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Opinion
Meeting Governance Challenges
A review of the combat against COVID-19 highlights the need to build a community with a shared future for all
By Zheng Guichu  ·  2020-02-28  ·   Source: NO.10 MARCH 5, 2020
People sign their names to express support for Wuhan at the 2020 National Multicultural Festival in Canberra, Australia, on February 22 (XINHUA)
China will defeat the epidemic and win the battle against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). That is for sure. The effectiveness, efficiency, responsiveness, scale and transparency showing the confidence, capacity, unity and determination of the Chinese Government and people will definitely bring about speedy and full victory over the epidemic.

Now, what warrants clear-eyed review is the long-term challenges to the very idea and approach of global governance.

The history of civilization is a history of struggle against diseases. The advancement of science and technology, along with international collaboration, has dramatically reduced the death tolls of pandemics in recent history, yet assumptions of having the upper-hand and control over viruses and the cyber era of the 21st century being immune to viruses, might turn out flat-out wrong. As we are developing and improving, so are viruses. The COVID-19 outbreak is again evidence that the specter of deadly epidemics still looms over us, and is ready to prove and assert its persistent existence.

Plus, in a globalized world, the spread of epidemics has unprecedentedly accelerated. Economic, political, social and security concerns have magnified both decision-makers' and the public's sensitivity to the outbreak of infectious diseases. A globalized world featuring more densely populated metropolitan areas with higher population mobility has strengthened viruses with higher fluidity, thereby posing even greater imminent risks to mankind.

Challenges ahead

Virus respects neither borders, nor nationalities or ethnicity. The outbreak of the epidemic has once again reminded us that every country and nation's future is closely linked. Global governance and international coordination must be strengthened, with no delay.

Looking deep into the COVID-19 battle, we can see challenges still looming ahead, demanding wisdom, courage, openness, joint endeavors and concerted efforts from the whole world.

Challenge 1: common interests vs. political divergence

Could common good transcend political differences?

Since the outbreak, President Xi Jinping has called for confidence, unity, a science-based approach and targeted response for epidemic control efforts. The whole nation has rallied and adopted a string of unprecedented measures to contain and mitigate the epidemic. With Xi personally guiding and instructing the epidemic response, the government and the 1.4 billion people are united as one in fighting the outbreak. The most comprehensive, rigorous and thorough measures possible have been taken.

The government established a national framework of comprehensive, inter-agency response and cross-region medical supply, from the Central Government to local governments, and from urban to rural areas. Scientists and researchers isolated the first virus strain and developed the test reagent in less than seven days. Rallying more than 41,000 medical professionals and coordinating huge amounts of medical materials to reinforce the public health systems in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province has manifested the full functioning of the central and local governments, as well as the strong mobilization capability and efficiency of the logistics and resource allocation mechanism.

Thousands of engineers and construction workers built two specialized hospitals equipped with 2,500 beds in less than 15 days. A precisely tailored system has been established to leave no patient unattended.

These extraordinary measures are timely and swift, a conclusion of the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus after his visit to China. And this comprehensive battle is delivering substantial results, with the spread of the virus slowing down and the diagnosis and cure rates on a steady rise. Facts and data clearly show that China's decisive response is both right and effective.

As a responsible major country, China has from the start acted in an open and transparent manner in releasing relevant information to the world and seeking international cooperation to prevent the spread of the epidemic worldwide. Relevant data indicates that China has effectively curbed the spread of the outbreak beyond China's borders, which is in sharp contrast to the case in 2009, when the H1N1 flu started in the United States and affected 214 countries and regions throughout the world.

In the battle, China has made tremendous contribution and sacrifice for global public health security. An article in Manila Times, China Deserves Credit, Not Criticism, for COVID-19 Handling, explicitly makes the point that "observing how fast the virus can spread should make one appreciate the measures the Chinese authorities have implemented to try to bring the epidemic under control. The number of COVID-19 cases here could have been astronomical; that the Philippines seems to have dodged the bullet can be attributed entirely to China's early action, and our own authorities following China's lead."

