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Foreign Policy

China’s House of Bricks

Dec 04, 2020
  • Andy Mok

    Senior Research Fellow, Center for China and Globalization

In the book “English Fairy Tales” by Joseph Jacobs, which was published in 1890, we find the story of the Three Little Pigs. In this fable, three pigs are sent out into the world to seek their fortune. Each of the three has the misfortune of encountering a big bad wolf intent on devouring them.

The first pig built a house of straw, which the wolf easily huffs and puffs and blows down. And so the first pig is eaten. The second pig, who built a house of sticks, meets a similar fate. But the third pig, who built a house of brick, enjoys something better. Not only does he avoid having his house blown down and being devoured by the wolf but he outsmarts the wolf and boils it in a pot.

The story is a fitting analogy for the world, with COVID-19 playing the role of the big bad wolf. While it has blown down houses that are not sturdily built, it could not prevail over a house constructed with the bricks of sound political ideology and competence in governing.

China’s system of governance is like a house built of bricks, which has not only withstood the challenges of COVID-19 and revealed the flimsiness of other structures but turned this crisis into an opportunity to improve not only China but the world — as outlined in President Xi’s speech.

In his speech, Xi called for a united effort to build a global firewall against COVID-19, ensure the smooth functioning of the global economy, harness the role of the digital economy and pursue more inclusive development.

The first two objectives are a response to the immediate crisis of COVID-19 and meant as damage control. While these efforts are vital they are not intended to promote structural change. But the latter two are of much greater long-term significance.

In American politics, there is saying that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. We can see this idea in play with respect to the latter two objectives of harnessing the digital economy and pursuing more inclusive development.

COVID-19 has been a catalyst for the advancement of a number of technologies, ranging from video conferencing to e-commerce to mRNA for vaccine development. According to Xi, by harnessing these advances the world can deepen structural reform and cultivate new drivers of sustainable growth. At the same time, challenges arising from these advances —employment, taxation and other issues — can be addressed in a multilateral context. Moreover, a strategic and comprehensive approach will ensure greater global resilience and flexibility in response to future crises.

Similarly, the COVID-19 crisis has raised awareness of global inequality and the need for more inclusive development. The pandemic has shown that stark inequality exists not just between countries but between different social and ethnic groups and between genders within countries. In support of solutions, China has implemented the Debt Service Suspension Initiative and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The latter addresses the hardships faced by women during the pandemic and is expected to serve as a platform for addressing gender inequality. In addition, the pandemic has highlighted issues of food security. China has called for the G20 and other international organizations to develop effective measures to address this problem.

These are all pressing and important measures. But there is another form of inequality that also must be addressed: the inequality of access to the fruits of sound governance. Too many people around the world live in houses made of straw or sticks. And they are vulnerable to the big bad wolf of COVID-19 and perhaps to even more terrible future predators. Sadly, they have been deceived by those that built these shoddy edifices.

As more people around the world see this reality, they too will demand the safety and security of a brick house. 

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