April 30, 2020
Hundred years ago, there were no visas and passports for people to travel in Europe, America and their colonies. Then came the First World War and things changed. Countries turned inwards and national boundaries became rigid. Economic stagnation and recession followed. Nationalism turned into ultra-nationalism and led to another World War. After the Second World War we created an interconnected, interdependent and institutionalized global order. For the last sixty-five years, despite several hiccups, the world order remained largely intact.
The Coronavirus pandemic threatens to undo that world order. Like after the First World War, countries are turning inwards and authoritarian. Some political scientists are predicting the rise of a more closed, narrow-nationalist world. ‘Return of the state’ is the new euphemism. Economists are writing off globalization and free trade.
Where does this pessimism stem from? From a Coronavirus virion of just 0.125 microns diameter, approximately one thousandth of an eyelash? Not really. Not one virion, but two countries, considered the most powerful, have shaken the confidence of the entire world. “Chimerica”, Niall Ferguson, the American historian from the Hoover Institution called them. For the last decade or more, China and America have created an economic relationship model that Niall compared with Nichibei, the US – Japan economic bonding prominently in existence until the end of the last century. Coronavirus has shown that Chimerica is just a chimera.
Chinese leadership faces accusations of hiding facts from the world, allowing the virus to cross borders and turn into a pandemic. Its claims are being challenged and data contested. The official figure it has put out was 82,000 infections and 4500 deaths. However, Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, argues that the numbers of infections could be as high as 2.9 million.
Some countries do not follow any conventional course. China is one of them. It follows what is described as ‘historical experience’. Whatever it is today is a product of the long revolution that had culminated in Mao capturing power in 1949. The Chinese worldview is guided by three important principles – GDPism, China-centrism and Chinese exceptionalism – derived from that revolution. “Most important logic is economic development”, declared Deng Xiao Ping in 1980s. Chinese economists describe it as ‘GDPism’.
Second is China-centrism. Mao insisted on independence, autonomy and self-sufficiency. ‘Gechang Zuguo’ – Ode to Motherland, the famous patriotic song composed by Wang Shen that declares the ‘grand and beautiful’ land of China ‘over the mountains, across the plains, across the Yangtze and Huang rivers’ is the ‘dear home of ours’, is taken literally by every Chinese. The third is Chinese exceptionalism. China doesn’t believe in learning from others. It follows the revolution-time dictum of Mao – ‘practice and just do it’. China should follow its own wisdom for answers to its problems, its leaders insist.
Historical parallels may not always be right. But the Chinese nationalist worldview has a parallel in history in the pre-WWII Germany. Ethnic superiority, historical claims and the Aryan exceptionalism were all very familiar to people of the world in 1930s. Back then, for many countries, it was just business as usual. When Hitler occupied Sudetenland, a German-speaking area of the former Czechoslovakia, Europe decided to appease him rather than confront. Roosevelt was watching from afar when the European nations like Britain, France and Italy were celebrating the surrender to Hitler under the Munich Agreement. He even praised Hitler saying, “I am convinced that hundreds of millions throughout the world would recognize your action as an outstanding historic service to all humanity”.
Not surprisingly, Hitler had violated his promise of ‘no further aggression’ just in less than one year and the WWII began. Where Britain was in 1939-40 is where America is today. Trump allowed Coronavirus to devastate its states before he finally woke up. As late as on 28 February, Trump was asking his supporters in South Carolina not to heed to warnings about the virus outbreak in America. He was blaming the media for ‘hysteria’ and calling Corona threat “their new hoax”. The European nations, having cuddled up to China for Belt and Road benefits, are struggling to contain the pandemic fallout.
Interestingly, countries that stood up to this contagion are mostly the Asian democracies. South Korea led the way, conducting more tests than America, six times its population, on a single day. Singapore undertook extensive testing, making huge effort to track down any viral symptoms. Hong Kong and Taiwan, with their past experience of SARS fatalities, have taken timely measures to contain the virus effectively.
India, on the other hand, has set an example of democratic activism in combating the Corona challenge. Prime Minister Modi, together with his federal colleagues, is leading from the front, and has successfully implemented lockdown and social distancing measures with full popular support. A country with 1.3 billion population has seen just over 18,000 people infected. Modi didn’t resort to any arbitrary or authoritarian measures. There were deliberate acts of provocation and misinformation like Islamophobia etc. In the face of such provocations Modi displayed enormous equanimity, calm and positive optimism. He proved that democracies with visionary leadership can tackle such challenges without compromising on liberal values.
In the unfolding new world order, India, together with countries like America and Germany, can play a pivotal role in building a world based on ‘human-centric development cooperation’ as suggested by Prime Minister Modi. It is time for a new Atlantic Charter. Environment, healthcare, technology and democratic liberalism can be the foundations for that charter.
The elephant in the room, China, has an opportunity today. It faces opprobrium globally. Unrest is simmering within the country. Xi’s leadership is increasingly coming under challenge. It is time the Chinese leadership turned to Deng’s dictum of “feeling the stones to cross the river”. The Chinese Communist Party has a phrase – ‘Luxian Douzheng’ – Line Struggle. It meant power struggle for some. But it also denotes struggle for a new party line. There were several in the past. Can the world hope for a better one now?
(Views expressed are personal)