Martin Jacques Photo: Sun Wei in London/GT

1. After more than a month since the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, the epidemic has been coming under control inside the country. How do you evaluate China’s efforts in the fight against the epidemic?

Judging by the situation now, China seems to have got on top of it, with the number of new cases declining. By and large, it looks as if China has managed to restrict the worst of it to Wuhan in Hubei Province. I think that the situation is looking encouraging.

2. Some people view the epidemic as an assessment of different political systems. How do you evaluate the measures taken by different countries such as China, Japan and South Korea?

I think that there was a lot of criticism in the West at the outset for a month or two, and it’s still there. You can see it and read it that somehow China has made a big mistake, and it was a reflection on the political system and so on. But that position is losing attraction for the reason that China’s clearly being extremely effective in dealing with the coronavirus. That position also fails to recognize the huge problems in two senses: one, it was a very big outbreak, and two, from the outset, China did not know what it was – a completely new virus, which was previously unknown to humanity. There clearly were some mistakes early on. We don’t really know yet because we don’t know the chronology of the narrative, but clearly the problem was concentrated in Wuhan. There was slowness in realising the dangers that were involved, an attempt to delay action, an unwillingness to be open with the public. That was bad. But we must also remember that this was a new virus that no-one knew anything about. China was, if you like, the guinea pig. China’s problem and everyone else’s problems were fundamentally different. China was faced with a new virus. Everyone else can learn from China. Because of China they know what the coronavirus is. They don’t have to start all over again.

But once the Chinese government got into gear on the question, realized how dangerous it was, then China offered a textbook handling of the situation. I think the capacity of the state in China to deal with emergencies of this kind is far more developed and far more capable than could be achieved by any Western government. The Chinese system, the Chinese government, is superior to other goverments in handling big challenges like this. And there are two reasons: First of all, the Chinese state is a very effective institution, able to think strategically and mobilise society. And the other reason is that the Chinese expect the government to take leadership on these kinds of questions and they will follow that leadership.

We have to bear in mind that this was a completely new virus. Of course, mistakes are always made in such circumstances. Most Western countries, probably all, are ill-prepared for what is now happening, despite what China’s experience offered them. They are being too slow. They are greatly underestimating the number of cases because testing is far too limited.

3. Some politicians, such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have politicized the epidemic and attacked China’s political system and the leadership of the Communist Party. What’s your comment?

Disgraceful. Absolutely disgraceful. Too many Western politicians and the Western media responded to what was a grave medical health crisis in China in a way that was completely lacking in compassion and simply used as a stick to beat China. And in doing so also explicitly or implicitly, they encouraged a certain kind of racism against the Chinese, not just the Chinese in China, but Chinese everywhere. So the Chinese have had a hard time in relationship to this. There were many articles in the British media of the same ilk. They just used it as a means to criticize the Chinese government. But this argument is getting more and more into difficulties now for two reasons. First, China is dealing with the epidemic in an increasingly effective and impressive manner. The WHO has praised China’s contribution in strong terms over the course of the last week. The fact of the matter now is that the Chinese would appear to be on top of the situation. Second, the West is now at the sharp end, it is spreading rapidly in many countries. We’ll see how they manage. I am not too optimistic on the basis of the evidence so far. We were too slow to see the danger: too many thought it was a Chinese problem. They have already started to go quiet in their criticism of China and even admit that they must learn from China.

4. Talking about racist remarks, one article in the WSJ called China “The Real Sick Man of Asia.” And some European media outlets said the virus was “made in China.” Why has racism risen amid the epidemic?

There’s a long history of disease being associated with races and ethnicities. This goes back a very long time. HIV was a classic example. It was associated with two groups, gays and Africans. It was called the gay disease. and all sorts of things like that. So I think that is not new. Down the ages, that has been symptomatic of the way in which people react to a disease. It was unfortunately fostered and nurtured and encouraged by parts of the media in this attitude. Of course, people get frightened. They stopped going to Chinese restaurants, for example, because they thought any Chinese they might meet could be suffering from the coronavirus.

But I would make another point as well. The problem is that there’s been a turn in the West since around about 2016 to a more negative view of China. Generally, there was a period from about 2000 until around about 2010-2012, when attitudes toward China became more sympathetic because of China’s economic growth, because of taking hundreds of millions out of poverty and so on. But that situation, that mood has changed now. Why? I think it’s complex, I think in the West now there’s a deep doubt, a deep self-doubt, because it’s never really recovered from the financial crisis. There is now a recognition, not only of China being on the rise, but that its rise is going to be sustained, it is for the long-term; that China is going to be a formidable player on the world scene. Indeed, it already is. One important illustration is China’s advances in technology. So the mood toward China has changed in the West to a much harsher, a much more critical attitude. And anything that arises that can be used against China is being used against China. I could talk about the newspapers in this country. And it’s not just on the right. It’s on the left. The Guardian newspaper’s got a very poor record on handling China over the last several years. Unfortunately, it was rather better a few years ago. One factor in all this is Trump, because with the shift in America, the trade war and so on, China-bashing has become fashionable.

5. You mentioned that the WHO has praised the effective methods taken by China, acknowledging that China has made enormous sacrifices to stop the virus from spreading to the rest of the world. However, some people are questioning the relationship between China and the WHO, believing that this praise is because of pressure from China. What’s your view?

I suppose there are those in the West who are annoyed that the WHO has been so objective and sympathetic toward China; and in response they accuse the WHO of being too close to China and so on. Who would you back? The WHO or people like Trump? I think you should choose the WHO because they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re talking about. They deal with countries all over the world, especially the developing countries. They know that China, by and large, understands these questions much better than the rich countries. And also the truth of the matter is that China is going to be very important in handling health questions around the world, and it has a very good record itself on improvements in health facilities and healthcare.

