The Guardian view on resetting relations with China: times are changing | Editorial | Opinion

The pandemic has changed our view of the world not by bringing us radical, unsuspected insights, but by confronting us with uncomfortable truths we avoided before. That Chinese authorities suppressed the extent of the outbreak and punished whistleblowers is appalling but not shocking from the country with the world’s most sophisticated censorship apparatus. That they can be ruthless was equally obvious: in Xinjiang, a million or more Uighurs have been herded into detention camps, with little international protest. The difference is that this time the repercussions have been felt outside its borders.

It has accelerated the clear shift towards a more hostile view of China across the political spectrum, albeit fuelled in the US by outright hawks in the Trump administration. Hopes that China might one day pursue political reform have been erased by its increasing repression at home and hardball tactics abroad. Countries worldwide have been taking heed. The UK had already moved away from the “golden relationship” that David Cameron and George Osborne pursued with apparent indifference to the cost. Now senior Conservatives want a fundamental reset, while UK spy agencies are, more cautiously, calling for a reassessment.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, warned this month that after coronavirus there can be no return to “business as usual” with China. The outbreak has shown how serious and widespread the ramifications of suppressing information can be. On the economic front, the scramble to obtain personal protective equipment has underlined the recklessness of a dependence on any one country for manufacturing.

Beijing’s successful attempts to change the narrative, to dilute domestic anger, have caused fury. Diplomats and state media have touted conspiracies suggesting that the US could be responsible for the virus. US intelligence agencies and an EU report say Chinese operatives spread disinformation about Covid-19 on social media (Beijing denies it). State media’s highlighting of imported cases (almost all of which have been Chinese nationals returning home) have fuelled xenophobia: Africans in Guangzhou have been targeted for tests, harassed, barred from shops and restaurants, and even evicted.

Beijing has also seized the opportunity to crush opposition in Hong Kong while the world’s attention is elsewhere. Police arrested 15 veteran activists including Martin Lee, the region’s “father of democracy”, hours after China’s liaison office declared it was not bound by a clause in the city’s mini-constitution which bars Beijing from interfering in local affairs. The liaison office’s chief has called for the urgent passing of a highly controversial national security law.

Britain has a particular duty to speak out over Hong Kong; but many countries are reassessing relations. The bigger question is not how we see Beijing, but whether we are willing to reappraise ourselves. China’s worst behaviour has been encouraged by the greed, complacency, division and short-termism of others.

But there is a distinction between holding China to account, and using that to distract from other governments’ failings. There is also a world of difference between reconsidering the role of Chinese companies in essential infrastructure, such as 5G, and absurd calls for pandemic compensation, or – in the US – to ban all Chinese students from science and technology degrees. The virus has shown how much our futures are linked; things would be far worse had China suppressed all news of the outbreak for months, as it did with Sars, instead of telling the World Health Organization quickly. What is needed is careful, informed, considered and unified action, rather than macho posturing or buck-passing.

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