Rappler Talk: Nicholas Eberstadt on China's role in the pandemic

Bookmark this page to watch the interview at 9PM

MANILA, Philippines – Nicholas Eberstadt is a political economist who holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and serves as a senior adviser at the National Bureau of Asian Research. His work focuses particularly on international security in the Korean peninsula and the rest of Asia. 

In this interview, Eberstadt talks to Rappler’s Maria Ressa about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) role in the pandemic and its growing influence on global governance institutions. He criticizes the Chinese response to the coronavirus outbreak and talks about the big problems he believes China faces in the near future. 

“Because the Chinese Communist Party's interests are not the health of the people, but rather the health of the regime, its response to the crisis was Orwellian,” Eberstadt says in this Rappler Talk. 

The Asia expert also underscored the importance of transparency and information in the fight against COVID-19.

 “The best responses will come from societies that have the most open and free communications,” he said. “And restrictions on press freedom and personal communications are going to be part of the threat.”

Watch the interview here.


MR: Hello, everybody. I'm Maria Ressa and we are at Rapper Talk with Nick Eberstadt. He is a political economist with the American Enterprise Institute. Nick, it is so good to see you.

NE: Maria, thank you for inviting me. I don't want to make you blush, but you're one of my heroes. So this is a great honor and pleasure for me.

MR: I love your work and I follow your insight. So this is part of the reason I think Filipinos should be hearing from you on this. We talked a lot before about what a post-COVID-19 world looks like. What does that look like to you?

NE: Well, I think we're still in the fog of war stage. But already in the last couple of weeks, we see enough to let us know that we've entered a new world. This is a watershed in postwar history, we're not ever going back to the way things were last year. This is going to be an extraordinarily difficult period until humanity comes up with a serum for this virus. We're going to have a prolonged crisis, I'm afraid. Not just a health crisis, but an economic crisis. In the United States, I have noted that all of the Wall Street financial analyst world and most of the economists, week by week have underestimated the carnage that is being wrought. That's because they have a pre war mentality, if you will. It no longer describes what we're in. 

We're going to see in the rich countries, a very steep economic decline, and it may be a prolonged one. Honestly, what I worry about much more is what the implications will be for low income populations around the world. Attention has been focused on Europe and the United States and so forth. But in countries where nutrition is more problematic, people will have less resistance to the virus, their governments may be less capable of addressing human security needs, and their economies are going to be hammered. Because there's going to be a tremendous drop in demand for exporting primary commodities, exporting minerals. There'll be less of a demand for the work that leads to remittances. So the shock in many low income countries - I think it would be absolutely horrendous. And the human tally may be awful. So much as I hope that the United States will manage the US crisis competently, my true concern is for humanity in more vulnerable areas. And I don't think anything like a rescue plan there has begun to be considered internationally.

MR: Through all of this, what role has China played and where do you see it going?

NE: Well, we usually say China, but to me, China is a shorthand for something that we should describe more accurately. The more accurate description is the Chinese Communist Party, which is the nerve center for the apparatus that we describe as China. And the Chinese Communist Party has a completely malign influence in this crisis, because the Chinese Communist Party has the ethos and the ideology of a totalitarian dictatorship. And it is certainly true that China's Party and China's society and economy have evolved in ways that people my age, who remember Mao Zedong, could never have imagined. But the DNA in the system has remained totalitarian. And it has modernized into something we might call more like a market totalitarian system, where it's using big data and market information and AI and all the rest to perfect a surveillance state that Mao could only have dreamed of. 

So because the Chinese Communist Party's interests are not the health of the people, but rather the health of the regime, its response to the crisis was Orwellian. First of all, the government tried to silence the truth tellers in China who were trying to blow the whistle and sound the alarm on the outbreak. They misrepresented what was going on. They stalled the world. They stiff-armed international researchers and health experts. Here's a very ugly part. The Chinese Communist Party has been invited into the organs of global governance. And now we have a virus called the CCP, which has infected the international governing institutions that we rely on. The highest leadership of the World Health Organization, the head of the World Health Organization, was China's candidate to run the organization. And he - he's not Chinese, he's Ethiopian. But in this crisis, he's acted very much as if he's a collaborator for the interests of the CCP, rather than for world health. And he likewise was praising China's non-existent transparency and delayed reacting to the crisis. 