6. Recently, the Lancet magazine published a joint statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China in combating the coronavirus, denouncing the conspiracy theory that the virus does not have a natural origin. What’s your take on the so called manmade biochemical weapon?

We live in the era of conspiracy theory where we’ve got a prime minister in Britain and a president in the US whose view of the world bears only a limited relationship to the reality. This is the era of fake news. This is the era of sort of anti-science. And in that situation, all kinds of essentially false ideas and prejudice can thrive, and are thriving. The rise of racism in many countries is an example of this. My own view when it comes to medical questions is that I listen to the scientists.

7. The epidemic will inevitably have a big impact on the world economy, as countries have restricted trade and tourism. What influence will the epidemic have on globalization? Will it be a short-term or long-term effect?

The short-term effect is going to be much worse than SARS. At the time of SARS, the global economy was growing at around 4 percent a year, and now it’s limping along at a much lower rate than that. The Chinese economy is much more important in the world now than it was then. At the time of the SARS epidemic, the Chinese economy represented about 8 percent of global output; today it represents over 19 percent of global output. So anything that happens to China now in the way of impeding its economy or paralyzing its economy is going to have much bigger global consequences than it did then.

So you’ve got two problems: one, much lower global growth, and two, the absolutely pivotal importance of China compared with the situation in 2005. So I think we’re looking at China and the world being very negatively affected by what’s happened. I think the world economy could go into recession as a consequence.

In the longer run, the Chinese economy will obviously recover. I think it only lost one percentage point in GDP after SARS. I’m expecting a 4 percent or 5 percent growth rate this year as a consequence of what’s happened. The general external environment for the Chinese economy is not as good as it was before. We know the Chinese economy is growing more slowly, at around 6 percent now compared with 10 percent then. And we know in some senses it’s finding some serious headwinds. I think we need to be very cautious about how we see the economic future, and certainly in the short term, but also maybe a bit longer than what we would normally regard as the short term.

8. What about the impact on the world’s political landscape? The US has not yet shown leadership as a superpower, but has taken the lead in cancelling flights between the US and China. What’s your comment?

I think it’s still a little bit premature to make a judgment about the likely political effects. If you just stick to the question of how the epidemic has been interpreted or used politically, then in the short run, it has been absolutely in accord with the way in which the political situation globally has deteriorated in the sense that the US and Britain essentially used the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic as a means of attacking China and its governing system in a rather unpleasant way, and in a new kind of way, given the nature of the epidemic. But you can now see also that situation beginning to change. I think the West is being forced to retreat because of the effectiveness of China’s actions in relationship to the epidemic, and also because now the West is getting more and more troubled by the spread of the coronavirus in the western and other parts of the world. Because China has handled the epidemic so successfully it would appear that China is going to get a lot of credit for the way that it has handled it.

The WHO has said that China has shown how to handle it, that the rest of the world needs to learn from China, and China deserves the world’s gratitude. So I think that already you can see a situation developing where China emerges with a significant public relations credit from this situation.

The other side of the coin is how will the whole epidemic play into, for example, what’s happening in US-China relations? I think we can probably be more affirmative about where things are likely to go in this context. The turn against China in the US is not temporary. It is for the long term. This is clearly evident with Trump. But if you look at the candidates in the Democratic primaries, even those on the left are hostile toward China. So I think that relations between the US and China are going to become more difficult. They’re not going to be mended. We’ve got a temporary ceasefire on the trade agreement, but the tech war is intensifying. So I think we’re moving toward a more bifurcated world. I think that the epidemic will probably have the effect of encouraging that process.

9. Some believe the epidemic will accelerate the decoupling of China and the world, especially the West. Do you agree?

I think probably that will be the case. I think that the effect of the epidemic will be, if anything, to intensify the process of decoupling. This is proceeding apace, and it’s clear that America is seeking to try and reduce its dependence on China and to make it more difficult for Chinese tech to develop, by discouraging American tech firms from having a trading relationship with China.

In fact, that process seems to be not just continuing, but perhaps accelerating. The US forbids people in China from flying to the US and a lot of other countries have followed suit. That adds to this atmosphere of you go your way, we’ll go our way. We don’t want to cooperate with you. We want to reduce our cooperation with you. We do have certain things in common but a lot of things we don’t have in common.

The fact that this has been accompanied by such China-bashing in the West, running down China’s governing system, encouraging racism toward Chinese people – that can only reinforce this process.

10. What kind of experience and lessons can this epidemic offer the world in terms of public health systems, urban governance and international cooperation?

I think the great lesson is going to be that disease knows barriers. There are no borders. It can and does go anywhere, everywhere. The initial reaction was to say this is a Chinese disease, which is absolute nonsense. But now as it spreads around the world, we can see we’re all in the same boat. We have to learn from each other, and it is one of the great humanitarian issues. We’re all human beings. We share the same problems. We all get ill. We all have the same fears of getting ill. So this is an issue that essentially is not a political issue. It’s a humanitarian issue, and as such it requires cooperation, collaboration, and pulling together.

After attacking China early on, now people are saying we need to learn from China. Look at what they’ve done, the quarantining, look how they managed to contain it. We need to learn from each other in this situation. Until very recently it was essentially seen as a Chinese problem. Not now. It’s spreading all over the place. I think it has the capacity to bring the world together. That would be the most optimistic note I could strike in relation to the epidemic.

Interview with Sun Wei and Yan Yunming

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