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Corona, The Chinese Chernobyl

CHENNAI: The Chinese virus has spread to the rest of the world. It crippled thriving economies and destroyed the subsistence economies of vastly underprivileged people. More importantly, it caused death and devastation of innocent people and their livelihood across all barriers. Slowly but steadily the finger of blame for this pandemic has swung towards China. Despite best Chinese PR attempts no one believes that China sacrificed itself or handled the situation better or provided global leadership or came to anyone’s aid. On the other hand, the converging perception is that China bungled, delayed informing the rest about the pandemic in connivance with WHO and is involved in usurious ‘mask diplomacy’ tantamount to criminal negligence. The evolving consensus, and that is firmer by the passing day, is that there is a decoupling required from China. This had started even before the viral outbreak. It is now starting to gather steam with Japan and USA taking the lead. We will leave this here and come back to it later.

Very recently, China upwardly revised its death figures in Wuhan by 1290 (i.e. 40 per cent). Why? I do not know. Probably to assuage the international community that it is coming clean. Probably to signal to its own population that it is transparent and the world is griping foolishly about Chinese opacity. To me, it signals something else. First, it is proof of Chinese under-reporting. If these are the figures for Wuhan, what are the figures for the rest of China? Coming later? Even with this upward revision, China has had only three deaths per million against South Korea’s five per million. Surely, China has not managed its situation better than South Korea? Hence the real figures are still hidden. It reinforces lack of trust in China. Second, by under-reporting, China has deprived all of us of some valuable research data which would have given better clues as to how to deal with the pandemic and saved lives. Under the circumstances it is criminal. The crucial issue is however something else.

The main context is that it has unmasked the real motive. Let me amplify. In my earlier article “Coronation of the King”, I had outlined four scenarios. These were Bumbling Ignorance, Loss of Control and Evading Reality, Exploiting the Situation and Biological Warfare. My take on ‘Exploiting the Situation’ was that the situation in Wuhan could have developed accidentally due to any scenario. However since it happened, why not deliberately export it to others? ‘Exploiting the Situation’ theory fits in well with the reality that internal movement was banned in China when external bans were being contested and resisted. Also, Beijing and other major cities being unscathed to the extent of Wuhan gives credibility to this line of thought.

Let us further granulate the scenario of ‘Exploiting the Situation’. The outbreak occurs. Human to human transmission is confirmed. The SARS experience of 2003 suggests that things are bad. Realization sets in that an unknown uncontrolled evil genie is out of the bottle. The virus is going to cripple China, knock it out of its path of superpower glory. This is war-gamed quickly. A course of action is put into execution. First downplay it by continuing with the huge feast in Wuhan. Nothing is wrong. Festivities continue. Smokescreen up. The leader makes a statement to show resolute intent to curb the virus. He then dives out of the scene. The numbers are underreported. The virus is allowed to seep out to other parts of the world through departing international travellers; secure in the knowledge that the problem will surface all over the world only after two weeks. Right then things seemed to be okay for an onlooker from outside. Hugs are sought in public from gullible Italians. So others are lulled to think it is a minor local event. Information is suppressed. Outside health officials are kept at bay. They cannot assess the real deal. The WHO is subverted and used to endorse the Chinese view. All those who enforce travel bans are castigated. Meanwhile, internal travel bans are put in place. The Chinese fight a valiant battle to defeat the virus in its land. The leader then comes out of hiding to take the bows. The result: what we are seeing now. Rest of the world crippled; China back on its feet. Advantage China. Leader of the World. Once everyone is grappling with their deaths and pandemic problems, quietly release some more figures in the confusion. The context and result are clear. Deliberate action is evident for those who can analyze. The only hitch is that this plan while succeeding in ‘Exploiting the Situation’ has done damage beyond the imaginable. The world will get wise to it. A matter of time. It will be a nail in the Chinese coffin. This is straight out of a Tom Clancy novel. Except that it is a true Chinese script being played out sans Jack Ryan to save the world. He (CIA) was sleeping on duty or AWOL.

