In the Chinese reaction to the COVID-19 emergency, traits of the authority typical of that country emerged that have long worried the Western chancelleries.
In the beginning, two aspects struck our attention more than any other: the lack of transparency on the actual origins of the virus, which wasted precious time in the global attempt to stem its effects, and the "authoritarian despotism"Towards those - doctors, journalists or just ordinary citizens - who tried to alarm the world, and who ended up in state prisons or, as in the case of the envoys1 of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, sent home.
Then followed a phase of internal containment of the emergency, with the rapid preparation of field hospitals and the isolation of entire regions, during which, with the growing criticism at home and abroad, Xi Jinping is for a while disappeared from the limelight, delegating the outputs to his prime minister, Li Keqiang, but not before starting the powerful machine of censorship in order to cleanse WeChat e Weibo, the main Chinese companies, of the numerous internal criticisms.
Finally, the phase (still in progress) of the diplomatic initiative, which saw Xi entirely dedicated to shaking off the country's fame as a world smoker, thanks to that shrewd "mask diplomacy" we have already written about (v.articolo).
In doing so, in less than a month, anger over yet another Chinese virus has given way to a feeling of gratitude for Beijing's aid (although in many cases it has resulted in poor quality), and of secret admiration for the efficiency of the rescue and the immediacy of decision-making.
These characteristics are as much admired in the West as they are contrasted with the fragmented, uncoordinated and in many cases belated nature of the initiatives coming from "national" governments, caught between public health needs, concerns for economies, and, last but not least, the need to support public opinions.
The Chinese ability to manage Covid therefore appeared to us in all its typicality, highlighting once again the profound difference with our social and political systems.
He re-proposed the image of a classical Orient (Rampini2, 2020) made up of endless masses of individuals perfectly aligned to a centralized power, whose only vocation is to be an active part of a larger, superordinate entity - the mass, the Party, the State or even society alone - to sacrifice without questions your individuality.
This is an East that fascinates and torments us - we are so intimately linked to our individual freedoms - ever since Herodotus recounted the wars of the Greeks against the Persians, an overwhelming human mass of warriors massed along the coasts of modern Turkey.
Wars won at the time in disparity of forces, according to a narrative that already at the time opposed the number and organization of the Orientals with the "values" of the small Hellenic city-states.
Mass against individual, East against West.
It fascinates and torments us, we said, even more today, because in the most attentive of us there is already the clear perception that the world has now changed.
That half a millennium of global supremacy has now come to an end, which has ensured that small Eurasian appendage that is in fact Europe (and its geopolitical emanation of the new world) the undisputed domination of the planet.
In front of us no longer the Persians, but the great China, a two-thousand-year-old geopolitical reality that has begun to reclaim its exclusivity in the same way it did in the times of the Han Dynasty (206AC - 220DC), an era in which it came to rule 40% of the world population.
If the West is today much different from that of the times of Socrates, Julius Caesar, Frederick II, Charles V, Marco Polo etc., China, despite the revolutionary parenthesis of the last century (in 1921 the PCC and in 1949 the People's Republic), it remained intimately and culturally imperial and Confucian.
After the decade of Mao's cultural revolution (1966-1976), it has in fact always been faithful to a highly refined and advanced cultural tradition, which brings as a dowry the inventions of gunpowder, movable type, as well as those cartographic and navigation knowledge. maritime which, once passed into Portuguese and Spanish hands (with a great role of Florentines, Venetians and Genoese) began the modern era.
Perhaps it is just a coincidence that Modernity began at the hands of the West.
The Chinese had long ago launched campaigns to explore the Indian Ocean, with an admiral, Zheng He3, which under the command of 317 ships and about 28.000 sailors - (the comparison with Columbus's three caravels and its 90 crewmen dwarfs) - reached the Indian and Arab coasts, reaching as far as those of Somalia, only to then have to stop for order of the emperor, worried about the excessive costs of the enterprise.
History then took a different direction, which gradually allowed the European powers of the time (United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, France) an undisputed economic, military and geopolitical dominion.
The first (eighteenth century) and second industrial revolution (nineteenth century) in England and the rest of the West then did the rest, incardinating in the west a record that will last throughout the third industrial revolution (the digital one that began in the last quarter of last century).
It was precisely from the time of exploration that the splendid (self-referential) isolation of "Middle-earth" began to falter, and with it the enormous commercial surplus that it had held for centuries towards the west (silk and spices in exchange of silver).
Cut off from the new world, she entered what her historiography defines as the "period of humiliations", culminating in the opium wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860).
To us, today, the privilege of witnessing a new change of pace in history, whose bow returns to the east.
With a curious parallelism. Just as the West owes the dominance of the last five centuries to Chinese knowledge in the field of navigation and nautical charts, today "the Dragon" celebrates its "rebirth" thanks to globalization, daughter of that mercantilism, of European forge, product from the modern era.
By wisely exploiting its potential, from Deng Xiaoping (1978-92) onwards, China first became the "factory of the world" - wresting 750 million people out of poverty in thirty years - and then a "global player" in the field artificial intelligence and robotics, facilitated in this by those all-oriental characteristics of political centralization and economic dirigisme.
So today we look at it as the protagonist of the fourth industrial revolution (big data, artificial intelligence, algorithms, in cloud, computing power) just as the UK was in the first two (and the US in the second and third).
A geopolitical power on the rise, within whose nomenklatura is strongly rooted the conviction of a West which has come to an end, without a role in the future historical process.
Hence the need to completely change the international order, in a way that is functional to Beijing's new internal and external interests.
The current one, founded on the Bretton Wood agreements of 1944, and presided over by financial institutions (Monetary Fund and World Bank in primis) that "speak only English", is the plastic image of a world now close to its epilogue.
2 “Oriente Occidente, Massa and individual” by F. Rampini. (Einaudi, 2020)
Photo: Ministry of National Defense of the People's Republic of China / presidency of the council of ministers / Xinhua