China’s Moment

As Trump demonstrates catastrophic levels of narcissism and denial (threatening to reopen the US as the virus continues to throttle up exponentially) China is taking advantage of its success in halting COVID-19 on the mainland. President Xi Jinping underlined the stark difference in the state of pandemic between China and western nations by donating a massive amount of medical equipment to Canada and Europe. Nothing says “We got this” quite like shipping a ton of medical supplies barely a few weeks after a pandemic ravaged your country.

Which begs us to ask: is this China’s moment?

Pundits have been predicting the primacy of China for decades now: the question has never been “if,” but “when?” COVID-19 may prove to be the moment China crystallizes its leadership position globally, and may give Xi an opportunity to flaunt the putative superiority of a political system that stopped the virus in its tracks.

Denial: more than a river in Africa

The irony is that China bears a large part of the responsibility for the spread of the virus, through its clumsy efforts at cover-up and denial at the outset. The counter-irony is that countries from Italy to the U.S. have show themselves equally unwilling to confront the crisis: the simple fact they were able to watch the disaster unfold in China should have provided ample warning.

In spite of clumsy efforts to brand it the “China virus,” China’s initial disastrous handling seems to have taken a backseat to its impressive ability to tamp down the virus once it fully focused on the task.

With a steadfast refusal to confront the gravity of the situation, America’s response looks farcical in comparison. Though their response involved draconian police-state tactics, China can confidently assert they brought the virus to heel, something only South Korea has been able to claim among western-style democracies.

Sticking its head in the sand is just the latest abdication of leadership by the U.S. In everything from confronting Russia to balancing its budget, the U.S. has behaved more like an impulsive two-year-old on the world stage than the child of Jefferson and Madison. The Chinese government looks positively leaderly in contrast, and it’s not hard to see how this will play out for them. As China continues to fold nations into its Belt and Road Initiative, people around the world will pause and reflect on the reaction of both nations to the crisis: one which continues to engage in oblivious denial and the other which got over its initital clumsy response and flattened the curve in record time. It isn’t difficult to see which system appears to have done better.

This is unfortunate, because China isn’t a benign force on the world stage. They’re still the country that keeps a million Uyghurs in internment camps. They still use a repressive social credit system to stifle dissent. They’re still the regime that tried to walk back basic freedoms in Hong Kong.

Looking beneath the surface

To any regime looking to emulate the response to the crisis, China clearly demonstrates greater success, in spite of the severity of the measures it took. Xi Jinping is far too politically astute not to make hay of this success, and he will only amplify that through efforts that are both magnanimous and propagandistic, such as by sending supplies to beleaguered countries.

In the end, China will make a moment out of this crisis. The only question is whether the world will take that success at face value, or put it in context of China’s record on freedom and basic human rights.

The Curious Case of the Thing That Wasn’t There

We’re in danger of losing our world.

An addlepated madman is in charge of the world’s most powerful nation, while the (formerly) most open and progressive nation in Europe has decided to shoot itself in the foot. Countries are rushing to create autonomous death machines while lining up for war with one another. Global warming is now a locked-and-loaded catastrophe that threatens our very existence. In short, everything is unraveling.

How did we get here?

We’re a wise species. It’s how we got our name: homo sapiens, literally “wise (hu)man.” We’re the species that invented writing, space travel, universities and iPhones. We’ve been to the moon and the bottom of the ocean. We wrote Hamlet, the 9th Symphony and Madame Butterfly. We may even conquer death this century.

So how did we become so stupid? The answer may be simple: a belief in things that aren’t there.

Donald Trump rode a wave of populism based in no small part on a belief in the sanctity of the white race, and gripping tales of the minorities threatening it. Vladimir Putin enjoys the acquiescence of the Russian people by tapping into their insecurities, allowing them to project their egos onto his image of the archetypal Russian strongman. Chinese leaders continue to channel memories of western domination to legitimize their militarism.

In short, the world is unraveling because of a belief in things that aren’t true, whether it’s the sanctity of a given skin tone, fears of vulnerability, or a belief in the inherent superiority of your civilization. None of these things are real: they’re ideas, and ones that are easily deflated. Race is a construct. Vladimir Putin is not a strongman: he’s an autocrat whose opponents have a habit of dying in suspicious ways. Britain is leaving the European union because of made-up crap. A misbegotten belief in a God that wants you to vote Republican put Donald Trump in power.

Telling you what you want to hear.

How does a species of wise men and women come to believe in things that aren’t true. And what can we do about it?

The answer is that people have a tendency to believe in things that make them feel good, regardless of any reality associated with said things. Want your God to tell you to get rich and carry guns? You’ll find a way to believe that, even though his son came to earth as a dirt-poor pacifist. Think you’ll feel safer the bigger your military? So do lots of other people. Want a father figure to make you feel stronger than everyone else out there? There are no lack of world leaders willing to step up to that challenge.

Unfortunately, the antidote to a belief in things that aren’t there is neither palatable nor easy to swallow. Educating people out of their ignorance is a long process, and not at all guaranteed to deliver results. Humility is a tough sell; being powerful and bullying others can feel a lot better. Vulnerability is uncomfortable, and not exactly something nations are willing to embrace.

The solution.

As with all socio-political change, turning our backs on these phenomena will happen only if and when brave souls are willing to step up and challenge the societal norms and authority figures that perpetuate things that aren’t there. Then, after a few decades of broad-based public education, societies stand a chance of developing the maturity and self-knowledge to disavow things that simply aren’t true. It happened in the 1950s and ’60s across America. It set the stage for a defeated and angry post-war Germany to emerge as Europe – if not the world’s – current champion of freedom and democracy.

It can happen. It’s uncertain whether it will.