Foreign Affairs

The Coronavirus Crisis is an Opportunity

The U.S. can show leadership where China hasn’t.
February 13, 2020
(Digital collage by Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

In 1959, soon-to-be presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a speech in which he observed that within the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ were the individual characters for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity.’ Kennedy was not the first to employ this device to oratorical effect, but he certainly popularized it; the construct is now regularly used by all manner of management consultants, business gurus, and politicians.

And while today scholars recognize that that this interpretation of the original Mandarin was, at best, a linguistic misunderstanding and, at worst, an etymological fallacy, like most rhetorical contrivances, it still contained a kernel of truth. Shortly after the 2008 election, incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel riffed on the idea, telling the New York Times, “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.”

The Coronavirus has unquestionably become an imminent danger to world health, but it also represents an opportunity for the United States to move from a reactive role to a position of proactive leadership. Without appearing cynical, or, as if we are acting solely out of realpolitik motives, America can use this moment as a catalyst to engage in conversations that would be more difficult to have in less fraught times.

First and foremost, this is an occasion to speak frankly with our international partners about the Chinese government’s inconsistent and opaque handling of the crisis. Since the moment of the outbreak, Beijing has been more interested in handling the perception of the emergency than its global health implications. 

Perhaps the best example of this behavior is the treatment of Li Wenliang, the doctor who first reported the disease publicly in the waning hours of 2019. After he warned colleagues to take precautions against the virus, which he initially believed was SARS, Li was summoned to the Public Security Bureau and reprimanded for “making false comments” that “severely disturbed the social order.” (Li subsequently died of the virus.) 

The Chinese government also unceremoniously shut down numerous social media accounts on the popular app WeChat for the simple act of discussing a shortage of protective face masks. Perhaps most Orwellian, local governments in China recently began following citizens around with drones, chastising them over a loudspeaker for not wearing masks, and telling them to shelter in place at home. As recently as the first week of February, the Chinese government was still widely suspected of under-reporting the number of actual Coronavirus cases. And on  February 7th, the government revised its definition of the term “confirmed case,” resulting in lower numbers of infected citizens being publicly reported. 

This is not how responsible governments act. Public health emergencies should self-evidently transcend most, if not all, political considerations. If ever there was a moment when transparency was vitally important, it is at the very beginning of the outbreak of a novel contagious illness. People everywhere want to feel like they can trust their government in times of crisis to give them useful and actionable information. Instead, the Chinese government has sown confusion and resentment in order to deflect blame, both internally and abroad.

The Coronavirus Crisis has also highlighted the gulf between how the Mainland operates and how Hong Kong functions. The so-called Special Administrative Region acted quickly, using its experience with SARS, to implement measures to stop the spread of the virus. Although it has imposed a quarantine on people arriving in Hong Kong from the Mainland, it has not taken draconian steps such as closing entire areas. As a result, the city has now moved to a point where it is trying to contain the virus rather than merely get a handle on how widespread the infection has become.

This, too, represents an opportunity for the United States to take a leadership role, by praising the Hong Kong government (and by extension its somewhat more democratic system.) The White House missed an opportunity during the recent protests in Hong Kong to stand unambiguously with the people of the city who rejected forced extradition to the Mainland. While Congress passed a resolution on this, which President Trump grudgingly signed, he inexplicably tried to take both sides, saying he supported both the protesters and Chinese President Xi.

It’s also an opening for the U.S. to contrast Hong Kong’s handling of the crisis compared to the rest of China, a comparison most Chinese will understand. Try as they might, the censors in Beijing and elsewhere can’t control all the information filtering between family members and friends over the border between Hong Kong and the Mainland. The more information Chinese citizens have about their government’s malfeasance during the crisis, the better.

Chinese Mainlanders need to better understand the repressive tactics the government has used on its own citizens. They need to recognize that the despotic actions haven’t appreciably slowed the spread of the disease. And they need to hear the extent to which their own government is lying to them, every single day, about literal matters of life and death.

Finally, the Coronavirus constitutes an opening to have a vitally important conversation with American industry. Over the last forty or so years, the Chinese government has used the scale and cheapness of its labor force to establish itself as the place to manufacture products of all kinds. China now makes a fifth of all the goods produced in the world, more than any other country. Imagine throwing out every product in your house with the words “Made in China” stamped on it. If China is unable to confront this virus, that may very well happen for a lot of Chinese products ending up in the U.S., if they end up here at all. (Some food products, like garlic, might see diminished exports to the United States.)

Yet, the Coronavirus reminds us that even the mighty and vast Chinese manufacturing empire is neither infallible nor invulnerable. Enormous factories and even whole cities have been locked down in response to the virus, stopping production of goods of nearly every type, from electronics to textiles to automobiles to raw materials (picture citizens of New York City being told all transportation in and out is being halted; Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, which remains locked down, has 11 million residents.)

It doesn’t take an MBA to recognize the supply chain risk here. By putting all of their eggs in the China basket, many American companies have been counting on Beijing to keep factories open under any and every circumstance. The Coronavirus has exposed the fragility of this expectation.

And this type of supply chain concentration in one country—an authoritarian one, at that—adds up to potential national security risks to the United States. A good example is rare earth elements, which are vital to the production of nearly all advanced electronic components, from iPhones to missile guidance systems. China controls 85% of the global capacity to refine rare earths into usable materials. It’s easy to envision a situation in which—either for public health or political reasons—the Chinese government elected to throttle back or halt production of rare earths. What then?

Some of the biggest American companies have woken up to the vulnerability they’re accepting by sourcing solely (or mostly) from China, and are attempting to remedy the situation, but relatively few. Most medium and small importers still make sourcing decisions based on price and supply reliability, and that often means China. But the Coronavirus has created the right set of circumstances to emphasize to U.S. companies that they should consider diversifying their manufacturing—to countries that are more transparent, less authoritarian, and less susceptible to influence by China. Will that result in higher prices for consumers? Possibly. But it also reduces the threat that a widespread supply interruption might tank the American economy.

American politicians and industrial executives appear to be belatedly waking up to the long-term threat China poses, not only to America, but to Western democracies more generally. China has used its massive scale and economic influence to shout down American concerns about its repressive surveillance state, its treatment of ethnic minorities, and its suppression of any dissent whatsoever. Simple economics, combined with the Coronavirus, Hong Kong protests, and the Uighurs, might force them to pay closer attention.

The Coronavirus crisis is a moment to shift the narrative and expose the hypocrisy and cynicism of the regime in Beijing. In the words of Rahm, we shouldn’t waste it.

Marc C. Johnson

Marc C. Johnson is a security consultant, writer, and former CIA case officer. His Twitter handle is @blogguero.