As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across the globe, human lives are being threatened by the coronavirus and our daily lives are also impacted on an unprecedented scale and intensity. People everywhere are thrown into confusion, trying to understand the disease and the turmoil it has brought upon the politics, economics and society of nations. The chasm between China, where the epidemic first erupted, and the Western world has worsened, creating cross-cultural debates on ways of governance, globalisation, national and ethnic identities, and ideologies. While many try to be rational, others are resorting to hate speech and blame games. Amid the pandemonium, we want to know where we are now, what we are facing, and how we can move forward.
ThinkChina speaks to eminent historian Professor Wang Gungwu, who will be turning 90 years old this October, to tap into his wisdom and life experience as he shares his thoughts on these issues.
The interview was conducted through email in light of circuit breaker measures* imposed in Singapore.
Interviewee (Wang): Professor Wang Gungwu, University Professor, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore
Interviewer (Chow): Chow Yian Ping, Editor, ThinkChina
Chow: The Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed anti-China and anti-Chinese sentiments around the world. Within China, Chinese nationalist feelings have also risen sharply. How will the world’s perception of China and the Chinese develop after this? How will China see the US and the West? And what does this mean for Singapore — a multicultural nation with a Chinese-majority population?
Wang: Most people agree that the Chinese authorities did eventually move fast to control Covid-19 and were remarkably successful in limiting the spread within the PRC. But the world also knows that the system was slow to report the epidemic’s seriousness, that the warnings were late, and valuable time was lost.
The more nationalistic the Chinese people become, the less attractive their country will become.
People in East Asia were surprised by how poorly some advanced countries in Western Europe handled the epidemic. In particular, the confusing developments in the US were truly astonishing. The situation is still evolving. It is not clear how much further the US will politicise the issues to place the blame entirely on China and how much more anti-Chinese feelings that might arouse. Popular anger inside the PRC has sometimes forced Beijing to overreact: that might please some Chinese, but such overreactions do little for China’s efforts to make new friends.
There is little doubt that many Chinese now believe that the West has lost its way and the US is not fit to lead the world. But it does not follow that other countries see China replacing the US in its dominant role. The more nationalistic the Chinese people become, the less attractive their country will become.
In Singapore, those of Chinese descent would be rightly troubled by anti-Chinese displays, especially in the Anglophone world. Its leaders are also sensitive to the reactions among the country’s immediate neighbours. Singapore Chinese could show their disapproval of anti-Chinese actions but they too will have to guard against any kind of overreaction.
Chow: It is said that for over two thousand years, the Chinese have thought the ideal state of governance to be a well-functioning centralised system with wise rulers, which is very different from the Western ideal of a liberal democracy where individuals enjoy freedom of speech. Do you think the Chinese ideal has changed given that the Chinese have now more than 100 years of exposure to Western liberal ideas and to a market-oriented economy? How do you think the pandemic will affect the thinking of the Chinese?
...it is unlikely that the pandemic in itself will undermine mainstream confidence that the economy will recover and the political system will survive.
Wang: At least two generations of Chinese have learnt to appreciate that the modern West has valuable ideas and institutions to offer, but the turmoil of much of the 20th century has also made them feel that the Western European versions of democracy might not be that important for China’s national development. The majority of Chinese seem to approve of policies that place order and stability above freedom and political participation. They believe that this is what the country needs at this stage and resent being regularly criticised as politically unliberated and backward. Some sophisticated foreign critics emphasise that the fault does not lie with the Chinese people but with the system controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. This tends to drive the party to seek even greater control over its population.
As for those Chinese who strongly disagree with what is happening in their country but do not think they can change anything from within, many of them have voted with their feet or hope to move out if they can. However, it is unlikely that the pandemic in itself will undermine mainstream confidence that the economy will recover and the political system will survive.
... the US as the leader of that West has made serious mistakes as the world’s sole superpower, including that of letting rampant capitalism dictate the globalisation process.
Chow: The West has always prided itself on its liberalism and its democratic system; many believe that this is the source of creativity and innovation in Western Europe and the US. However, in dealing with the pandemic, those values and systems have displayed some serious weaknesses. Some feel that the pandemic will lead to a change in the discourse in the West that could mark the beginning of the decline of Western dominance. What are your views on this?
