Covid-19 laid bare the core logic of the West: that white life is sacred and all else is disposable. Given the steep health inequalities in the United States, it’s not surprising that African Americans are more likely to die from the coronavirus. Couple this with the concentration of Black Americans in dense inner-city neighborhoods and in precarious frontline jobs, and it becomes clear that the devastating, racialized impact of the pandemic was built into US society before Covid-19 ever reached US shores.
Yet, as Malcolm X reminds us, there is no way to understand the United States without considering the “world problem” of racism. On a global scale, we should be as impressed by the speed in which a vaccine appeared as we are dismayed at our inability to prevent deaths from illnesses that only affect the underdeveloped world. The sad truth is that 9 million people died from hunger last year—many more than who succumbed to Covid-19. The poverty pandemic will continue, and there will be minimal interest because the vast majority of the lives lost will be Black and brown. The US failures to control Covid-19 and to come to the aid of those in need are taken as evidence of the need for a new superpower. Some see China as offering an alternative, but the rise of the East will not bring an end to racism or the empire of the West
The United States was founded on the genocide of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Enslaved Africans built the nation, and once slavery ended segregation, racial terror and institutional racism ensured that Black America experienced only qualified freedom. Some people delude themselves into thinking that civil rights legislation, a Black middle class, and the first Black president, and now vice president, are marks of how far the country has come. In truth, they are reminders that the change we have made is largely symbolic, allowing some of us into the house, while the majority remain toiling in the field. Nearly every indicator—whether it be about income, jobs, housing, prison, health, or education—shows that on average very little has shifted since the 1960s.
Still, Donald Trump’s rise was in large part produced by the idea that America needed to return to the days when white dominance was unquestioned, before the Black man with the foreign name ascended to the White House. In response to protests for racial justice, Trump declared Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate,” and vowed to protect the monuments to the slave owners he called “heroes.” In his defense of whiteness, he also launched his trade war with China, promising to bring American jobs home. The $420 billion trade deficit between the two nations riled Trump and others in the Republican Party. The reaction to China’s growing economic power reveals many of the West’s deep insecurities. Trump’s use of the term “China virus” was not just jingoism meant to reduce his responsibility for the mounting death toll. There was also a sinister undertone laced with the accusation that perhaps China had waited before alerting the world so that it would wreak maximum damage on its competitors. Such paranoia demonstrates just how rattled many in the West are about their future atop the global hierarchy. But these fears have no basis in reality. China has no interest in destroying the Western system; its success has been built on becoming a part of it.
China once represented revolutionary hope. After a successful revolution and the founding of the People’s Republic, the nation was essential to armed struggles against Western domination in Asia and Africa. China was the destination of choice for many Black radical thinkers, including multiple members of the Black Panther Party and various African revolutionaries. In fact, the Black Panther Party first raised funds by selling Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book to college students, and cofounder Huey P. Newton took inspiration from the chairman in declaring that the Black revolution necessitated a “great leap forward.” But following the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the famines that killed millions, China was impoverished. By the time Mao passed away in 1976, the country’s leaders felt the solution was to reject Communism and embed China into the fabric of the West. Foreign investment flowed in, and China built its fortune by gradually dominating the manufacturing sector. The advantage that China has over the developed world remains rooted in the logic of white supremacy.
Much is made of China’s GDP, but a country with a population as large as most continents should have a very large economy. Once we account for GDP per population, China is only the 79th richest country in the world. The reality is that there are hundreds of millions of poor people. All those jobs Trump loved to claim were coming back were offshored in the first place to take advantage of poverty wages. Because the poor in China are not white, the United States is free to exploit their bodies to produce our commodities. The fact that there are an increasing number of “crazy rich Asians” benefiting from a system that exploits the racialized poor does not change the white supremacy underpinning the system.
In addition to exploiting their own citizens China needs to source the materials necessary to produce goods for the world and its own development. After China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, its trade with Africa increased 20-fold over the next 11 years. Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana, remarked that when Europeans took raw materials from the country, processed them into expensive products, and sold them back to Africa the arrangement had an “Alice in Wonderland craziness about it.” Meanwhile, over 90 percent of China’s imports from Africa are raw materials and oil, while over 90 percent of Africa imports for China are finished goods, making it clear who is the winner of this trade. Many of the deals masquerade as infrastructure development, following the European route of building just enough roads and railways to extract the resources. China lends billions of dollars to African nations but insists on using Chinese labor and materials, meaning that even the loans are a boost to the Chinese economy. The result is Africa’s GDP looks better, and China is free to strip the continent’s resources.
To make inroads on the continent, China leans heavily on its revolutionary links to Africa. But the China that now holds out its hand is working in concert with the forces that have long conspired to keep the continent underdeveloped. And as China rises off the back of Africa, the continent is being pushed further down the ladder. For all the talk of Africa’s economic growth, the World Bank predicts that by 2050, 90 percent of people in extreme poverty will live in sub-Saharan Africa. White supremacy has always been about a hierarchy with Africa and the descendants of Africans at the bottom. When nations slightly higher up the ladder enrich themselves from anti-Black racism, it should shock no one.
In many ways China has a more efficient mechanism of organizing—an authoritarian bureaucracy ruthlessly delivering a capitalist economy. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the individualism and privatization that are hallmarks of neoliberalism are the worst ways to navigate through a crisis. While the death toll in the United States is more than half a million, the situation is even worse per capita in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, in China where the virus started, there has been a fraction of the deaths after enforcing stringent lockdowns. But the same systems that rapidly responded to the pandemic are also being used to police the population.
China is leading the way into the next industrial revolution, aiming to create an integrated “Internet of things” that will form the network of the future. But this digital web has been used to target the nation’s Muslim Uighur minority, who are under constant surveillance and attack. Since 2017, more than 1 million Muslims have been placed in detention centers, because they have been deemed unsafe. By monitoring smartphone use, the authorities have built algorithms to detect supposedly un-Chinese behaviors. China has created a web of surveillance with facial recognition cameras and mobile phone tracking that records the movement of its ethnic Muslim populations.
There is no doubt that China is ascending on the world stage and may well be the next seat of global power. But it is a nation that depends on the exploitation of labor, plunders the resources of Africa, and heavily surveils its Muslim minority. If we want to undo the racism that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement, it is no good looking to Beijing for inspiration. The aftermath of Covid-19 presents an opportunity to rethink where we are headed, but we will need to recognize that we need to rebuild our economic systems from scratch.