There is a historian’s in-joke going round to the effect that if you ever wanted to know what the fourteenth century felt like in Europe, you know, now, because we have two popes and a pestilence.
This is quite a shrewd observation, because it looks as if Europe and North America are being comprehensively out classed in their response to Covid-19 by what we might loosely term the Confucian world of East Asia, by which I mean Greater China, Korea, Vietnam and pretty much anywhere else that paid tribute to the Central Empire, so the world is going back to normal, as it was for a couple of millennia before the maritime and industrial expansion of the primitive tribes of Northwest Europe.
It is 226 years since this was written:
“The Empire of China is an old, crazy, first-rate Man of War, which a fortunate succession of vigilant officers have contrived to keep afloat for these hundred- and fifty-years past, and to overawe their neighbours merely by her bulk and appearance. But whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command on deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may, perhaps, not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore, but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.
“The breaking-up of the power of China (no very improbable event) would occasion a complete subversion of the commerce, not only of Asia, but a very sensible change in the other quarters of the world. The industry and the ingenuity of the Chinese would be checked and enfeebled, but they would not be annihilated. Her ports would no longer be barricaded; they would be attempted by all the adventurers of all trading nations, who would search every channel, creek, and cranny of China for a market, and for some time be the cause of much rivalry and disorder. Nevertheless, as Great Britain, from the weight of her riches and the genius and spirits of her people, is become the first political, marine, and commercial Power on the globe, it is reasonable to think that she would prove the greatest gainer by such a revolution as I have alluded to, and rise superior over every competitor.”
The writer was Lord George Macartney and he had just got back from his embassy to the court of the Qianlong Emperor of China. Macartney was an able and accomplished diplomat and, having a copy of his account of his embassy, I can add that he was a humane and intelligent man who greatly admired the Chinese civilisation that was busy failing to understand him. Macartney’s embassy was a good idea, but the mental worlds of Qing China and Georgian England Britain were simply too far apart. China’s people, including its rulers, were not able to take in the idea that they might not be the centre of the universe, whilst the little upstart island on the other side of the world with the new technologies felt it was on its way to becoming top nation, and followed Macartney’s advice.
Now, please read Macartney’s two paragraphs again, substituting “The United States of America” for “China” and “China” for “Great Britain”, and consider whether “an insufficient man happens to have the command on deck” now?
China paid for its hubris with a hundred and fifty years of humiliation and bloodshed. This wasn’t Macartney’s fault. He had done his best, and it was a very creditable effort, but his fellow countrymen decided that the Chinese were hopeless, and lost their respect for Chinese civilisation. Today, the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim civilisation is starting to look hopeless in the eyes of people in the Confucian civilisation.
This has consequences for shipping. At the moment, we have a sort of three legged trade in which China imports raw materials and chemical energy, exports some of the stuff made with those, and uses the money paid by the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim world to buy the raw materials and energy. There is obviously room to cut out the middle man here, and the middle man is indeed starting to be cut out. This was happening before Covid-19, and it is not going to stop happening because the United States is being ruled by a sulky child-Emperor. On the contrary, it is going to happen very much faster, and we have no reason to think that the places with the exportable fuels and raw materials are going to be any more interested in ship owning than they were in the past. What does this mean for the independent, non-Chinese, shipowner, manager, charterer, agent, insurer, builder and repairer? It means that you had better find yourself a niche or throw in the towel.
The incompetence and pettiness of the Court of the Donald, the incompetence and pettiness of its satrapy in London, the latter mitigated only by the chance inheritance of a despised and underfunded national health system, and the satrapy’s fit of sulks with the rest of Europe, mean that there is no chance of a coherent global response to the global peril of Covid-19.
This means, as Martin Wolf has just pointed out in the Financial Times, that the world economy is going to collapse, to at best – at best – the 1931 level, and the only question, which is simply a question of epidemiology and biology, is how badly.
That will depend on how long the pandemic lasts, whether there is a fresh outbreak next year, and whether re-infection is possible. These are not political or commercial questions.
I am not going to insult your intelligence or waste your time with questions about “who is to blame” for the pandemic or for the lacklustre responses to it in many, many places. Pandemics happen. They ought to be prepared for. This one wasn’t, except by an offshore island democracy that I shall not name, by Hong Kong, by Singapore and by South Korea.
The People’s Republic of China responded slowly and with initial confusion – which should surprise nobody – brand new diseases which prove to be highly contagious and virulent are hundred-year events – and then acted decisively.
Welcome to the fourteenth century.