By Yuji Miyamoto, former Japanese ambassador to China (interviewed by Chie Morifuji)
The Chinese model [of development] was attractive because it promised economic growth. Developing countries could benefit from building ties with China because they could receive assistance for infrastructure development and strengthen their economies. During the 2008 global financial crisis, the Chinese economy continued to grow and it led the world But this time, it will be difficult for that nation to make a V-shape recovery as the spread of the new coronavirus is hurting the entire world including China.
China has advocated the superiority of authoritarian governance over the democracy adopted by the West, but people came to realize that authoritarian rule is not better than democracy. The U.S. and other democratic nations do not hide their failures, but China basically conceals them. China’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak was inadequate, and the country failed to promptly inform the world about the dangers that the virus posed.
As the U.S. and China each advance campaigns to promote their viewpoint around the world, the U.S. message is spreading to France and even further to Francophone African nations. Some of them are saying, “We are taking a severe hit because China’s initial response was inadequate.” This highlights the difference in the soft power capabilities of China and the U.S.
China’s systematic “mask diplomacy” campaign, which was carried out with an eye to advancing its “One Belt One Road” initiative, is not proving successful either, as it has been noted that the masks are of poor quality.
In other words, few people find China’s governance and lifestyle attractive. If that nation’s economic power declines, the Chinese model [of development] will become less attractive. On the security front, even if a power vacuum were created due to the declining influence of the U.S. and Europe, China does not have sufficient money or human resources to replace them.
Although much depends on how the COVID-19 pandemic ends, concerns seem to have lessened that China will increase its clout while the influence of the U.S. and Europe has waned with the pandemic.
COVID-19 is posing a great challenge even to the Communist Part of China (CPC). Inside the country, many domestic issues remain unaddressed, such as social welfare, and people are complaining, “Why is the government extending aid to Africa [despite our domestic situation]?” The inadequate initial response to the virus has triggered public discontent over the government’s rule. The CPC government has managed to contain the infection, but now it is facing the new challenge of economic recovery.
At the time of the 2008 global financial crisis, the Chinese government injected huge amounts of money into public works projects, but later it concluded that the approach had ended up producing more negatives. This time it will not resort to that approach. It will have little choice but to promote economic reforms and shift its focus from state-run firms to the private sector. The challenge will be unprecedented and something that the CPC has never experienced before.
The CPC’s organizational principle is “democracy and concentration [of power],” which means it holds discussions in a democratic way and implements things that have been decided through the concentration of power. Chinese leader Xi Jinping strengthened his grip on power. As a result, democracy has weakened. Premier Li Keqiang is taking a central role in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. China may move to a collective leadership system.