Sun. Nov 28th, 2021


The main guest invited at COP26 did not show up. As president of China, Xi Jinping leads a country that emits more carbon dioxide than the US and the EU combined. But, unlike other world leaders, Xi did not deliver a speech at the climate summit. Instead, he has a written statement of less than 500 words for the conference website.

Xi’s dismissive attitude towards the climate talks was not so much the Middle Kingdom as the middle finger. But the Chinese leader’s refusal to travel to Glasgow for COP26 – or to the G20 summit in Rome, before that – is part of a broader pattern of national self-isolation.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, China has installed one of the world’s strictest systems of border control and quarantines. Foreigners or Chinese citizens entering the country must enter strictly quarantine for a minimum of two weeks. Extra checks apply as they enter Beijing, where the leadership resides.

This system actually made it impossible for foreigners to visit China without staying for a few months, or for most Chinese people to travel abroad. Xi has it himself did not leave China for almost two years. The last time he personally saw a foreign leader was at a meeting with the President of Pakistan in Beijing in March 2020. Xi’s upcoming summit with President Joe Biden will be held via video.

When a large part of the world was locked up, the extreme nature of China’s measures seemed less remarkable. But as most of the world returns to something close to normalcy, China’s self-isolation is becoming increasingly abnormal.

The impact on international affairs is already clear. China continues to trade and invest with the outside world. But business ties are rafel. Foreign chambers of commerce in China report that international executives are leaving the country and not being replaced. Hong Kongits role as a global business center has taken a hit.

China’s leadership can actually welcome some of these developments. Yu Jie, a fellow at Chatham House in London, claims that the pandemic allowed Xi to accelerate on a path to which he was already heading – towards national independence. That policy began long before the pandemic, with the “Made in China 2025”Campaign, which promoted domestic technology and production.

But with Covid-19, the emphasis 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 caused by Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of “reform and opening up” in the 1980s. Deng saw the isolation of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution led to poverty and backwardness. He was humble enough to realize that China can learn from the outside world.

The current mood in China is very different. Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history at Oxford, points to a danger that “closed borders will lead to closed minds”. After 40 years of rapid growth, China is confident.

The Chinese media portray the west, and especially the US, as in relentless decline. The Chinese government believes that the country is far ahead in some key technologies of the future, such as green technology and artificial intelligence. Beijing may believe that the world needs China now more than China needs the world.

Pandemic control has also now become entangled with the political legitimacy of Xi and the Communist Party. The official death toll in China is below 5,000, compared to 750,000 deaths in the USA. The Xi government claims that while the US is talking about human rights, the Chinese Communist Party has actually protected its people.

But China’s zero-Covid policies could now become a trap. As the outside world transitions to live with low levels of the disease, contact with foreigners may seem even more dangerous to China – leading to a renewed emphasis on limiting interaction 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 China’s provinces. The suppression of these outbreaks encourages the worst control-freak tendencies of the Communist Party, which uses technology to monitor citizens more and more closely. In a episode, more than 30,000 people were locked up and tested at Disneyland Shanghai, following the discovery of a single case of Covid.

This kind of draconian policy is now causing some public debate in China. But controls are unlikely to be relaxed any time soon. This week, the Communist Party is holding a meeting that is preparing the ground for Xi to extend his term in power at a major party congress in November 2022. The Chinese will not want to take any political risks before then. After the congress, China will enter the winter when the disease may increase. As a result, many experts think that China’s zero-covid policy – and the sealed borders that go along with it – will extend until 2023.

By that time, China would have been in self-imposed isolation for more than three years. The Chinese and world economies are likely to suffer as a result, as will global cooperation.

Yet the biggest and most intangible effect could be on the Chinese people. It is much easier to believe that foreigners are dangerous and decadent if you never meet them. When China finally opens up, the world may encounter a very changed country.

gideon.rachman@ft.com



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