The Silk Road virus


Dictatorships kill even when they don't mean to. A lack of transparency, fear and a total disregard for the individual and the notion of citizenship and the rights citizens enjoy in a democratic state have hastened the spread of the coronavirus. Of uncertain origin, the virus has devastated Wuhan, while putting China and the rest of the world on high alert.

The German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term ‘the Silk Road’ in reference to the networks which connected Han Dynasty China with the world beyond its borders. The term has since been used to describe the movement of goods and people between Asia, Europe and Africa and how, over many centuries, the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea have been connected to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The Silk Road has woven connections between peoples, cultures and continents. Religions and languages have propagated along it in the past and present, together with ideas about art, fashion and food which have influenced each other in the process.

The Silk Road, which is undergoing a new golden age, thanks to China’s trading and economic power in competition with the United States, is currently the route by which a deadly virus is spreading across the globe. The lack of reliable information and China’s tardy response —in an attempt to cover up the gravity of the disease— have meant it has struggled to cope, causing fear to spread to the rest of the world, rather than the virus itself.

The decision to cancel the Mobile World Congress (MWC), which was due to be held in Barcelona later this month, was not taken based on sound public health advice, but on fear. The steady stream of participants pulling out in recent days finally forced the organisers to cancel the event. The world’s leading tech companies spoke of their desire not to risk damaging their reputations and to avoid any liability. For such businesses, costly mistakes can result in instant dismissal and multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

It seems reasonable to speculate whether the drop in attendance and subsequent cancellations were also a consequence of the virulent US-China trade war. It’s surely not a major reason, but one cannot rule out the fact that American companies have had an extra incentive to cancel the MWC, if by so doing it shows up China's many weaknesses. China’s shortcomings go beyond the trade, industrial and technological capabilities of an economy which is bound to suffer as a result of the epidemic it is struggling to contain —although no one knows what impact it may ultimately have. The COVID-19 crisis will have serious consequences for China, where some 50,000 individuals are becoming infected on a daily basis. It will undoubtedly also have an impact on global trade. In fact, the potential impact will arrive at a time when tensions in China’s strained bilateral relations with the US have led to a “neurosis", according to Peter Frankopan, author of The New Silk Roads (Bloomsbury), in which he recalls the US Secretary of Defense defining their country’s priorities in three words: "China, China and China."

Changes in the rules of the game

Some time ago Frankopan warned of the need to establish new geopolitical relations now that "The age of the west shaping the world in its image is long gone –although that seems to have been lost on those who think that managing the fates of others is appropriate and even possible". The references to the Trump administration will remain on hold until such time as we find out the extent to which the crisis has weakened the Asian giant and how the tensions between Beijing and Washington and the EU shift. The coronavirus has changed the rules of the game, meaning the powerful giant has stalled, with its populace reaching new heights of outrage, in spite of the censors’ best efforts to stifle free speech.

A tough daily life

Today in ARA we cover the highly complicated daily life in China in an interesting special supplement. It features a collection of articles which speak about the compulsory wearing of masks; how an army of talking drones is being used to keep an eye on the populace from the air; how hospitals are overwhelmed with those seeking treatment; how quarantined people are locked up in tiny apartments which are home to entire families; the summary cremation of the dead; the backlog of goods at the nation’s ports; and how the economy remains stagnant, in spite of the fact that 700 million workers have been ordered back to work; how the subway system is empty and schools remain closed, as the weekly shopping is done by a single member of the family, who needs a police permit in order to leave the house.

Some two and a half thousand years ago, one of the rulers of the Zhao Kingdom in north-eastern China, stated that "a talent for following the ways of yesterday is not enough to improve the world of today". Understanding what drives change is the first step to being in a position to prepare for and adapt to such changes. Today, the coronavirus is a dangerous driver of change which is sweeping through both China and the Silk Road.

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