Opinion & Analysis

China in the post-COVID world

As many western nations continue to suffer the deadly wrath of the coronavirus, in China the immediate crisis has passed , and the focus is on re-kindling the economy and securing trade supply lines with the west that have taken a battering.

At the same time, China is busy with a soft-power programme of medical aid, exporting PPE to nations across the world. 

In some western capitals though, the debate over the extent of China's responsibility for the pandemic is being hotly debated, with the suggestion China could end up in court over the issue.  

 We asked Chinese politics expert Professor Bates Gill how things were looking for China, as the global pandemic rolls on. 

Is China in a better position than most western nations to recover from the impact of the virus, and how is it doing?

​The Chinese government has a lot of economic and political tools that can help with the rebound, including stimulus spending and other forms of subsidisation.

 But recall that the Chinese economy was already slowing even before the virus outbreak.  The epidemic will certainly worsen that structural trend, so in some ways an economic "recovery" will be all the more difficult to achieve.

Does China face a double-whammy in that the impact of the virus in other nations means demand for Chinese products is suppressed in the short term, or is this situation beyond the supply-side/demand-side model?

​China has a sizeable domestic consumer market which will help soften some of the blow of reduced demand from China's massive export markets.  

Depending on how one calculates it, exports relative to China's GDP are about 20 to 25%, a figure which is well below the average for most economies around the world.  

That said, the longer-term problem China faces is whether major export markets aim to "decouple" or reduce dependency on Chinese goods in the future.

Does COVID-19 in any way change China’s military and foreign policy aims in East Asia, or more widely ?

​Inside China, the epidemic has disrupted PLA recruiting cycles, as well as training regimens, and deflected some military resources and personnel toward the crisis response rather than to normal operations.  

This has set back some of the reforms and modernisation efforts underway since late-2015, but we should expect them to be back on track within the next year.

On foreign policy more broadly, it is clear the Chinese Communist Party and government are looking to take advantage of the situation in order to position China more favourably as a benign and responsible power with its neighbours and beyond. For example, the huge export of Chinese-made PPE equipment to countries around the world. 

It is not clear yet how well that is working, but it is definitely a key foreign policy aim as China emerges from their own COVID-19 crisis, and sees an opportunity to further its aims in how it responds to the crisis internationally. China's overall strategic aims have not been radically changed by the advent of the virus. 

China already seems in some ways to be in propaganda mode ..how will China deal with the inevitable international post-mortem of the way the virus was dealt with in Wuhan in the early days of what has become a pandemic ?

​The Party's propaganda organs are working very hard to shape the international narrative in a way which would absolve China of blame for the damage done by the virus, putting  the spotlight on how the crisis has been mismanaged elsewhere - in the United States for example- and in doing so it generates legitimacy and acceptance for the Party's way of governing, and raises doubts about the liberal democratic model, and its ability to protect the populations in western nations.

Will the economic blow of the COVID-19 pandemic result in the de-coupling of China from globalisation and western capital, and how much does China care about that?

​Even before the advent of COVID-19, many governments and societies around the world were re-thinking their relationship with China - especially the negative consequences of economic inter- and over-dependence with China.  

The global health crisis posed by the virus has only further fuelled this kind of thinking, and we are likely to see a lot more of it, as the crisis subsides, and certainly if we see a resurgence of the virus out of China in a few months' time.  Beijing should certainly want to avoid such an outcome.

What will the Chinese Communist Party take away from this pandemic crisis as a lesson regarding management of the country?

​By all appearances, the takeaway lesson for the CCP is that, by and large, the imposition of draconian measures to control both the disease and the narrative around what happened in Wuhan was critical to stemming the crisis, and deflecting blame away from the Party and its top leadership. 

The Party retaining its power and legitimacy across China trumps all else, and the means employed justify that end.  In the near-term--and until the next crisis--it seems to have worked.


- Asia Media Centre