BBC NewsNight: China and the West

19 MAY 2020

EMILY MAITLIS, INTERVIEWER: Joining us now is Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister and president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, and Doctor Bingchun Meng, the deputy head of the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE.

Bingchun Meng, if I can pick up with you, you heard there a fairly robust assessment from Chris Patten of what he thought the relationship should be now: tougher, giving less to China. What do you make of that?

BINCHUNG MENG, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: Well, first of all, I have to say, this kind of competitive mindset of who is going to come out as the winner is very antithetical to combating the pandemic at the moment. What we need now is collaboration and cooperation. And in today’s intensely interconnected world, I don’t think any single country is going to emerge as the winner if the rest of the world hasn’t successfully suppressed the transmission of the disease.

But, saying that, I do recognise, I think this is an important moment to rethink the global geopolitical order. And, certainly, China has fared much better compared to the US in putting the disease under control. And I think what we’ve witnessed so far definitely shows that the Chinese population has a high level of trust towards the government and the state also demonstrates very strong capacity in allocating strategic resource and China has a robust public health system —

MAITLIS: — I guess —

MENG: — in putting forward testing and also the infrastructure that enables contact tracing.

MAITLIS: You’ve mentioned that word ‘trust’ and China has dealt on its own soil very well from what we know — we don’t really know the true numbers and the true story — but there is no trust now between China and many other governments, many other countries around the world. That is going to be intensely damaging to global alliances.

MENG: That is very true and that is also why I don’t think that this pandemic itself is going to be the single moment that shifts the global geopolitical order, even if China emerges as the ‘winner’ after this because I think to a large extent the hostility towards China is what got a lot of Western countries to the current situation in a very dysfunctional response towards the pandemic. From the very beginning earlier this year, when the epidemic was going on in China, we saw the very high visibility of the mixture of the Red Scare, you know, and the Yellow Peril —

MAITLIS: — OK. Let me pick up —

MENG: — of the Cold War mentality of the free world versus authoritarian countries and also the entrenched racism.

MAITLIS: Binchung Meng, thank you very much. Let me pick up with Kevin Rudd on that point. Do you accept, Mr Rudd, that there was a hostility, a long-seated hostility, to China and the way it operated long before the pandemic?

KEVIN RUDD, ASIA SOCIETY POLICY INSTITUTE: The bottom line is: we represent two very different value systems. We in the West, including Australia, are liberal democracies; China is a Marxist-Leninist state. And however many coats of paint we wish to put across the top of that, that’s an underlying reality. And so, therefore, we need to understand that that is a background to all of our current discussion.

In terms of the view just put, however, I would disagree with what your guest from the LSE has just said. The internal dissent within China itself over the government’s and the party’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been significant. You only need to trace Chinese social media traffic in January and February and March to understand people’s fundamental disquiet with: How did this thing come about? Was it from the Wuhan wet markets? Why wasn’t it contained locally? And why did it end up shutting down the entire Chinese economy? There’s a separate set of critiques about the effectiveness of the authoritarian response afterwards, but I think what we’ve just heard is too much of a rose-coloured view of, in fact, China’s domestic performance. And China emerges, I think, significantly damaged internationally and reputationally as a consequence of the crisis. That’s just my objective call.

MAITLIS: Your Prime Minister has called for an inquiry into the source of the virus. We saw the response from China which was to threaten tariffs on Australian barley imports. I wonder what you want to see now in terms of a response from other countries, whether you are taking this seriously, whether you want allegiances to follow you into this now.

RUDD: Well the bottom line is: whatever is said by various spokesmen and women on behalf of the Chinese government, there are legitimate questions for the international community to know the answer to. The same questions are being asked in China domestically about the origins of the virus. Why weren’t wet markets closed down after the SARS crisis, for example, and what delays occurred in any notification from what happened locally through to the WHO in Beijing?

What’s been agreed to by the World Health Assembly in Geneva is, to be blunt, a fairly thin inquiry if you look at its actual terms of reference. I think therefore in terms of getting to the bottom of it, what I have recommended for some period of time has been for the UN Secretary-General to empanel a group of international scientists — some Chinese and some from the West and elsewhere — to come up with scientific facts in response to these basic questions as to what went wrong and what we can do better about this next time.

MAITLIS: Binchung Meng, I know you don’t speak for the Chinese government of course, but do you accept that actually this is the point at which China has to open up and say: ‘fine, we will help get to the bottom of this virus; we will help understand what caused it, not just by using a very limited WHO-led source of inquiry’?

MENG: Yes, it is important to sustain transparency, and I’m certainly not saying that the Chinese government has done a perfect job controlling the virus; what I’m saying is that it’s been much more effective than most other governments. And there are questions, especially at the beginning stage of the epidemic, that need to be addressed. But I think from what we see in international media at the beginning stage there is very much this expectation from the West that this was going to be China’s Chernobyl moment and it turned out it wasn’t —

MAITLIS: — yeah —

MENG: — so I think there is very much that in the current call for further investigation —

MAITLIS: — Kevin Rudd —

MENG:  — but I think China’s president yesterday at the WHO assembly said he’s in support of a comprehensive review of the global handling of this pandemic.

MAITLIS: Kevin Rudd, very briefly, when you look at the two superpowers, China and Trump’s America, where do you put your trust in leadership?

RUDD: Well as I wrote in last week’s Foreign Affairs magazine in New York. As we come out of this crisis, both of these great powers, the United States and China, emerge in a damaged state. Their economies have been hit hugely but, frankly, their international trust factor has been hit almost equally as hard. And therefore where we end up heading, in my view, is if we wish to sustain the institutions of the multilateral international system like the WHO, like the WTO, like the Human Rights Council in Geneva and etc. it’s going to require other middle powers — Britain, Germany, France, Canada, Australia, Japan, India, others — to step up to fund and resource and provide diplomatic capital to ensure the machinery of global governance can continue.

MAITLIS: Thank you both very much indeed.