Because I’ve spent more than half of my life in China and the United States and consider myself a political wonk, I frequently compare and contrast how the two countries handle their most pressing challenges.
The Government Work Report Premier Li Keqiang presented to China’s top legislature on Friday brings into sharp focus the stark differences in how the two countries have addressed the economic and health shocks resulting from the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. One country’s response reminds me of the legendary phoenix which in the East represents high virtue and in the West the ultimate symbol of strength. The other country’s response reminds me of the flounder, a flat fish, whose name used as a verb means “to struggle clumsily or helplessly”.
The Government Work Report usually takes many months to prepare and involves both whole-of-government and whole-of-party consultations. Amid the pandemic, this year’s Government Work Report had to be recast to address the unforeseen public health crisis. The report usually follows a certain format in length and organization, but this year’s report is different in both respects, indicative of the country being laser-focused on addressing this unique challenge–and it tells it’s like it is without pulling any punches.
Many experts had expected Premier Li to declare that the virus had been contained and solely focus on restoring the economy. They were wrong. The premier echoed President Xi Jinping’s reiterations on the long-term fight against the virus, saying that “the epidemic has not come to an end, while the tasks we face in promoting development are immense. We must redouble our efforts to minimise the losses resulting from the virus and fulfill the targets and tasks for economic and social development this year.”
I am sure the whole Chinese nation was moved, as was I, when the premier somberly declared that: “Success has come at a great price. The economy posted negative growth in the first quarter of this year, and daily life and work have been greatly affected. However, life is invaluable. This is a price we must pay, and a price worth paying.” But recognising that China and the world are in the midst of a battle, not near the end point, Li said China would spare no efforts in its ongoing efforts to prevent and control the Coronavirus, including the issuance of 1 trillion yuan ($140.25 billion) of government bonds.
Instead of risking sacrificing countless lives by prematurely declaring the crisis as past, as leaders of some other countries have done, China is trying to find the expensive and elusive sweet spot that maximizes both personal and economic health.
Many experts had also expected that China’s goals of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and eradicating abject poverty set to be met by the end of this year would be derailed. They, too, were wrong. Over the past four decades, China has lifted about 800 million people out of poverty, 70 percent of the global total. And the Chinese leadership headed by President Xi remains committed to eradicating abject poverty by the end of 2020. So, this year, despite the enormous additional challenges, China will become the first developing country to achieve the first of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals of eradicating poverty.
The virus has significantly increased unemployment, so China will prioritise job stabilisation and create 9 million urban jobs, in order to improve people’s livelihoods. It also plans to increase funding for vocational training because the outbreak has demonstrated the need for more healthcare workers such as nurses and laboratory technicians. There is good news for foreign investors, too. As part of further reform and opening-up, China will significantly shorten the negative list for foreign investment and stabilize the overall performance of foreign trade and investment.
In contrast, the US president is either unwilling or has been unable to contain the outbreak. He has even said that he takes “no responsibility at all” for the high numbers of infections and deaths in the country. After two months of denial, he has invested most of his energy to deflect attention from his administration’s failures with smoke and mirrors, blaming China, the World Health Organization and even some of the most respected experts including Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Immunology, for the devastation the outbreak has caused in the US. He’s pushed harmful quack cures and jawboned state and local officials to lead people to mix and mingle with mask-less others when scientists and doctors say it’s too early to do so. Given the US leader’s amateur magic and medicine man show, thousands of needless deaths can be attributed to him.
In one sense, however, the US leader is consistent. His mantra has always been “America first”, and unfortunately the US is first in the world in terms of COVID-19 infections and deaths. All his decisions seem to be based on factors that can guarantee his re-election, not on how many lives can be saved. But the numbers of infections and deaths might have been undercounted because of the severe lack of testing and the high percentage of deaths of asymptomatic patients attributed to other causes such as the common flu and pneumonia. And since people in the US have now resumed normal activities, those numbers could rise further.
Therefore, when it comes to the response to the pandemic, China is the phoenix and the US the flounder.
The author is a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization. This was first published in China Daily