China’s self-isolation is a global concern
The most important guest of COP26 did not show up. As President of China, Xi Jinping leads a country that emits more carbon dioxide than the United States and the EU combined. But, unlike other world leaders, Xi did not give a speech at the climate summit. Instead, he submitted a written statement of less than 500 words for the conference website.
Xi’s contemptuous attitude towards the climate talks was not so much the Middle Empire as the Major. But the Chinese leader’s refusal to travel to Glasgow for COP26 – or to the G20 summit in Rome, before it – is part of a larger scheme of national self-isolation.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, China has implemented one of the strictest border control and quarantine systems in the world. Foreigners or Chinese citizens entering the country must be placed in strict quarantine for at least two weeks. Additional checks apply if they enter Beijing, where the management resides.
This system has made it impossible for foreigners to visit China without staying there for several months, or for most Chinese to travel abroad. Xi himself has not left China for nearly two years. The last time he saw a foreign leader in person was during a meeting with the Pakistani president in Beijing in March 2020. Xi’s next summit with President Joe Biden will be held via video.
When much of the globe was stranded, the extreme nature of China’s measures seemed less noticeable. But as most of the world returns to something close to normal, China’s self-isolation is increasingly abnormal.
The effects on international trade are already apparent. China continues to trade and invest with the outside world. But commercial ties are unraveling. Foreign chambers of commerce in China report that international executives are leaving the country and not being replaced. Hong Kong’s role as a global business center has taken a hit.
Chinese leaders might in fact welcome some of these developments. Yu Jie, a colleague at Chatham House in London, says the pandemic has allowed Xi to accelerate on a path he is already heading – towards national self-sufficiency. This policy began long before the pandemic, with the “Made in China 2025” campaign, which promoted domestic technology and production.
But with Covid-19, the focus on economic self-sufficiency has become a much broader inward turn – with dangerous implications for China and the world. China’s extraordinary rise over the past 40 years was sparked by Deng Xiaoping’s adoption of “reform and opening up” in the 1980s. Deng saw that the cultural revolution’s isolation from Mao Zedong had led to poverty and backwardness. He was humble enough to realize that China could learn from the outside world.
The current mood in China is very different. Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history at Oxford, underlines the danger that “the closure of borders leads to closed minds”. After 40 years of rapid growth, China has confidence in it.
Chinese media portray the West, and the United States in particular, as in inexorable decline. The Chinese government believes that the country is well ahead in some key technologies of the future, such as green technologies and artificial intelligence. Beijing may believe that the world now needs China more than China needs the world.
Control of the pandemic has also become closely tied to the political legitimacy of Xi and the Communist Party. The official death toll in China is less than 5,000, compared to 750,000 in the United States. The Xi government maintains that while the United States gossips about human rights, the Chinese Communist Party has in fact protected its people.
But China’s zero Covid policy now risks becoming a trap. As the outside world evolves into a life with low levels of disease, contact with foreigners may seem even more dangerous for China, leading to a renewed emphasis on restricting interactions with the outside world.
Even easing internal controls in China is difficult, as the Delta variant has led to small outbreaks of the disease in two-thirds of Chinese provinces. Suppressing these epidemics encourages the worst control tendencies of the Communist Party, which uses technology to increasingly monitor citizens. In one episode, more than 30,000 people were locked inside Disneyland Shanghai and tested, after the discovery of a single case of Covid.
These kinds of draconian policies are now provoking public debate in China. But controls are unlikely to be relaxed anytime soon. This week, the Communist Party is holding a meeting that sets the stage for Xi to extend his term at a key party convention in November 2022. The Chinese will not want to take any political risks until then. After the congress, China will head into winter when the disease can increase. As a result, many experts believe China’s zero Covid policy – and the sealed borders that go with it – will last until 2023.
At this point, China will have self-imposed for over three years. The Chinese and global economies are likely to suffer, as will global cooperation.
Yet the biggest and most intangible effect may be on the Chinese people. It is much easier to believe that strangers are dangerous and decadent if you never meet them. When China finally opens up, the world might meet a much changed country.