China is not fighting alone. People around the world are standing by the side of China. In partnership with China, WHO has been closely monitoring the epidemic and coordinating a concerted international response. Governments across the world have extended a helping hand. Leaders of over 170 countries and 40-plus international organizations including the UN have written to Chinese leaders, and spoken in public to cheer for Wuhan and for China. The African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS issued statements expressing solidarity and sympathy.

International moral and material support is pouring in out of the belief that China's combat on the frontline is the key to the victory of the global campaign against this epidemic. To support China is to defend international safety and assuage the concerns of the whole world.

Such acts of international humanitarianism indicate that in times of global emergency, international solidarity and coordination, rather than extreme rhetoric and excessive reactions, are what is needed for the wellbeing of the international community.

However, while China is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to curb the spread of the epidemic, some country is stigmatizing China and unrelentingly pointing the finger at China's political system. It is doomed to fail again.

It is the Chinese political system that has rallied, harnessed and guided people to contain the spread of the virus. It is the efficiency, responsiveness and transparency of the Chinese political system, its merits and advantages, that have been and will be central and crucial to the final victory in the combat. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is the choice of the Chinese people. It has already been proven successful in China and its strength has been well acknowledged in the combat against COVID-19.

Many world leaders have noted and the overwhelming majority of countries have clearly recognized that only in China and only under the leadership of Xi can there be such effective measures to put this sudden and fast spreading epidemic under control.

The truly unsettling message is the fact that a country is still holding a false proposition and presenting international relations as a "us or them" choice, reluctant to accept the rapid development and revitalization of China.

Political and ideological incompatibility is still a barrier, very much misleading and fatal to joint efforts. It deviates from the trend of global development, runs counter to norms and rules governing international relations, and impedes global governance.

China respects the choices of Western countries and will draw on the experience of developed countries to work for shared prosperity. By the same token, the West also needs to respect the choices of the Chinese people, learn to eschew the belief in the superiority of its own civilization and abandon its prejudices and anxieties regarding China. For countries with different systems, as long as they observe the goals and principles of the UN Charter, particularly the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states and respect countries' sovereignty, there won't be any threat to anyone, or any confrontation. Political and ideological obstacles must be removed for the common good.

Challenge 2: global mechanisms vs. epidemic attack

Is the international mechanism efficient enough to tackle an international health emergency?

The epidemic is not only a test of China's governing capacity, but also a check on the capability and efficiency of the global public health and epidemic prevention system at large.

This outbreak shows that in the globalized era, the world is yet to be ready for fights against epidemics. According to WHO, there is no direct cure or treatment for COVID-19. Hence early detection, quarantine and treatment remain the most effective methods to contain the virus. A lesson drawn from here, therefore, is that proactive and coordinated response to any health emergency is more effective. Efforts need to be reinforced by the international community to take cooperative and coordinated measures to facilitate early detection, early reporting, early diagnosis, and early quarantine and treatment of epidemics.

In addition, an effective and inter-connected anti-epidemic global system, an emergency management platform, a public health laboratory mechanism for rapid diagnosis should be established and strengthened. There should also be a modern epidemiology investigation and control system, a reaction system on global medical equipment emergency supplies and an epidemic information disclosure mechanism.

In a sense, China's ongoing war against the COVID-19 epidemic is broadly rewarding in that it provides the international community with valuable lessons for the improvement of future practice. Like how to strengthen responsive capabilities of local public health systems, how to gather and coordinate various resources of a nation for effective epidemic prevention and control. The key lies in solidarity, scientific prevention and control measures, and strengthened international cooperation.

The epidemic may happen in one country today and in any other country tomorrow. Constantly improved measures are needed in the years to come as new diseases might emerge. As China improves itself, it will also help with the capacity building of other countries that are still weak in the public health system. For example, China has provided assistance to fellow developing countries to the best of its ability. It has introduced eight major initiatives for cooperation with Africa, one of which focuses on public health. China will continue to promote public health cooperation with countries in Africa, just like it did to help during the Ebola outbreak.

Unpredictability is now the new norm in the world. Instability and uncertainty are on the rise in the international landscape. Against this backdrop, preparedness, prevention and early action should be integrated into the international health preventative system and global governance.

Challenge 3: concept of a shared community vs. eroding zero-sum game mentality

Could the new concept win over the outdated old one?

