividly illustrates.

Alternative Globalization

Globalization works as long as individual players, or at least the major players, play by the same rules. Chinese Communists, however, play by their own rules. Now, two decades after China joined the WTO, the present epidemic has revealed that such a state of things is unsustainable.

The unprecedented collapse brought about by the pandemic symbolizes the end of globalization, as we have known it since 1989. The question is, what will happen next? Will Beijing succeed in asserting its vision of an alternative system of “Chinese globalization” under euphemisms like a “community of common destiny”? Or will the crisis bury China’s global ambitions? One sure thing is that the present system of double rules is no longer viable.

Disease and Power

This is why the present health crisis has become, in the words of the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, a “global battle of narratives,” accompanied by the mass mobilization of the Chinese propaganda apparatus. Beijing is trying to shift attention toward China as a savior from, rather than the source of, the pandemic, so it can strengthen its claim to leadership in the world community in the New Era. One of its main tools is “mask diplomacy,” that is, politicizing the supply of medical equipment to affected areas.

This is the same health equipment that in February journeyed from the rest of the world to China without much fanfare. Unlike China, democratic countries do not have departments of propaganda with an extensive bureaucracy and well-thought-out strategies for influencing human thinking. They play by different rules.

Against the present propaganda onslaught from Beijing, the rest of the world has no defense but a cool head and common sense. Yet, in traumatic times, such qualities often take a drubbing. When afraid, people are drawn to would-be saviors, readily pushed on them by local lobbyists. The pandemic threatens not only our lungs, but our collective mind. The future is all in play.


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