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Two popes and a pestilence

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.

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. Andrew – brilliant article! I even laughed out loud. A real case of history repeating itself.

  2. Viewed from the one instance of his writing, Andrew Craig Bennett can be identified as a self-censoring writer who, by the very fact that he does not identify, by its proper name, Taiwan, The Republic of China. I presume that he does not wish to identify Taiwan, the Nation-State, because he prefers to self-censor his writing rather than upset the giant Communist People’s Republic of China, of which he writes so approvingly further further down his essay.

    So lets just have a glance at these badly slanted and somewhat puzzling puddles of vitriol splattered over his essay.

    It is a fact that, by virtue of arms, violence and battle-diplomacy, the corrupt and incompetent Chinese empire was ruthlessly and efficiently demolished by a well-armed and competently-led Western Alliance. After the siege of Beijing, itself brought about after the Empire itself encouraged the ‘Boxers’ (“Righteous and Harmonious Militia”) to attack all that was Western, and especially Religious, the Empire itself was dissolved into chaos and the West moved in, Trading Houses were established in Shanghai, and the pattern of the China trade was established, backed up by the well-trained, efficient and battle-hardened Western Navies and military forces.

    China stumbled onwards, involving itself in WW1, hoping to gain influence in diplomatic circles, but dissolved into a period when warlords ruled. The Communists began their revolution, but are overshadowed by the Kuomintang Party, under General Chiang Shai-Shek. Kuomintang succeeds in unifying China, but Communists withdraw to the interior. The Japanese invade Manchuria, the Kuomintang and the Communists retreat to the farthest reaches, and carry out a guerilla war against the Japs. WW2 ends at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; whereupon the Communists attack their fellow Chinese in the Kuomintang, who decamp over the straits to Taiwan.

    The Communist People’s Republic of China, stands now proud and strong in the Far East. Never mind how it got there, its’ wealth and power are undisputed. Ignore the mass-murders and mini-genocides under the peadophile Mao-tse-Tung, ignore the corruption, the slaughter-abortion of millions of babies; ignore the invasion of Tibet, even ignore the imprisonment of two million Muslim Uyghurs simply because they are Muslim. The National wealth has been generated by a sort of corrupted Capitalism, aided by Western companies building their factories in China, all in aid of more shareholder profits. It is a total dictatorship; ruled with absolute power by one man, dealing out his power through eleven Geriatric Committee members, who then dictate the ‘word’ to a hand-picked Assembly, whose ranks never, ever murmur dissent.

    Compare this ruthless bloodstained mob with the second-oldest Democracy in the World, the United States of America. Built from scratch by the founders, men who understood politicians, assembled after a bloody War of Independence from Great Britain, perhaps the oldest Democracy going. The President of this United States is not, as described by this apologist for terror and bloodshed, ruled by a sulky Child-Emperor, but is a billionaire businessman-cum-politician, who firstly recognised the threat which is China,, and secondly worked out the way to deal with China, which is to treat it as what it really is, an Enemy to all things Free.

    The next target of Mr. Craig-Bennet’s bile is Great Britain and Northern Ireland, (GB&NI) the country of my birth. He calls us a ‘satrapy’. One presumes he means a low-level henchman or hanger-on. I would wonder how he came to that conclusion, when history recalls that Great Britain’s sons fought alongside those of America in two World Wars, as well as a small uprising in Korea, where the Chinese, despite overwhelming manpower, were forced to retreat after American and British forces showed the Chinese how to wage war and win. He also derides (GB&NI) for breaking with the European Union, calling this action a ‘fit of sulks’, when it was a true essay in Democracy, where a genuine vote to remain, or to leave, told a Government that we no longer wished to remain within a bureaucratic dictatorship.

    He finishes by stating that the Communists acted ‘decisively’ when the Coronavirus struck. If by ‘decisively’ he means by silencing all the medical professionals who attempted to shout a warning, ‘decisively’ by welding bars across victims’ windows to prevent then leaving, by lying about when the Virus was discovered: yep, decisively it was!

  3. China clearly has its eyes on a worldwide empire. If the coronavirus pandemic tells us anything, the world needs to move away, decisively, from dependence on China–even if it costs something. At least it won’t cost us our freedom.

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