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Some two months since the first reports of a new virus in central China, the death toll from the coronavirus has passed 1,000, eclipsing the number who died in the 2003 SARS epidemic. Recent estimates are that 40,000 are infected, but that is likely an underestimate and is sure to rise. The Chinese province where the virus originated, with a population greater than South Korea, is under quarantine, while streets are empty and factories sit idle. How this plays out is uncertain, but what is certain is that the virus has the potential to change China in fundamental ways — and even if it does not, it should change the way we think about China.
Beyond the human tragedy, the immediate impact of the virus is mostly economic. The only question is how much it slows China’s economy and for how long. Estimates suggest the disruption could eliminate much if not all of China’s projected growth for the first quarter or longer, an outcome that would also slow growth globally given how large and integrated China’s economy has become. Few supply chains do not have at least some Chinese components. In this interconnected world, little stays local for long.
The most lasting impact, though, will likely be the effects this virus has on China’s politics. Political legitimacy in contemporary China is predicated largely on economic performance. Citizens have been willing to accept constraints on personal and political freedom in exchange for a system that provides an improved standard of living. Chinese economic growth was already slowing before the coronavirus outbreak, which means a less-than-ideal situation is fast getting worse.
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Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming book “The World: A Brief Introduction.”