There's an interesting group of researchers in Southampton in the UK who have done some modeling on this crisis. At the moment, they suggest that if China and the WHO had acted three weeks earlier than they did - and they didn't have the information at that point - if they’d acted three weeks earlier, the crisis in China would have been 95% reduced, from what we've seen. And by the way, one more thing, I don't think that anybody - even in the CCP - believes the numbers that the Chinese government has been releasing on the total number of infections or deaths. I have a colleague at my institute, Derek Scissors, who did a preliminary paper - but I think it's quite persuasive - suggesting that there couldn't be less really than 2 million infections already in China. He suggested 2.9 million. Of course, in a country the size of China, that's a small proportion of the total population. If you had a much higher death tally than the Communist Party admits to, it could still be hidden in the annual mortality figures for such an enormous country. But I think from now on, we're going to have to think very hard - and it's not going to be fun - about what we have done inadvertently in globalizing the Chinese Communist Party's reach into the world economy and into global governance.

MR: And, you know, one of the things for example that China has done in the Philippines is to also export the video and audio capacity of the government, the surveillance that you've mentioned. Extraordinary powers have been given to governments during these extraordinary times. And in the Philippines, we have a government that now has extraordinary emergency powers. I guess in this situation, with technology and the coronavirus, how do we protect democracy, if that's possible?

NE: I think that protecting democracy is the obligation of each individual, because it's a matter of conscience and it's a matter of courage. And democracy I think ultimately is in our hearts and in our souls. And I think Solzhenitsyn put it very well. He said, “Let there be lies in the world, but not by me. I will not be part of the lie.”

MR: Again with China, China has gone on a propaganda war. And in the middle of the pandemic, we are seeing disinformation - a problem that was already there before because social media wasn't being the gatekeeper, right? Journalists moved from being the gatekeepers, handed it to social media platforms. Our information ecosystem is difficult at best. How do you see this playing out with the coronavirus in the mix?

NE: Well, I may be wrong. I realize I may be wrong. But my assessment is that the Chinese Communist Party is in the midst of a deep crisis, that we see the powerful facade that has been built for this party, but we do not see the inner rot and weakness. Last year was a very bad year for ruler for life, Xi Jinping. It saw the Hong Kong protests, which were an unmitigated defeat for totalitarian power in Beijing, and on what Beijing regards as its own soil. I'm not much of a fan of trade wars, I should say. But we saw in the US trade war with China, the weakness of the Chinese economy exposed, the vulnerability exposed. And now China's economy has gone into a tailspin with the coronavirus. We know, as the current premier in China has said in the past, that Chinese official figures are manmade statistics, not accurate statistics. They're part of the lie. But even with the lie, the Chinese government can't conceal that there's been a tremendous plunge in activity. And part of the formula that has maintained power for the regime has been the sort of implicit argument, “You shut up and behave and we’ll make you rich.” Well, that isn't happening now. And so a concatenation of pressures and crises are affecting the regime at the moment. I don't think we know yet how this is going to play out. But I would not believe the storyline that the regime is trying to promote, that they're the all-powerful ones who have reacted successfully to this crisis, and they're the model, and you better get out of the way or join on board or you're going to be in trouble. I think that big problems are coming in China, possibly not that far in the future.

MR: It's interesting when you talked about how it has infected global organizations. While it is doing all of this, it is also continuing its incursions into the South China Sea - what the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea. For the first time in a while, the Philippine government actually gave a note verbale to China. Where do you see this going?