Wang: I agree that the West has proven to be creative when facing dangers to its civilisation. However, the Chinese during the past 100 years have also been creative in response to Western challenges — although they are learning to innovate quite differently from the modern “universalist” trajectory followed by the West and draw inspiration very much from their own history.
But even if the West should be in relative decline, that does not mean that China will be the beneficiary.
Should the PRC succeed in providing an alternative route to prosperity and independence, the US (and elsewhere in the West) would see that as a fundamental threat to its (and Western European) dominance in the world. Those who feel threatened would then do everything they can to stop China. I think this is what most Chinese believe is what American leaders are prepared to do.
It did not help that the US as the leader of that West has made serious mistakes as the world’s sole superpower, including that of letting rampant capitalism dictate the globalisation process. The negative reaction among those in the US who turned against its liberal ideals has left the country’s allies in confusion and thus opened Western hegemony to question. But even if the West should be in relative decline, that does not mean that China will be the beneficiary. Much will depend on whether China’s alternative perspective is credible and attractive to those who are now more skeptical of what the West stands for.
In the meantime, the danger could be a decoupled world economy or one that is multipolar without any kind of leadership or any common values. That would seriously undermine the global economy that helped the revival of many Asian economies these past decades. If that happens, the next few decades may have to focus on how to prevent all countries from becoming stagnant, if not poorer.
But the nature of China’s politics, whether under emperors, warlords, nationalists or communists, was so rooted in Chinese history that no individual or group of intellectuals could offer a new vision that could appeal to the majority of the Chinese people.
Chow: Despite China‘s success in curbing the spread of the virus, Chinese intellectuals within and outside of China are debating about good governance and freedom of speech in China. Some feel that the Chinese bureaucracy, media, and society have resorted to nationalism and populism and the country lacks its own narrative. How can China create a collective narrative when individuals are denied their personal narratives? What are your thoughts about this?
Wang: There are so many far-reaching questions buried here that a simple answer is not possible. For one thing, Chinese intellectuals did have chances to shape alternatives to their ancient traditions and many did turn fully towards the West for answers. But the nature of China’s politics, whether under emperors, warlords, nationalists or communists, was so rooted in Chinese history that no individual or group of intellectuals could offer a new vision that could appeal to the majority of the Chinese people.
In the end, that majority seemed to have accepted the legitimacy of PRC’s victory on the battlefield coupled with the capacity to bring order and renewed purpose to a rejuvenated China. Under such circumstances, there remained a wide range of little freedoms for the individual but always short of the freedom for organised groups to challenge the regime.
During the past century and a half, many people in China have stood up for their principles, but what happened to those who did, especially in recent years, has discouraged others from doing so.
If the regime leadership feels insecure, however, there would be far less room for free expression, and that would be a big obstacle to creativity. During the past century and a half, many people in China have stood up for their principles, but what happened to those who did, especially in recent years, has discouraged others from doing so.
The pandemic, still a danger to the country, has not made the regime feel more secure. Unfortunately, the US is trying to pin the whole blame on China for spreading it to the rest of the world. And this is only part of an ongoing trade war that could become a major obstacle to the country’s economic growth for years. The Chinese now see this as a persistent threat and that would not help those who seek more freedom to cultivate their personal narratives.
In particular, with China seeing the South China Sea as a core interest and the US determined to stop China from challenging its hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, there is little room for reconciliation.
Chow: Do you think the world is going to be more divided or would it seek to develop mutual understanding and a coming together of ideas?
Wang: We should be grateful that there would always be leaders in some countries who continue to support efforts to seek mutual understanding and share common ideals. But everything now points to an intense clash of national interests between the two superpowers that will make the world more divided. In particular, with China seeing the South China Sea as a core interest and the US determined to stop China from challenging its hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, there is little room for reconciliation.
The fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has failed to bring about mutual aid and cooperation but is being politicised instead suggests that neither side will give an inch to work together for global peace and recovery. Fortunately, the leaders of both sides are still doing what they can to prevent the conflicts from becoming a disastrous hot war.
In any case, without the backing of all the developed economies, global recovery can only be partial and fragile.
