It seems like a familiar story. A bat drops a fruit, which gets picked up by a pig. The pig is slaughtered and cooked as a delicacy in a Hong Kong restaurant. An American tourist who eats it is found dead a few days later at her home in the US. Soon enough, the virus that kills her spreads quickly, wreaking havoc, subduing the might of the United States.
This story could have come from the dreadful archives of the coronavirus contagion of 2020. But no, it’s a story from a Hollywood film made in 2011, which in the wake of recent events, makes Stephen Soderbergh look more like a time traveller than the director of that presciently named movie called Contagion.
Interestingly, though Contagion was a creative expression of a medical attack crippling the world, it uncannily had a similar origin: China. It wasn’t surprising because SARS – another deadly virus – had previously originated from China. But there was a difference: when the deadly effect of SARS was building up inside China, the World Health Organisation in 2002 had warned of its consequences. China, under Hu Jintao, had begun to establish itself globally but wasn’t powerful enough to withhold information related to a pandemic.
Cut to 2017, the WHO now had appointed Tedros Ghebreseyos, a microbiologist controversially backed by China to drive its global agenda of garnering influence in global institutions. On January 20 this year, even after a Chinese official confirmed publicly that the virus could indeed spread among humans, it took a week for the WHO to declare the spread of the virus asa health emergency. In between, Tedros visited China and praised the country’s leadership for “setting a new standard for outbreak response. Tedros was merely repaying his backers.
While the world has been looking for meanings to understand the nature of lies, deception and wilful default, it may have disregarded a much larger force at play. The civilizational war and China’s role in it.
Tian Xia is a concept that translates into ‘heaven under the sky’. That heaven is China – the middle kingdom, which stood for the centre of the earth. By inference, the emperor, therefore, was the proud son of God. In medieval times, China had put into practice a tribute system wherein they would demand protection money from states such as Vietnam, Cambodia and others who deferred to its power. China, to its people, was known as the chosen kingdom of the world.
This nationalistic pride would suffer a death blow in the nineteenth century, as Japan inflicted a series of defeats on China. A period of humiliation followed; succeeded by civil wars and finally Mao’s long march to establish communism. The early part of the 20th century saw China struggling to establish itself a nation.
By the time China announced itself to the world as a new nation in 1949, a new global order had been formed, decided by the victors of world war II. China was left out of the world order founded in 1945, with the United States at the helm. With the powerful Soviet Union as the other superpower, a communist China could only harbour modest objectives, limited to the regional level. Establishing its superiority over its nearest rival in the region, India, was a priority. A decisive Chinese victory in a bloody war with India in 1962 soon established that. India would end Chinese military ambitions with a payback victory in 1967. Further, losses against Soviets in 1969 and Vietnam in 1978 confirmed a decline in Chinese military performance. But the unflagging ambition to wrest its past glory and a seat at the power table of the world could never be diminished.
Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao Zedong, believed that the potential economic size of China could match a superior military power. After Mao’s death, as Deng recast China as a market friendly power, events would favour him. The Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s under the weight of its own contradictions. The US stepped forward, propelled by liberal economists, who believed that China could be integrated and reformed into the democratic system. They would be proved wrong.
With the collapse of Soviet Union and the rise of the US, China saw itself as filling up a gap in a potentially bipolar world. Patience, would, however remain a strong suit as China went about reworking its bridges with the world, buying treasury bonds in the US, establishing sweatshop factories for cheap goods, building the world’s manufacturing nursery, participating in a global economic boom.
Aware that its military shortcomings were evident, China embarked on a long-term goal that embraced a multipronged strategy. In 1999, two colonels in the People's Liberation Army, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote a book called Unrestricted Warfare. It was about how China could defeat a superior opponent such as the US using non military means. When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, it was time to flex muscles and revivethe Chinese dream: of displacing the US as a global influencer and finding its tian xia.
The narrative began to acquire heft: the BRI network, muscle flexing in South China sea, acquisition of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka in Indian Ocean and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, financing countries that had no ability to repay loans were all a part of the plan to impose itself in the wake of an increasingly reclusive United States.
As it was spreading its tentacles, China deployed its sharp power more decisively to argue its campaign – which meant using advocates in other countries to argue its cause. From Mao to Xi, communism had undergone a change, but the goal of establishing Tian Xia had acquired new, refined methods of lies and deception.
In 1961, Mao Zedong invited the French leader François Mitterrand to China. He returned to hail Mao as "a great scholar’ and asserted "there is no famine in China." Other politicians cultivated by China argued that the country was making "great progress". At the time these western dignitaries were singing praises, millions were dying in China of history’s biggest man-made famine. In 2020, when the pandemic spread, China was quick to use its already strong community of backers in the west. The sinologist David Shambaugh estimates that the country spends roughly $10 billion a year in “external propaganda.” A section of the media that turned the heat on Donald Trump for calling it a China virus, chose to miss the wood for the trees. Bill Maher counters if Zika is from the Zika Forest, Ebola from Ebola River, MERS stands for Middle East respiratory syndrome, why should China get a pass? The point is: the buck doesn’t stop with Trump, it ends up in the court of Xi.
Differing claims on the origins of the virus have grown with each day. In January, 2018, scientists inspecting the Wuhan Institute of Virology had warned of the dangers in the Chinese lab. Professor Luc Montagnier, Nobel laureate for medicine, claims the virus is man-made. It now appears that the virus could have come, not from the wet markets, but from the Wuhan laboratory, debunking the entire wet market theory.Which leads us to the theory of benefits from collateral damage: where destruction can lead to the emergence of a victor less scarred than the rest. The theory of Unrestricted Warfare finds meaning as China hopes to be the last man standing in this pyrrhic war: United States. The year of the Corona Virus is a necessary chronicle in the grander narrative: to establish China as the centre of the earth.