Corona and 5G: China and the global trust crisis

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04/22/2020_ In my previous post of March 26th I wrote the Trump government would probably consider to cut the American ties with the WHO after the Corona pandemic would be over. How wrong was I: the American President didn’t waste no time at all! About two weeks ago he stopped per immediate the funding of the WHO, accusing the UN organization of being too pro-China and of downplaying the virus threat in its early stages.

While criticism of the WHO is certainly justified, it’s at the same time hard to deny there seems to have been a general sense of complacency among governments in the West that the outbreak was purely a China problem, and would not necessarily behave the same way inside their own borders. This complacency has proved to be a severe misjudgement.

China first versus America first: the trust crisis

The worldwide Corona crisis is nonetheless likely to accelerate an already on-going trend in the American-Chinese relationship: a descent into complete mutual distrust. As I mentioned in my last post, the extent of the current Corona drama and world-wide suffering is in a way the price being paid for the China First vs America First folly. Trump’s severing America’s ties with the WHO symbolizes this lack of trust: the American government claims the international health organization is malfunctioning because it has turned into a puppet of the unreliable Chinese government. In other words, not the WHO, but China is the main culprit.

Trust was a key component in China’s international rise after it opened its doors to the outside world at the end of the 70’s under Deng Xiaoping. Some of the Western trust was perhaps pretty optimistic and naive, but the foundation of it was meticulously built by successive Chinese governments. Even after the violent crackdown on the student demonstrations by the communist regime in 1989, Western governments were eager to quickly restore their ties with the PRC, strongly hoping, believing or wishing modernization would result in a more open Chinese society, and ultimately in a more transparent, democratic government. The general expectation was a modernized China, seeing and enjoying the benefits of the international trade and legal system, predominantly built on Western principles and values, would be more likely to adhere to its rules and regulations and ultimately be more open to political reform.

Xi Jinping

Though business ties kept on growing with the West and the PRC made an impressive economic transformation by further opening up its country and market, in American political circles serious doubts started to arise over the real intentions and course of communist China after Xi Jinping gained power in 2012. Xi embarked on an increasingly aggressive international promotion of the Chinese authoritarian development model as an alternative to the Western liberal system, fostering nationalistic sentiments at home and suppressing any dissenting voices, while greatly strengthening China’s military capabilities and presence abroad. “Make China the greatest”! seemed to be his adagio. As a consequence American military and political circles gradually began viewing China as America’s biggest threat, a development exacerbated by Trump’s emergence with his America First doctrine.

In short, the American trust in China had already been seriously dented before the outbreak of the Corona-virus, but these cracks are now splintering into giant schisms, irrespective of the “fantastic” American-Chinese trade deal of late last year. Many American politicians and medical experts do not believe the Chinese Corona death statistics and blame Xi Jinping for hiding the truth. Meanwhile Chinese ambassadors around the world, overzealous in their efforts to show their loyalty to Chairman Xi, try to gain control of the Corona narrative and de-focus the Western attention on the CCPs cover-up by criticising Western authorities for their “half-baked, ineffective” lock-down approaches.

Overzealous Chinese diplomats

But nobody in the West, in particular in the USA, is in any mood of accepting criticism by Chinese diplomats. The lack of trust in Xi is almost complete on Capitol Hill. The Chinese President might perhaps be thinking otherwise, but this time American politicians won’t/can’t as easily forget as in 1989 simply because they are confronted with tens of thousands of deaths at home. The Corona-crisis will put China’s trustworthiness back into sharp focus in Europe as well. If Xi still wishes to restore trust, he will need a different approach – and much better diplomats – to help repair the tremendous damage done over the past 4 months…sending amidst a lot of publicity and aplomb cargo’s with medical supplies and teams to combat the virus and win back goodwill just won’t do the trick… see also

