Commentary. The coronavirus epidemic has amplified an already growing trend, promoted anew by Trump’s America, which labels the Chinese as ‘ugly, dirty and bad.’

‘Getting even’ and the resurgence of anti-Chinese rhetoric in the West

“Uncontrolled flows of scientifically unfounded or completely false statements, irresponsible statements by politicians, incomprehensible remedies by local authorities and a media obsessively focused on the coronavirus have all given rise to a shameful wave of Sinophobia in our country.”

This was the enlightening and incontrovertible message from Gianni Rufini, director of Amnesty International Italy, who decried, among other things, the fact that the least powerful, young girls and boys, are going to suffer by being denied their right to education. Accordingly, President Mattarella’s gesture on Thursday, when he visited a school attended by Chinese children, held enormous value for society.

However, perhaps it would be important to add a few extra considerations. The impression one gets from the opinion and ideology spreading on the Internet, on TV and in the media about the coronavirus epidemic—perhaps even more than the fear of the disease, which is, in any case, a dangerous one—is that it’s finally time to “get even” with China. 

The anti-Chinese winds have been blowing for a long time, foreshadowed in Donald Trump’s ideology of America First, which has turned China into its main strategic enemy, with the intention of putting China and the Chinese “back in their place.” This is an echo of the narrative that until the mid-1980s used to place the Chinese among the “ugly, dirty and bad” people of history, with their unending obsession for another model of development, particularly on display in 1968.

Then there was also the pretense on the part of the Chinese that they were going to beat capitalism at its own game, something that they were still refusing at the end of the ‘60s, with the Cultural Revolution. While in the West such “manias” for an alternative were defeated by treating those who were fighting for another model of development as “outlaws,” in China, on the other hand, a “long march” in the opposite direction of the Maoist event of the 1930s began. 

The “capitalist line” won out, to great praise from the West: the abolition of the 60,000 popular communes, the abolition of the egalitarian distribution of labor in the countryside, forced industrialization in special hyper-capitalist areas (with the hyper-exploitation of workers, without safeguards and without trade unions), the privatization of large sectors of state companies, the dismantling of the Chinese “iron rice bowl” welfare system, as modest as it was, and social eradication and internal migrations for hundreds of millions of people—all under the leadership of a centralized Communist Party. 

This sequence of events makes it clear that the Tiananmen Square revolt, reduced by the media narrative to a student protest aiming to establish American-style democracy, was in reality a wider uprising that was also directed against the victorious model of “Party hyper-capitalism,” an epochal revolt involving the working class, peasants and students.

The point, however, is that from ‘89 onwards, the Western perception of China changed: while it was undemocratic, it had also become the largest import-export market in the world. The trend has held to such an extent that over 15 years, China became what was in fact the only true capitalist country in the world, with a GDP growth peaking at 7-8% and the reinvestment of capital, unthinkable in the West, where financial speculation is prevalent; and, furthermore, with a production capacity that would transform it into the factory of the whole world. 

At this point, moving away from the label of “ugly, dirty and bad” that they had been given, the Chinese became saviors: many multinationals solved their own crises thanks to the Chinese market, which is now also able to sell us know-how in exchange.

In the end, with China’s historic entry into the WTO on Dec. 11, 2001, Beijing became the driving force of the world economy. But that was not enough, because after the crisis of Western finance capitalism in 2008-2009, Beijing, with its massive investments and with its own monetary reserves, ran to the rescue of the debt-disaster-stricken West. At the same time, it became an enormous pole of ecological production, which was also responding to the internal devastation caused by hyper-productivism (an imitation of the destructive development of Western capitalism). 

In short, for us, the Chinese became dangerously necessary, and even better than us. So much so that, once the psycho-populist Trump came to power in the United States, the era of America First began with the tariff war against the strategic competitor represented by China: this is where the anti-Chinese ideology of “getting even” with them originates.

Now, the coronavirus epidemic seems to put all of this into question. It is in fact a sort of “trade barrier” that China has unwittingly inflicted on itself, with effects that make Trump’s diktats pale in comparison. China’s achievements (from GDP growth to world trade) are being picked apart, while the coronavirus epidemic also undermines the Communist Party’s primacy under Xi Jinping’s “moral” direction, which will now have to reckon with the historical theme of backwardness versus progress that the epidemic has highlighted once more. 

Likewise, it will have to re-examine in some ways the idea of the “Great New Economic Policy” that it has been pursuing so far: an intermediate phase of controlled capitalism in order to establish the foundations of modern Chinese socialism, according to Deng Xiaoping’s theory.

The epidemic is also putting Beijing’s anti-democratic authoritarianism to the test, particularly as regards the domination of the center over the cities (some, like Wuhan, so vast and populous that they are de facto states). And yet, it sadly goes without saying that the forced military quarantine of the Chinese megalopolis—a shocking example of decisionism to block the spread of the virus—could only be implemented by this China—a country where the inescapable questions about what has become of public health, research, human rights—the decisive bulwarks against any disease or calamity—have dramatically returned to political focus. 

This is not so different from the West: we can read in the lack of communication between local authorities and the Chinese central government the same Western dynamic between cities, regions and national executives (in cases of earthquakes, refugee crises, the climate, the environment), involving the abdication of responsibility, disinformation and bare-minimum measures that we are accustomed to seeing. 

There is more to this interpretation than to that of a mere strategic center-periphery conflict, which has already broken out in China some time ago—as, for instance, in the case of Bo Xilai in the Chongchinq megalopolis, where it was a conflict over the social pact that the former mayor, now in jail, had proposed to the new members of the class of immigrant peasant-workers. It is likely, however, that the coronavirus epidemic will reopen this conflict as well.

Thus it was that the ideology of “getting even” rose up in the West: the Chinese are being once again labeled “ugly, dirty and bad.” But it’s nonsense. The ideologues and opinionists are silent on the growth of the Chinese economy and on the “Silk Road”—which they now want to dub the “Virus Road”—don’t know what they’re talking about. China’s model remains the only proposal for international development that doesn’t resort to the use of force and war, as the Western practice has accustomed us (while we must remain aware that imperialism can also be practiced using the price of sugar, not only with gunboats).

For our part at il manifesto, we are still convinced that the forms of redemption for the Chinese people are of major importance for us as well, so we remain—of course, highly critically—pro-Chinese.

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