Like the Black Death, the latest coronavirus was made in China. And just as that scourge spread along the Silk Road, so too has Covid-19. It is no coincidence that its worst outbreaks in the Middle East and Europe have been in Iran and Italy; each is the regional anchor of China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) — the 21st century version of the Silk Road. Less well-known is that those countries were also the entry points for the plague, brought by merchants and marauding Mongols.
China has been the source of numerous pandemics — the Plague of Justinian (541), Spanish flu (1919), Asian flu (1956), Hong Kong flu (1968), Avian flu (1996), Swine flu (2009), SARS (2002) and now Covid-19, also known as SARS 2. Why? Because, as the Chinese say, they’ll eat anything with four legs other than a table, anything that flies other than a plane and anything that swims other than a submarine, and preferably freshly butchered. Chinese markets are a cross between a zoo and a slaughterhouse. After each outbreak of contagion, China says it will crack down on the trade in ‘illegal’ wildlife, but the government places a higher priority on suppressing anything it interprets as criticism of the Chinese Communist party than enforcing food safety regulations. Since the latest outbreak, red banners, draped in public places warn citizens ‘Have a bite of a wild animal dish today, see you in hell tomorrow.’
The plague struck Hubei province, whose capital is Wuhan, in 1331. Thanks to China’s ‘Go West’ policy, Wuhan is now the Chicago of China and the political, economic, cultural and transport hub of Central China with investments from 230 Fortune Global 500 firms and GDP of US$224 billion in 2018.
Persia was already ruled by Mongols when merchants brought the plague only four years after it had devastated Hubei, in 1335. A third of the population died including the Mongol overlord, Abu Said Bahadur Khan. Fast forward seven centuries and history is at risk of repeating itself. Iran’s Achilles’ heel is that its mullahcracy is a gerontocracy. Its claims about coronavirus are as convincing as its claim that it did not shoot down a Ukrainian passenger jet in January, but it cannot hide the fact that the virus is hitting the highest levels of government. A member of the ‘Expediency Council’ who had a close relationship with the 80-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has died of the infection. Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar — also known as ‘Screaming Mary’ for her nightly TV rants against US imperialism during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis when she was a 20-year-old student — became ill the day after she attended a Cabinet meeting with the Supreme Leader. The Deputy Health Minister heading the Covid-19 task force confirmed he was infected the day after he insisted — while sweating profusely at a media conference — that the severity of the outbreak was being exaggerated. The head of emergency services and 23 MPs are also infected, one of whom has died. No one knows how many people are infected, but epidemiologists estimate that there are more than 18,000 cases.
Yet Iran hasn’t stopped flights to China because it’s one of the only countries buying their oil. Indeed, Beijing says Chinese nationals have been infected in Iran and detected on their return. President Hassan Rouhani has also ruled out placing the holy city of Qom, epicentre of the virus and home to the Shrine of Hazrat Masumeh, in quarantine, even though it is visited by millions of pilgrims annually. A hard-line cleric and MP from Qom is infected but that has not deterred the faithful who have given a new meaning to licking the contagion, posting video of themselves and their children licking the shrine. They may now face a flogging and jail for ‘spreading fake and superstitious news,’ but as one Iranian tweeted: ‘Talking about coronavirus could soon be considered troubling for public opinion, undermining public security and insulting the president!’
The plague entered Europe after the Mongols catapulted infected corpses into the besieged Genoese port of Caffa on the Black Sea. The survivors fled on ships to Italy, along with infected rats and fleas, and around half the population of Europe perished. Unlike Iran, Italy was the first country in Europe to halt flights to and from China, earning a rebuke from Beijing for taking ‘excessive measures.’
BRI has done little for Italy’s economy with few investments materialising. Italian exports to China declined last year while imports continued to rise but there are plenty of Italian business students in China, modern-day Marco Polos opening the way for commerce and coronavirus, which is proving to be a two-way street. China has also reported an imported case from Italy. And like the faithful in Qom, Pope Francis was still kissing babies until a common cold forced him to resist the temptation.
The BRI has been the centrepiece of President Xi Jinping’s foreign and economic policy. Since 2013, it has created partnerships with 137 countries, facilitating the flow of Chinese products and people around the world. Now that it is a conduit for a pandemic more than 133 countries have restricted the entry of Chinese people and supplies have dried up as China’s factories have ground to a halt, disrupting global supply chains and threatening the world with a major recession.
The bungled management of the virus is a disaster for Xi. Sure, his hero, Mao, was responsible for far more deaths during the Great Leap Forward (up to 45 million) and the Cultural Revolution (up to 20 million) but the horror and suffering in Hubei has been brought to the nation’s mobile phones courtesy of WeChat. The persecution and death of whistle-blowers has triggered unprecedented public expressions of outrage. The tone-deaf propaganda — weeping nurses having their heads shaved — has provoked pity and anger rather than patriotic fervour.
Xi’s heavenly mandate has been shaken but he has fought back. China today makes East Germany’s Stasi look like boy scouts and its surveillance state, turbo-charged with artificial intelligence, big data and facial recognition, is tracking down anyone with a fever or those who dare to criticise the regime, known as rumourmongers. ‘To be honest, it would be better if they don’t dispel rumours,’ said one person on Weibo. ‘When I see a rumour refuted, I would basically assume it is the truth.’ The comment has, of course, been deleted.
Realistically, the only threat to Xi is from his party cadres who will get rid of him only if he is seen to be a threat to the party’s iron grip on the state. Unlike the Ayatollah, he is unlikely to catch the Covid-19 flu. But while Xi can make his citizens belt up, the coronavirus — born in the Year of the Pig —proves you can turn a silk road into a sow’s ear.
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