If Westerners feel that China should apologise for Covid-19, then perhaps the West should apologise for centuries of harm inflicted on China and other non-Western peoples
There are many voices in the West, most prominently President Donald Trump’s, who have placed China in the global moral dock and are demanding that the country should show humility and take responsibility for Covid-19 by apologising for the devastation—both human and economic—that this virus is undoubtedly inflicting upon the world. The case for the prosecution begins by insisting that “China has previous” when it comes to generating diseases that diffused subsequently across the world. SARS began in China’s southern province of Guangdong in 2002. Numerous strains of bird flu also emerged in China. And then there is the bubonic plague that wiped out somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of Europe’s population in the 14th century, having first emerged in China around 1331 (and which was spread by rats that were likely transported among the cargo aboard merchant ships that sailed back to Europe).
It would be folly to pretend that there is no problem here. Presumably, therefore, a Chinese apology would be important, not so as to placate the likes of President Trump and the rising tide of Western complainants, but to put the world’s collective mind at rest that action will be taken, precisely so as prevent another destructive pandemic from emerging in China in the next decade or so. So, an open-and-shut case in relation to China’s need to apologise, right?
But behind the rising tide of Western resentment, which is surely only likely to escalate as the economic impact of this disease comes to really bite in the coming months, lies an acute double standard that is hidden in plain sight. To date, about 300,000 have died world-wide from Covid-19. Even if we assume that the final death toll turns out to be 100 times this figure, 30 million deaths comprise about 0.5 per cent of the world’s population. Though undoubtedly a shocking and deeply lamentable figure, I don’t recall the Europeans apologising for killing 90 per cent of the indigenous populations of the Americas between 1492 and 1600, as they were infected by European diseases against which they had no natural immunity. The final death toll for that period was somewhere between 50 and 100 million (or very approximately 10 per cent of the world’s population at that time).
However, it’s one thing to heap death upon others through disease-transmission and quite another to inflict death and destruction intentionally. Here I have in mind the destructive effects of centuries of European colonialism upon the non-Western peoples. And yet… still to this day, no Western apology.
At this point I anticipate some readers, especially of a Eurocentric disposition, rolling their eyes and thinking: ‘Oh no, here we go: a typical self-hating (Europhobic) Westerner finding any and every opportunity to bash the West”. Moreover, “not only has his gravity-defying intellectual acrobatics enabled him somehow to dodge the question as to whether China should apologise for unleashing this awful disease, but he even manages to find a way of using it, most cynically, as an ideological pawn to heap yet more criticism on the West and, worst of all, demand that it is the West that should apologise to China rather than the other way around…You couldn’t make it up!”. However, I can assure such a reader that this is decidedly not my intention. In fact, in my new book, alongside Eurocentrism I criticise exactly this variant of postcolonial thinking. Even so, our proverbial Western-Eurocentric reader would demand to know “why ‘we’ should apologise for what our forefathers did?” And in any case, he would likely insist that “there is no need to apologise precisely because the West’s liberal-imperial civilising missions served to uplift and raise the backward peoples out of their self-imposed poverty and oppression so that they too could come to enjoy the trappings of the Western good life.” I could spend quite a bit of time debunking this myth. But, in the end, my own views do not really matter here.
What does matter is that this benign conception of Western imperialism is decidedly not how many non-Western peoples on the receiving end perceive the effects of Western empire. Indeed, the Māoris in New Zealand and the Aborigines in Australia across to the first peoples of the Americas, believe to this day that Western empire has posed nothing less than an economic, human and cultural existential threat that has undermined their ways of life in all manner of deeply harmful ways, not to mention the lives of their forbears through imperial genocides—epidemiological, ecological, militaristic, economic and cultural in nature.
The Chinese too speak of their ‘century of humiliation’ and many other non-Western peoples continue to harbour deep resentment. For all of them the case for a Western apology is not only open-and-shut but is long overdue. And in any case, why should the West’s collective feelings of hurt be respected and placated while the non-West’s are dismissed? How will that help the process of global healing?
In all fairness, then, if Westerners continue to insist that the Chinese should apologise for Covid-19, then aren’t the Chinese (and other non-Western peoples) entitled to demand an apology from the West for its many intended and unintended forms of harm that it has inflicted upon them? For the fact is that the record of destruction suffered by non-Western peoples at the hands of the Western imperialists, as the former see it, massively outweighs that of all of “China’s diseases” put together. The demand for a Chinese apology for Covid-19 presumes that the West’s record vis-à-vis the non-West is unblemished—as if it represents a paragon of virtue—not least because the West has never apologised. Clearly such a premise cannot hold. Accordingly, the West’s growing insistence for a Chinese apology cannot be a unilateral imposition but needs to be reciprocated by a Western apology simultaneously if the world is to move on to a higher plane than the current one which, tragically, has an all-too-strong propensity for indulging in the hateful and self-defeating Eurocentric discourse of the clash of civilisations. Put differently: Westerners have no moral case for demanding a Chinese apology if they are not prepared to offer one to the Chinese.