Several WCFIA graduate students, along with GSA Program Director Erez Manela, reflect on some of the long-term repercussions for China—and the rest of the world—in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For decades, the Graduate Student Associate (GSA) Program has sat, literally and figuratively, at the heart of the Weatherhead Center. Established in the late 1960s, the program now comprises some twenty-five doctoral students from nearly a dozen different departments and programs across Harvard. Students appointed as Weatherhead GSAs get office space, research funding, and membership in a diverse community of like-minded scholars. While they work across different disciplines and deploy an array of research methodologies, they all share an interest in the core research areas of the Weatherhead Center and an open-minded approach to scholarly inquiry and exchange.
If the GSA program sits at the heart of the Center, at the heart of the program itself is the long-running Friday lunch seminar. Every Friday we would gather in the Bowie-Vernon Room, the Center’s main seminar space, to catch up, share great food, and hear and discuss the work of one of the GSAs. Presentations have ranged from testing out potential dissertation topics to mock job talks and everything in between. Over the years, many GSAs have testified to how profoundly the program influenced their lives, helping to shape their intellectual trajectories and launching lifelong friendships.
For a program with such emphasis on community, the recent campus lockdown presented a special challenge. Since mid-March, students have been unable to use their offices, and the Friday lunches have moved online. And while important things were lost in this transition—not least the freestyle socializing that began each gathering and the famous, Clare Putnam-curated lunch buffets—the intellectual exchanges have remained as fascinating and robust as ever.
Of course, the insights that GSAs produce go far beyond these gatherings, and many have been contributing to the wide-ranging public conversation about the current crisis. The following short selections, focused on the question of the pandemic’s impact on China through an international lens, is yet more evidence that our GSAs remain as brilliant and as engaged as ever.
By Naima Green-Riley
In recent years, the US-China relationship has moved in the direction of conflict and competition—marked by an economic trade war, friction over 5G and networking technology, and a larger intellectual debate over whether China’s rise will trigger US-China military conflict as predicted by the Thucydides trap. Policy analysts have increasingly focused on the geopolitical competition between the two countries, and both have often demonstrated success by the extent to which each country can cultivate a positive international image abroad. Such emphasis begs the question of how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect each country’s ability to promote a positive image in the world—as well as the implications for the wider US-China great power competition.
In the early weeks of the pandemic’s spread, onlookers in a number of countries with significant rates of anti-China sentiment were happy to label it the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.” This terminology was perhaps most famously used by American President Donald Trump, but it trended in countries around the world, including India and South Korea, at the same time as the phrase “Made in China virus” became popular in the EU.
But as China started to overcome its domestic struggles with the virus, it began to put great effort into branding itself as a benevolent partner in the fight against the pandemic. For example, Chinese shipments of masks and other equipment were labeled with poetic verses in the languages of the countries to which they were sent. American foreign policy experts have written about the potential of China’s assistance to struggling countries during the pandemic to boost it into a position of global leadership, or even to rearrange the global order in China’s favor.
While warm gestures toward other countries may buy China some international standing, what happens within China’s borders will continue to have an impact upon its image as well. In early April, reports of mistreatment of African migrants, who were blamed for spreading COVID-19 in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, made international headlines—provoking the ire of onlookers in Africa and beyond. These reports came out just as China had begun to build momentum with its global branding campaign. Images of Africans being roughhoused on Guangzhou’s streets or refused service at a local McDonalds certainly did not help in the country’s quest to improve its image abroad.
The jury on China’s overall performance is still out. But given major gaffes made by President Trump in his handling of the crisis at home (such as his recent suggestion that disinfectants might be injected into the body) and international moves that make the US seem to be less of a team player (such as suspending funds to the World Health Organization), the US image may not offer much to contend with.
Ultimately, the geopolitical competition for hearts and minds between the US and China may end up being won not by the most perfect leader, but rather by the least worst option.
Naima Green-Riley is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University.
By Kibrom Teweldebirhan
China is Africa’s largest debt holder, and how it decides to exercise its contractual right in the context of COVID-19 will affect its relationship with the continent—and the trajectory of African economies in the postpandemic period. Africa is going through the thick of COVID-19 and the exact human toll of the pandemic has yet to emerge. So far, the pandemic and the resulting slowdown of economic activity have brought into focus high levels of sovereign debt and the fragility of African economies.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) has issued a report indicating that Africa’s economic growth will slow down anywhere between 1.8–2.6 percent, and the economic decline will push around twenty million people into extreme poverty. The UNECA estimates that the continent needs $100 billion to address the immediate consequences of the pandemic—while at the same time fulfilling their financial obligation towards creditors—and few countries will be in a position to offer assistance.
China, as part of the G20, has expressed its willingness to grant some form of debt relief. Debt relief will provide short-term stability during the pandemic, but its longer-term economic and political effects will have a more complicated impact.
Debt, as in previous economic and political moments, will restructure the national economies and power relations between China and African countries. In a new economy, governments have to balance economic growth, austerity, and debt repayment. The reopening of China’s economy (and an economic stimulus that the Chinese government may adopt) will provide a lifeline to several African countries—especially to raw material-exporting countries, as China will need those for industrial consumption and strategic stockpiling. Economic activity within China alone will hardly avoid the political consequence of debt and its economic impact.
However, China has not yet committed to debt relief, and for some African economies, time is of the essence. Sovereign creditors will not make final decisions until Beijing makes up its mind. As much as deciding the future of Africa’s debt, the extent and terms of debt relief will be a subject of debate—within and outside China. Full debt relief, as some have suggested, may face pushback from critical voices in China, who have been arguing that Chinese companies and financial institutions have not been prudent with their capital investment in Africa before COVID-19.