NE: Well, of course this is just business as usual for Beijing. This is part of the greater strategic ambition of the regime to be the most important power in the most important region of the world. And there's a lot of memory plastic before the communist era in Chinese diplomacy about the whole resumption of more or less tributary relationships with the little powers, with the little people around the great empire. So this is - what would I say, nothing personal. This is just what they do. The personal part has to do, I think, with the Republic of China, with Taiwan. Because the existence of a successful, flourishing, thriving constitutional democracy and open society, with a population from China's great civilization is an existential threat to the regime. And for all of us outside of Chinese civilization, what's going on in Taiwan shows us what could be happening with an open, free, constitutionally-protected population from Chinese civilization. So when we take a look at what Beijing is doing, what we should always be thinking is, “What would Taiwan do? What would Taiwan do?”

MR: That's interesting because China hasn't stopped, right? It's moved forward in these things. At the same time, Hong Kong, the arrests in Hong Kong. Jimmy Lai being arrested. This is shocking. Where do you see this headed?

NE: Well, there is no win-win solution with the Chinese Communist Party. Freedom is a threat to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party. And so I don't think there's really any way of splitting the difference. And we have to recognize that. So the question is, “Can people outside of Beijing play the long game, the way that the Chinese Communist Party envisions a long game? I mean, remember that was what Deng Xiaoping said, back 40 years ago. “Hide your strength and bide your time.” Can we also have a strategy for freedom? I think we can.

MR: My last question, I have to ask you about Southeast Asia. You talked about how the poor all over the world will suffer this the most - in our part of the world. In fact, if you look at the last two countries that are kind of increasing numbers of COVID-19, Indonesia and the Philippines. Where do you see it going with us?

NE: Well of course as you say, Indonesia and the Philippines. Also, Laos and Cambodia and Myanmar are, I would say, even more exposed and even more vulnerable, because no matter what is going on in politics in the Philippines today, or in politics in Indonesia, your government apparatus is much more developed and sophisticated and capable than in much lower income areas. Let's put it this way. An open society, I think, is necessary to combat the coronavirus. Because if information is suppressed, we know what's going to happen. The best responses will come from societies that have the most open and free communications. Restrictions on press freedom and personal communications are going to be part of the threat. And we just have to recognize that… you don't even have to be a champion of freedom to recognize that, just have to recognize this clinically.

MR: Your advice as we move forward? If you're living in my part of the world, what advice would you give us?

NE: Of course, I think you know what I believe about open societies. And it is my personal preference, but I think there are also a lot of practical reasons to think that open societies will bring more benefits and prosperity and protection for the poor as well as the rest of the population. I would say that one of the things which we are going to see, and it's a risk for the US but it's much more of a risk for less affluent countries, is going to be economic nationalism. I think we're going to see a lot less travel. We're going to see a lot more closing of borders. We're going to see a lot of redirecting of international supply chains. And maybe that's going to be the way of things, I can't tell. 

What I worry about is that we may also see a lot less international coordination between governments. And if everybody is trying to save themselves without any attempt to work with others, it's not going to turn out as positively as if we can have some sort of international solidarity. Part of my grave concern about the Chinese Communist Party is having an agent like that in international governance, makes it much more difficult to have international solidarity. But there we are. I mean, the genie is out of the bottle for the time being. But leaving the Chinese Communist Party aside, I would say that populations and governments should try as best they can to check their nationalist impulses when recognizing that there are… that one and one makes three, with international cooperation. So the sum is more than the totality of the parts. And it's easy to say that, but it's very, very, very hard to do. But we shouldn't forget about it.

MR: You know, it’s interesting. I think it's Germany and Canada... actually said that the way you control this virus is by making sure that the weakest link is strong enough to fight it, right? Anyway, thank you so much, Nick. It is so good to hear your thoughts, always.

NE: I’m so glad to have talked with you, Maria. God bless you, stay safe.

MR: You too, thank you. And guys, stay tuned for Rapper Talk again. Bye.

– Rappler.com