Chow: Many are predicting that the world will see its darkest moment in economic history since the 1930s because of Covid-19. China is not spared as it reported a drop of 6.8% in its first-quarter GDP. Global recovery depends on each country’s economy surviving the pandemic without being too damaged. There are proposals for China and East Asia to play a major role in leading the world in this process. What are your views on this? What are the determining factors for a global economic recovery?
Wang: No single country can ensure recovery for the global economy. If all of East Asia can pool their resources and cooperate effectively, that could make a difference. But it would not get far as long as the US and Europe are left out and, in any case, they want to go their own way. In any case, without the backing of all the developed economies, global recovery can only be partial and fragile.
Of course, a great deal also depends on how long the pandemic lasts. From current calculations, second and third waves of infections and deaths are still possible before a safe vaccine can be found. If that were to happen over another year or two, even full cooperation among the G20 countries would probably not be enough to bring about full recovery any time soon.
Chow: What is likely to be Singapore’s position? What changes are necessary for Singapore to continue to prosper in the post-pandemic age? What are the lessons to be learnt? Does our future lie with the US or with China?
Wang: First, there are pandemic issues that are peculiar to Singapore and some responses would be specific to the city-state. Here the Singapore government has acted quickly and has successfully used a variety of resources to deal with the problems that have arisen. On this score, the lessons are being learnt and the new corrective measures introduced are proving to be effective.
... if Singapore’s future has to depend on one country or the other, that would not be a happy one. The worst that could happen is not to have a choice at all but simply to gamble on one side winning in either a cold or a hot war.
Where the issues are regional and global, there is little that a small country can do to shape the key developments but it can be nimble and adjust quickly as unexpected changes occur. With its concentration of a wide variety of skilled talent plus a considerable financial reserve built up over the decades, Singapore has more room to adapt even when something untoward happens. The main lesson may be, to be prepared for difficult times even when things look good because a small country is never really safe.
As for the US and China, if Singapore’s future has to depend on one country or the other, that would not be a happy one. The worst that could happen is not to have a choice at all but simply to gamble on one side winning in either a cold or a hot war. That would ultimately make Singapore some powerful country’s dependency or client state and having thereafter to do what it is told. It is therefore in Singapore’s interest to try its utmost, with the support of its neighbours, to build a strong cooperative framework that stands united. If ASEAN can achieve that, both the US and China might find it profitable to use it to protect their respective interests in the region.
Chow: Any advice for individuals facing the pandemic in an age of flux?
Wang: For individuals under 50 who find themselves with extra time at home to spare, they could use that to learn new skills with enterprise and imagination. They should also prepare their children for the demands that future work might make on them as new kinds of jobs are created that are also likely to evolve at greater speeds.
For those who are older, most can still carefully and selectively pick up one new skill or another and at least offer their previous work experiences to help advise those who are younger. Even more importantly, they should keep as healthy as possible so that they do not become burdens for their children and grandchildren and weaken their ability to respond to a rapidly changing work environment.
What is most interesting for me is that, although the pandemic has affected some populations much worse than others, there has been a degree of “globalisation from below” that I have not seen before.
Chow: For someone your age (90 years old this coming October) who has seen war, political changes, countries rise and fall, how bad is this pandemic seen through the long stretch of time and history?
Wang: I had been led to think that all previous wars and political changes, including the rise and fall of countries, seemed to have been at a measured and calculable pace. When all that was going on, however trying and frightening they might have been at the time, everything seemed manageable by individuals, or families or local communities. The current pandemic has called for much more ingenuity, for rapid action by the leaders and governments of nation-states everywhere, each close to asking for a “people’s war” against the invisible enemy.
What is remarkable is that most people have responded well; on the whole, they have shown greater trust of those responsible than in the past. What is most interesting for me is that, although the pandemic has affected some populations much worse than others, there has been a degree of “globalisation from below” that I have not seen before. More people than ever in the past are knowledgeable about the fate of others, and we now see countless examples of people caring for others across borders and over long distances. This reflects the advances in modern science, especially in communications technology, but the way so many can and do use the new knowledge to connect in all sorts of new ways is uplifting and gives me hope for the human spirit.
On 7 April, the Singapore government activated "circuit breaker" measures across the country in a bid to stem the spread of Covid-19. These measures to be in place until 4 May, were subsequently extended to 1 June. Restrictions during this period include working from home as much as possible, home-based learning for students, no dining in at restaurants, and strict social distancing policies.
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