Once this international health crisis is under control, there will be a much more intense debate about the European dependency on China. As highlighted numerous times in this blog, Europe and its member states lack a coherent and well-defined China strategy, a debate that has been long overdue. The Corona pandemic will surely lead to a re-think on supply chains of strategic and critical materials and products. Moreover, the EU decided in January it would leave the door open to the Chinese telecom giant Huawei if it were to meet the bloc’s strict security restrictions. As due to the pandemic the 5G roll out will no doubt be delayed, discussions on the role of Huawei in the 5G network will be re-opened in various European capitals, in particular in Berlin, where the German government has been sharply divided over the Huawei topic, indefinitely postponing its final decision. The delay in the rollout will give Europe more time to re-consider, re-discuss and re-study alternative options…

Europe: re-assessing China’s trustworthiness

The question which is anticipated to be be raised more forcefully in many European capital cities and parliaments including in Brussels: how can Europe trust a Chinese company -tied to the Chinese state- to provide critical components for its 5G infrastructure when it could not even count on Beijing to provide accurate information about a public health crisis? How does Beijing expect to step into a global leadership role when it is willing to disregard its own people’s health and safety by silencing whistle-blowers and by continuously arresting dissidents and meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs? Chinese censorship will become another key focus of European parliamentary attention: the Chinese restrictions of digital freedom of speech impeded effective action against the virus at an early stage.

Xi will not only be confronted with an insurmountable amount of mistrust in the USA, but by an increasingly distrustful political establishment and skeptical population in many European countries too. Especially Boris Johnson, who like his buddy Trump completely misjudged the severity of the Corona-virus, will be much more prone to defer the blame for the health crisis to the Chinese to partially obfuscate his own incompetence. In the Conservative party calls for a ban of Huawei, which could already be heard a few days ahead of the Corona outbreak, will become louder, also with an eye on ensuring the badly needed trade agreement with the USA. The Trump (-or any new American) government will use this growing British lack of trust to put more pressure on Johnson to drop Huawei in return for a trade deal.

The technology divide

Technology should have helped the world in its combat against the virus. In a world of high-speed global connectivity every government has a high degree of international responsibility when its domestic action has impacts beyond its own borders. The spread of the coronavirus was facilitated by the Chinese government’s restrictions on the digital dissemination of information. Doctors were reprimanded by their hospital managers and the police when they warned colleagues through social media posts. It was through Twitter that the news finally got to the outside world. That world has been suffering heavily from this Chinese (digital) censorship, as valuable info was blocked and precious time wasted to prepare for a better international medical response.

Technology has been driving the USA apart not only from its rival China, but also from continental Europe, which sofar has resisted America’s anti-Huawei campaign, despite Trump’s trade war and tariffs threats. Yet this European position will be put into question again due to the Corona-virus outbreak. Economics dominated the 5G conversation in Europe more than national security concerns. The fragmented telecom market in Europe has proved particularly beneficial to Huawei. Yet the Corona drama has again underlined the importance of the national security aspect in Europe’s relationship with the PRC.

With the West currently facing staggering amounts of deaths, a severe economic crisis and an explosive anti-China mood in Congress, even Trump (or any new American President) is likely to at least re-evaluate the benefits of a trade war with the EU, a long time partner and ally, despite all the America First rhetoric. Vice versa the same applies for EU officials, irrespective of all their misgivings about the Trump administration. In other words, it could ultimately be the PRC who could be paying the biggest economic price of the Corona-crisis as the mutual distrust of China could drive the USA and Europe back into each other arms, while the Western anti-China stance could harden.

The risks for China

There are not many signs the Chinese government and diplomats do fully grasp and/or care about the risks they face. Chairman Xi and his officials seem mostly pre-occupied with their propaganda- campaign to earn goodwill among Western governments and citizens, whereas simultaneously trying to exploit the health crisis and confusion in the West to bolster China’s position vis a vis Hong Kong and in the South China Sea. A generation of young Chinese might not even be aware of the lack of trust that did exist between China and the West during the Cold War, in the times under Mao Zedong. This younger generation might also not realize the Corona-crisis is seriously eroding the fundament upon which China’s rise to power has been built.