On the other hand, if China’s debt relief is less generous than its G20 peers are, for example, it will have geopolitical implications in a continent where China has put much political capital in the last two decades. Within Africa, populist and nationalist sentiment may rise in the postpandemic period. Electoral politics and public discourse will revolve around economic slowdown, socioeconomic inequality, debt, the process and terms of debt renegotiation, and the profound disconnect between the formal commodity export-oriented economy and poorly funded social sector—health and social protection in particular—that the pandemic has highlighted. China may find itself at the center of postpandemic political contestation in the same way the global financial institutions have remained in the aftermath of the 1970s oil price shock and the debt crisis that followed in the 1980s.
Kibrom Teweldebirhan is a SJD candidate at Harvard Law School.
By Ruodi Duan
The number of Chinese citizens who live in the United States totals nearly 2.5 million. Like their fellow Asian Americans, they shoulder worries about the alarming rise of anti-Asian racism and violence in recent weeks—in New York, in Texas, everywhere. They also carry with them their own unique fears and concerns. Some of them risk involuntarily becoming undocumented. Countless workers on H1-B visas have now been laid off, just as Beijing moved to dramatically limit the number of incoming flights to the country with no exception for its own citizens. As college campuses in the US have shuttered, many Chinese international students find themselves with nowhere to go. The few fortunate enough to have secured a plane ticket home are responsible for their own quarantine costs.
Surprisingly, they have also received little sympathy from a significant plurality of Chinese netizens. Quite the contrary: on Chinese social media, they are often the target of ridicule and hate for turning their backs on their home country in the first place. China’s official decision to tally “imported” cases of COVID-19 as separate from “domestic” ones facilitates the perception among many Chinese citizens that this “second wave” of the pandemic is strictly a problem brought back from overseas.
Debate over the origins of this pandemic has further divided the domestic and international Chinese community. Some believe that American soldiers who attended the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019 had brought the virus with them, while minority voices more critical of the ruling regime, especially overseas, wonder if scientists accidentally leaked it from a Wuhan virology lab.
WeChat, the popular messaging platform, has facilitated the efforts of Chinese communities throughout the United States to negotiate the shipments of masks, medical gowns, and other protective supplies from China to the West. But at the same time, WeChat and the blogging site Weibo, also serve as veritable forums for conspiracy theories and passionate nationalist rebuttals to any perceived criticism of Beijing’s handling of the pandemic. In some corners, Chinese author Fang Fang’s diaries, the intimate—and censored—window into the unfolding crisis in Wuhan are condemned as a betrayal of the motherland and a display of ingratitude for the ruling party’s commitment to its citizens. Friends are lost in arguments over this. For some, a Chinese person’s views on Fang Fang has emerged as a litmus test.
This fierce resurgence of nationalism, from the young and the old, comes just as China struggles to contain its own outbreaks of racism and xenophobia. African residents of Guangzhou have been evicted from their homes, forcibly tested for the virus, and banned from entering their local McDonald’s in light of widespread suspicions that they are carriers of COVID-19. The Chinese government selectively condemns the outbreak of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia in the United States while it also enables the eruption of a comparable crisis within its borders. This politics of exclusion and scapegoating is not a phenomenon limited to any one country, but has begun to assume a virulence within China that may be unique.
Ruodi Duan is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Harvard University.
By Erez Manela
In recent weeks, the World Health Organization (WHO), in normal times a rather staid international body, has swept into the headlines. First, with Washington’s announcement that it would suspend its funding to the WHO, which it blamed for botching the coronavirus response, and then with Beijing’s decision to offer the WHO supplemental funds to make up some of the shortfall. The Gates Foundation, already a major funder of the WHO, also announced additional funding while warning of the folly of abandoning an organization tasked with coordinating global health in the midst of a pandemic.
When the WHO was established after World War II, the public health visionaries who founded it imagined that it would owe its allegiance not to any state but to humanity itself. Soon, however, it became clear that the WHO, like the rest of the United Nations system, would be controlled by its member states, the two most powerful of which, the United States and the Soviet Union, were engaged in a protracted cold war. Nevertheless, in the succeeding decades the WHO served as a conduit for some of the greatest global health achievements of the twentieth century, most notably the global Smallpox Eradication Program (SEP), which the WHO declared a success in 1980.
The SEP could not have been launched without the support of the two superpowers: Washington provided much of the funding and Moscow donated most of the vaccine. Crucially, this US-Soviet collaboration at the WHO happened not despite but because of the Cold War conflict in which they were engaged. Committed to winning the “hearts and minds” of the world’s developing nations, neither power wanted the other to claim the credit for this historic achievement. They could, however, live with the ostensibly neutral, Geneva-based WHO—of which both were members—taking that credit.
After the Cold War ended, Washington cared less about winning “hearts and minds” and largely lost interest in international organizations. It ceded the field of global health to private actors, such as the Gates Foundation, and to an increasingly powerful and ambitious Beijing. China became especially interested in the WHO after the public relations debacle it suffered in the wake of its ham-handed response to the SARS epidemic of 2003. By 2006, with Washington’s indifference, China managed to install its candidate, Margaret Chan, as WHO director general, and in 2017 she was succeeded by another Beijing ally, the current WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic strains an already tense US-China relationship, China’s long-cultivated influence at the WHO has gained wide attention. The two sides trade bellicose rhetoric even as scientists in both countries collaborate on a vaccine. A truly effective global response to the pandemic, however, requires the science and the politics to work in tandem. If we want to achieve such a response to this pandemic, as well as to other pressing global health challenges, the United States must fully reengage with the WHO and work to restore it to the role it once served: facilitating collaboration for the greater good among two otherwise competing superpowers.
Erez Manela is the director of Graduate Student Programs and is a professor of history in the Department of History at Harvard University.
Beijing, China. Credit: Zhang Kaiyv, Unsplash