In the same way that “unilateralism” is a code word for American action apart from international institutions or against their good opinion, the word “globalization” has, for the last two decades, mostly functioned as a code word for the rise of China and its integration into global markets and international institutions. The COVID-19 crisis tells us that as far as globalization in theory has meant Sinicization in practice, it must be reversed.
Donald Trump and the COVID-19 crisis have conspired to put this form of globalization under question. Trump has said that the World Health Organization “missed the call” while threatening to cut off its funding, and that the health organization “really blew it” while Marco Rubio called for the resignation of WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, saying “he allowed Beijing to use the WHO to mislead the global community.”
Why? We’ve seen how the pressure the Chinese Communist Party exerts on the World Health Organization corrupts its functioning. China was not transparent, and it worked with outside officials only under duress. There is good circumstantial evidence China knew of COVID-19’s transmissibility in December, but it was almost the end of January before the world knew this. All the while, the World Health Organization issued boot-licking statements praising China’s response to the outbreak.
Bruce Aylward, who led the joint WHO-China mission on COVID-19, has been sycophantic in the extreme. He pretends not to hear questions when they involve Taiwan. He has praised China to the point of saying that he himself would prefer to be treated there if he had contracted the virus. But of course it was the refusal to listen to health authorities in Taiwan that led to greater delays in global preparedness for the disease.
WHO’s prevarication, and its dangerous obsequiousness toward Beijing, powerfully illustrate a truth: International organizations will always reflect the great-power realities among their members. The worse an actor China becomes on the world stage, the less effective these institutions become. The current director-general of WHO got his job because of Chinese lobbying on his behalf.
What goes for the World Health Organization goes for the World Trade Organization and many other bodies of international cooperation. Trump has made a half-hearted attempt to improve Chinese behavior on intellectual-property theft and other forms of corporate spying, with a trade war. The results are inconclusive. In truth, the scale of the problem requires a solution that is even larger and more comprehensive than the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was — despite some flaws — a genuine attempt to strengthen Asian trading partners that played by the rules.
The China problem in international organizations goes beyond internationalist institutions in which the Chinese state is a member; it goes to Chinese-backed enterprises that act as arms of the Chinese state. Using the vast resources of the state, telecom company Huawei has been able to clear the field of other competitors and muscle up against Ericsson for dominance of the European mobile-phone market. Polish and German authorities have had to raid Huawei offices for the spying the company does. But the lack of options in a market in which they compete has meant that even after incidents such as this, Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to have Huawei build part of the United Kingdom’s 5G infrastructure. If trust is burned up in this crisis, major European powers need to think about fostering their own “national champion” corporations to retain control over the infrastructure that is part of their national security.
There is even a moral corruption that spreads from China to American companies and consumers. As part of its attempt at cultural genocide of Muslims around Kashgar in the west of China, a program was introduced to spread Muslim workers around China on rotation. These half-imprisoned victims of persecution have been placed at major contractors that build products for Apple. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, has made his position against religious-liberty laws in the United States clear in the past. He should be asked repeatedly whether Apple has investigated whether Uighur Muslims have been transferred from involuntary detention to involuntary labor on the products he sells.
Incorporating China into the global order was supposed to bring about an internal reform of the Chinese Communist Party and the liberalization of the Chinese state and society. Instead, China has used its access to international institutions to whitewash its behavior, spread propaganda about the competence of its state, corrupt business, and make something as simple as cellphone towers a national-security threat. The Chinese Communist Party has infected global institutions and markets with its amorality and lawlessness. The cure will be tough and costly, but the disease is worse.