Article written by: Hugo Neves
‘If he has a conscience, he will suffer because of his mistake. This will be his punishment – just like prison’ – this was the accurate prognosis that Raskolnikov, the main character of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, made about his own destiny. Raskolnikov, from the Russian раскол (schism), means “schismatic”, which in the context of the Nikon Reforms of 1654-1666 refers to the separation of the “old believers” from the Russian Orthodox Church, while in the contemporary context of the writer, 19th century Russia, refers to the separation between believers and those who moved away towards socialism. In a different time and setting, in the People’s Republic of China, a system of social credit that started to be developed in 2014 with the aim of measuring the social behavior and reliability of citizens and companies by the State. This development, linked to the asphyxiating penetration of digital media in the information age and big data society, resembling the dystopia depicted in the Nosedive episode of the Black Mirror series, has gained new outlines of social control and espionage with the use of artificial intelligence. This digital surveillance system not only threatens the right to privacy, but also poses a moral dilemma.
In addition to the scope of this measure by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), an extensive program of forced re-education of ethnic Muslim minorities in detention camps, possibly a measure to reinforce national ideological and political cohesion, has been scrutinized by foreign media. The CCP seeks to counter Western objections using its state media, questioning the accuracy and veracity of the information presented and arguing that Western media has a manifest bias, informed by its cultural and ideological traditions. However, perhaps the biggest CCP controversy with international repercussions under the leadership of Xi Jinping is found precisely in the initial months of SARS-CoV-2 virus spread (the disease, due to possible “communication risks”, was named by WHO as COVID-19), which had its origin in the city of Wuhan, although the country’s state media cast some doubts about it, speculating about its early presence in France and about possible US interference. It is important to note that this virus is a variation of SARS-CoV, which also originated in China in 2002 and caused a serious political crisis involving the CCP. This is because its lack of transparency and consequent delay in response was discovered by the international media.
In retrospect and by comparison, this was the initial response to the current pandemic, which is estimated to have had its origin between August and November 2019: on December 21, China began investigating the occurrence of several cases of suspected pneumonia. On December 30, Li Wenliang, a conscientious doctor, tried to reveal the resemblance of the outbreak to SARS-CoV, but was arrested by the police, accused of lying, spreading rumors, and disturbing social order. For its part, Taiwan claims to have tried to inform WHO on December 31 about the human-to-human transmission of the virus, on the same day of China’s communication, but the organization avoids recognizing its independent status. When the virus’ genome was mapped, it was only released a week later and on January 5, 2020, Beijing again rejected its comparison with SARS-CoV. While that similarity was becoming evident, WHO praised China’s response and advised against travel restrictions. On January 11, China announced its first death due to the new virus and on the next day the laboratory of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center was ordered to close after a research team published the genome sequence on open platforms. On January 14, WHO declared that there was no evidence of contagion among humans, repeating praises for the government of China. Finally, on the 20th, the contagion was announced on CCTV and on 23 January a public emergency of international interest was declared by WHO.
International organizations or agencies such as WHO are instrumental in coordinating the fight against global threats, but they are subject to being influenced by the political interests of other actors, which can hamper their action. As for Beijing’s public relations, the lack of transparency shown by its authorities in 2002 generates some international mistrust. Furthermore there is “document 9”, which confirms the party’s ideological dispute against liberal democracy and “western nihilism”, in addition to Xi Jinping defending that national media must align themselves with the interests of the CCP. On the other hand, democracies face the need for more authoritarian measures in the pandemic. In the United States, both President Donald Trump (which undermines confidence in American leadership) and New York State officials only acknowledged the severity of the pandemic in March, and today face an epidemiological crisis. Meanwhile, Beijing supports protest and subversive movements in the US, in retaliation to its influence in Hong Kong, supporting its expansion of influence in Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream”, new technology (including espionage), state media, educational institutions and cultural exchange, to disseminate the State’s strategic interests. At the same time, he asserts himself on the international agenda as a pandemic response coordinator and within the global health market.
In the academic space of International Relations, the possibility of a new Cold War between the two major powers of the current world order has been formulated, or even the possibility of creating a new order, in a context in which digital communication technologies have gained special importance in projecting cultural and political influence. Furthermore, with the deterioration of this bilateral relationship, different expectations are created regarding the dominant power of the future, or the possibility of an hegemonic China, while trying to understand and define the type of power it exercises. China accuses the United States of being afraid of its rise, at a crucial moment in its history and equipped with the ancient culture of one of the oldest civilizations in history. After achieving prodigious economic progress and freeing hundreds of millions of people from poverty, Beijing has an opportunity in the pandemic to lead politically in the international coordination to solve global problems, namely in the scientific and technological area, while promoting cultural exchange and the economic development of less prosperous countries; or, on the other hand, harassing its citizens with authoritarian measures and a lack of transparency, using deeply intrusive digital systems, as well as revealing interests contrary to the stability of a world order dominated by liberal democracies and changing the ideological paradigm of the West.
In Animal Farm, George Orwell uses the Bolshevik Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte as references to reflect on the dangers of utopian dogma stiffening and the inevitability of the power struggle inherent in any human or faction. Not unrelated to Critical Theories (against structural, economic and social asymmetries in the systemic flaws of the neoliberal order), based on a materialist perspective, the CCP rejects ideologies and religions (another ancient legacy) opposed to its political interests; at the same time, it does not shy away from interfacing with the economic mechanisms of the capitalist structure and the free market. China’s economic success is its flag and the basis of its growing influence, but HDI indicators reveal weaknesses in its social and human development. Finally, in a wider context, censorship of language and art, as well as history, hides more than the fragmented symbols of ideologies that are now rejected – it suppresses facts and events that must be scrutinized and discussed – and is a real threat to the principles that guide Western democratic societies, both in real and virtual agoras. Beyond the countless and inevitable political, ideological and military confrontations that took place along human history, regardless of the dominant structure and agents in the International System, a principle transcends any dispute: the search for truth and knowledge, a matter of conscience.