This sudden outbreak reminds us once again that we live in a time of transformation, when traditional and non-traditional security issues are entwined, and local issues highly integrated with global ones. Growing interdependence promotes the understanding that global problems cannot be solved at the national level.

Together we survive, and together we might perish. As Tedros said at a press conference, "The only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to work together in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation. We are all in this together, and we can only stop it together." Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, said that "global cooperation is essential to the containment of COVID-19 and its economic impact."

The virus will be controlled, but political viruses in the manifestation of the zero-sum game, law of the jungle and hegemonic thinking are yet to die out. Peace and benefits should not be taken for granted, imagine what a disastrous picture it will be if world powers slide into animosity and zero-sum calculations.

The world today must adjust to the flow of changes, adapt, grow, and learn to cooperate and share. That is the indispensable software in the new era. There is no room for individual maneuvering for selfish interests. We cannot live in the second decade of the 21st century while still remain trapped in the outdated mentality of the industrial or even agricultural age.

A woman holds a placard showing solidarity with China at a Bangkok Skytrain station in Thailand on February 21 (XINHUA)

Global governance reform

Unilateralism is confrontational but not competitive, whereas multilateralism is competitive without being confrontational. Unilateralism narrows opportunities, inflames tensions, provokes confrontation and breeds dissatisfaction and resentment. In contrast, multilateralism represents the underpinning force for world peace and development, advocates equal rights of all countries, expands opportunities, instills positive energy into global security and promotes shared prosperity for the whole world.

At present, a tug of war between unilateralism and multilateralism is unfolding across the world, which will decide the future and destiny of humanity. We should make the right choice, stand on the right side of history, and develop a fairer and more equitable global governance system.

What is a fairer and more equitable global governance system? Xi has given us a clear-cut answer. That is, to build a community with a shared future for humanity, a community of an open, inclusive, clean and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security and common prosperity.

Building a community with a shared future is the overarching goal of major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. It points the way forward for global governance, and is the lodestar to guide the world to address challenges of the times.

To develop a fairer and more equitable global governance system, a more open and inclusive approach should be embraced, and a new path of state-to-state relations followed featuring dialogue rather than confrontation, and partnership rather than alliance. We should uphold mutual respect and equal-footed consultation, seek peaceful settlement of disputes, bridge differences through cooperation, pursue cooperation for win-win outcomes, promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation to build an open economy, and respect the diversity of civilizations.

The Cold War mentality and power politics should be resolutely rejected. Hand in hand, we shall together transcend divergence, go beyond the ideological gap and rise above differences in social system, history, and culture and development stage.

The essence of a fairer and more equitable global governance system lies in international fairness and justice. It requires both procedural and substantive democracy.

Procedural democracy means each and every country is equal, no one is privileged. International affairs shall be truly discussed and decided by all involved, and international relations shall be based on international rules of law and justice, the bedrocks of which are the principles enshrined in the UN Charter, including respect for national sovereignty, peaceful resolution of disputes and non-interference in the internal affairs of states.

Substantive democracy reflects the need to increase developing countries' representation and strengthen their voices in international affairs. The world is no longer the unipolar one it used to be. The Munich Security Report 2020 is correct in describing the world as "less Western." The long-term trajectory is clear, the world is increasingly more multipolarized and globalized. Instead of putting one's own interests on top of others', the common interests of all countries should be accommodated. Instead of carving out spheres of influence, an open and inclusive world should be the new pursuit. And instead of provoking confrontation, concerted efforts should be made to maintain world peace and stability.

In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters, danger and opportunity. The question is how to turn danger into opportunity.

Emerging from the epidemic, the Chinese people will become even more resilient, tenacious and united, the economy will achieve more solid and sustainable growth, and the leadership of the Communist Party of China, representing the fundamental interests of all the people in China, will have even stronger support. Fresh momentum for reform, opening up and development will be generated. The path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, which has underpinned China's remarkable success, will lead to an even more promising future.

It is hoped that profound new approaches and dynamic perspectives emerging from the outbreak will be explored, and commitments to better global governance deepened by world leaders. As Xi has said, "Mankind is a community with a shared future. To prevail over a disease that threatens all, unity and cooperation is the most powerful weapon." That is no doubt the weapon for better global governance.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and a senior expert on international studies

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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