Now let us see the geonomics. The Chinese economy is set to contract by 6.8 per cent in the quarter. Most of this is in the manufacturing sector, export driven and with minimal internal consumption. There are reports that many companies are already filing for bankruptcy and there are layoffs in China (real estate and startups are mostly hit). Internationally, there is clarity that a significant portion of manufacturing and supply chain capacities will have to be relocated to outside China. The minimum I foresee is 25 per cent. That means 25 per cent job losses too. That is huge. During this pandemic, many countries will be forced to become self-reliant on their capacities in many areas. It is a matter of survival. That business will never come back to China. There are reports that all BRI projects have ground to a halt. Many of these projects are in impoverished countries whose governments might not survive the Chinese Virus. As of now they are NPAs—dead ends to nowhere and will remain so. There will be renegotiation and downsizing of many of these. I do not see new projects commencing for at least a couple of years. The tail end will be closure of many more businesses in China. China has been a heavy investor in Africa. Many African nations are now upset with China for exhibiting ‘racism’. China will experience a backlash from some of these nations. China might have recovered. Others have not. Their economies are contracting too. Unless goods are essential, no country will have the appetite or the money to buy anything from China. That means the ‘Made in China’ plan to make export-oriented hi-tech items will get hit. There is also an emotional backlash from major sections of the international community. The viral images of Italians hugging Chinese and then dying by the droves due to the Chinese Virus will not go away. These are defining moments of this war. To me it as powerful as the photo of the ‘Napalm Girl’ of the Vietnam War. It changed the course of that war. This might change the course of China. Some of us will carry it to our graves. While most of this is external to China let us see the internal dimension.

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The virus from Wuhan has not exited China. There are reports that it is surfacing in the outer rims of China. There are also reports of a second wave. So it is not as if China is home and dry in a post-pandemic paradise where manufacturing is humming all over again. Then there is the issue of a debt bubble. China existed on a huge debt bubble. Which way will this bubble go? I do not know. It will not deflate or be filled up easily. A burst is on the cards. In any scenario, the outcomes for China will be nasty. Then there is the issue of military funding. China’s huge investment in building the most powerful and modern military will hit a circuit breaker. Militaries cost money. Militaries under change and modernisation cost even more. Unfortunately, if there are no wars or conflicts, huge expansion plans are dead-end investments. All this will end in loss of jobs in China and “Food Off the Chinese Household Table”. I do not think that China has the fiscal space to print its way out of trouble. I also do not think that we will see visuals of Chinese lining up in cars maintaining prim social distances to collect their weekly social security cheques. If things go bad, there will be unrest due to poverty and hunger. Then, of course, there is this issue of suppression of people’s rights. Hong Kong has not vanished. If anything the pro-democracy move will only intensify.

In all this, just factor the virus itself. It is noticeably clear that it will not vanish one fine morning. It is going to turn from a pandemic to an endemic. We will be sleeping with our enemy forever. Till a vaccine comes up, the world will not move to a sense of normalcy. The new normal will be built on isolation or interest blocks based on openness and trust with a sense of shared values. Where does a China which has “Exploited the Situation” fit into this paradigm? You must be in Pakistan, Serbia or some such place to be considered a friend if you are a Chinese. Even there I doubt if people will respect a Chinese. Remember the Pakistani TV anchor saying “Chuna laga diya”!

So what do we see? A China which is guilty. A China with huge losses in businesses and jobs. A Chinese debt bubble deflating or bursting. A China which will be shunned emotionally and physically. A China which will continue to grapple with its homemade virus in the most unadulterated form. A China with unrest amongst its 1.6 billion people. The Chinese Summer of Discontent is here. There is a pressure cooker situation in China. There was a similar situation in USSR after 1986 when Chernobyl happened. Gorbachev acknowledged that USSR ultimately collapsed in 1991 due to that disaster. It took five years in a situation where Chernobyl was a pure accident. This is a situation where Chinese guilt in “Exploiting the Situation” is clear. If this is compounded by any fact that the virus leaked out of the Wuhan Virology Institute, the pressure in the cooker will only increase. All things considered; Corona is the Chinese Chernobyl. Change is afoot. Will the inflection point arrive to trigger the Chinese collapse? Will China face another revolution? Will China democratise? No direct answers now. The funny thing about revolutions is that it takes a tinder to light a forest fire. The Chinese Virus might have finally infected its own master. It is a slow burner. Boy, when it does explode it goes into an all-consuming fission. Watch out.

A piece of advice: Do not hug a Chinese, maintain twice the recommended social distance. That, in my vocabulary, is the Viral Distance!

(Lt Gen PR Shankar (retd) put Indian Artillery on a firm path of modernisation. He is presently a professor in Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. Views expressed in this article are personal.)