There is another important area where China is likely to suffer from the growing Western distrust and suspicion: that of international technology standardization. Beijing is about to launch its “China Standards 2035”, an industrial plan to write international rules on setting the standards that define production, commercial exchange, and consumption. Global technical standards on 5G& 6G and connectivity, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, digital sovereignty, cybersecurity and privacy etc, are usually discussed and formed internationally, taking many years. Beijing has spent the past decade establishing influential footholds in multilateral bodies and targeted industrial areas, with for example 5G being a key focus.

Xi would naturally like to to use these positions to fix the international rules in order to define the infrastructure and regulation of our future world. In the CCP’s view the strategic game among the big powers is no longer just about technological superiority or market share competition. It is mostly about competition over the design of the international system and the related rule-making. Because of its economic power and growing global influence, Beijing would surely like to seize any opportunity to internationalize Chinese standards and technology approaches.

Technology standards

Standard setting will become a new battle field in the contest between China and the USA: for example, over the past decade Beijing has issued dozens of national standards related to cybersecurity and provisions regarding secure, controllable use of information technology. Those domestic efforts do have an international impact because of the sheer size of the Chinese market: foreign enterprises need to tailor products or services to Chinese requirements in order to be able to compete there, allowing China to create a de facto standard that U.S. or Western companies historically generated. First movers often get to dominate markets, bringing all the benefits that follow from leadership in new technologies and segments: this explains why the US is so concerned about China being first in the 5G race and about Huawei becoming the dominant telecom player in the West.

Some Americans fear being replaced as the world’s no 1 in defining and setting international standards. In this American view China does have the potential to reshape the future technical standardization order, from one that is primarily driven by private self-regulation and corporate initiatives to a more sovereignty sensitive one that is decided by a nation state or a national government. These American fears could perhaps in the aftermath of the Corona-crisis receive more support from other Western politicians and organizations. It consequentially could undermine Xi’s ambitious plan to achieve technological dominance by having Chinese technology and cybersecurity standards enforced and accepted internationally.

Global trust crisis

One could argue the Corona pandemic has not only exposed the USA-PRC trust crisis, but also put the overall decline of trust between Western governments and in Western societies in general under a magnifying glass. The West clearly does not fully trust the WHO. Half of the American population does not trust its own President. European leaders have been appalled by Trump. Part of the Western citizens do not trust their own health experts or media. Populists have been trying for years to exploit the growing distrust across the European continent. European governments have displayed little unity and a lot of mistrust against each other during the pandemic. Against this context the America-China trust problem could be easily dismissed as just part of “a global trust crisis” trend and nothing really special.

Yet without denying some of the worrying trends in Europe itself and the rest of the West, one has to remember democratic societies and governments are used to dealing with critical citizens and media who have a healthy dose of skepticism and distrust towards authorities, incessantly challenging the latter’s performance, domestic or foreign policies. It’s part of our democratic system of checks and balances. It could result in policy adjustments or changes in government, with subsequent policy corrections or a new strategic course. Let’s not forget in most European countries citizens have been heeding their governments’ Corona health instructions without too much friction or resistance. And that European government leaders do still have a unique opportunity to forge closer European co-ordination and solidarity in this Corona-crisis despite the original false start. These leaders are not immune to the fierce criticism of their initial failure and the risk of the EU falling apart. A lot of them do care about building more internal trust and unity. Let’s hope they will act accordingly.

Xi’s China brand

Xi Jinping, voted President for life, does not operate in a similar environment of checks and balances or unrestraint criticism. As said, a big part of his population is oblivious to the growing distrust towards China in the Western world. Since he came to power Xi has embarked on a China First policy, which few in his own party have dared to challenge (publicly). His whole public image is based upon him making China the greatest. He has gained influence in Europe by a divide and rule approach. One wonders if he has learned anything at all from this Corona virus disaster and is willing to strike a different tone, or whether he just sees it as another opportunity to push and glorify his “China First” ideology and to relentlessly drive his Belt and Road initiatives.

If it’s just the latter, not only Huawei, but China as a whole could face serious consequences. Xi’s China brand could get damaged beyond repair in the West.

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