At times little is needed to change the seemingly inexorable course of history. The coronavirus will probably not have an enormous impact on history but it certainly will affect the present day because it is clear that since the virus exploded something has changed. Not only in the perception of China but also in the perception of the globalized world which for the first time has discovered that it is weak when faced with an invisible and potentially lethal enemy. That recognition started in many interconnected nations that are the true engine of globalization, perhaps none more so than the United States.
Many believe that Chinese power will be able to revive immediately after this virus. It is possible, indeed almost certain. Beijing has the numerical, economic and technological capacity to overcome the crisis triggered by Covid-19. The problem is that China lives from what is exports and imports: and the concern is that now, in the former Celestial Empire, nothing will be the way it used to be. Above all because precisely at the time that the United States seemed to finally to have accepted the Asian power as an equal partner in global leadership and at the time that the world had understood the rise of Beijing as the possible new protagonist of the globalized world there is something that has suddenly made that recognition more uncertain and fragile. Trust in China has fallen because the futuristic images of Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing have been walled off by the fragility of the Chinese heartland. Its secrets that remained hidden for a long time spilled out into the world and the coronavirus appeared like the opening of Pandora’s box which brought to the world the “evil spirits” of the global world.
Chinese fragility is a double-edged sword. Many believe that the virus and its explosion in the world is a media construct to make the West’s adversary appear weak, pushed especially by America. Possible: but not particularly useful for somebody in the West who lives and survives thanks to the globalized system. The West has for some time welcomed China as an essential partner in the international and industrial system. And it has acquitted Beijing in the many trials to which the Chinese government is constantly subjected. Some have challenged China at a political level and some, in particular the United States, have wanted at all costs to avoid a duel for the leadership of globalization. But this possibility of Beijing rising to become a leader of a new model of globalization sealed by the birth and expansion of the New Silk Road has been challenged at a political level but not (really) at an economic level. For decades the Asian giant has been a massive producer of goods that flooded the global market and also enriched those who opposed the reign of the Communist Party. And China exploited the West’s decision and became stronger and stronger to the point where it was able to compete for global leadership.
But the leadership proved fragile, all things considered. Just when Chinese 5G seemed able to penetrate European and global infrastructures. Just when Africa was considered a sort of hunting ground for Xi Jinping. Just when the land and maritime Silk Road had changed (or tried to change) the political geography of the world. And this fragility is inevitably having repercussions on the country’s image and global interests. Having abandoned the development of the economy to globalization has ensured that the blow struck to Wuhan spread like wildfire like the virus itself. The borders are starting to close, the aircraft are not taking off, goods are stuck in the containers in the cargo ships that were supposed to leave or arrive in the Chinese ports on the Pacific Ocean.
Was a bat really enough to strike a blow at globalization? It is difficult to say so with certainty. But what is certain is that a virus has been able to damage the image of China as leader of the global world. It is an image which, according to many, is having the same effect as that of Chernobyl for the Soviet Union. It is impossible to say whether this blow will be the final one: there are too many Chinese weapons to take the view that Beijing will abandon its role in the world. But it is clear that something is changing and has changed. The image of the backwardness of certain essential components of the Asian giant has joined up with the atavistic fear of those who, like never before, feel insecure about what will happen and what can come from the other side of the world. The idea that everything could carry on without interruption like an unstoppable river proved to be fallacy, if not completely utopian. It takes little, very little, to thwart the dreams of grandeur of a power or to make the world think again about globalization. The coronavirus has demonstrated all our weaknesses: but also and above all the weakness of globalization.
Translation by Dale Owens