Why have conspiracy theories sprung up around China’s alleged creation of the Covid-19 virus? It either “created” or “released” it by accident, depending on the version. But, in spite of this, both serve to cover up the West’s non-response to the worst economic crisis since both 2008 and the Great Depression and blame China for causing a global recession. However, beneath the war-time rhetoric, I wanted to note that what we are actually witnessing underneath is a restructuring of the global supply chains, which connect both sides of the divide.
The initial conspiracy claims started around Wuhan’s Institute of Virology, and “The Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory”, under its jurisdiction. The Laboratory was set up with the help of France, and has studied corona viruses:
“The lab will provide our nation with a full, internationally advanced biosafety system, and Chinese science researchers can study the world’s most dangerous pathogens in their own lab,” said a government statement at the time. Since then, the lab’s lead virologist Shi Zhengli — known as China’s “bat woman” for years of virus-hunting expeditions in bat caves — and her team have studied various bat-borne coronaviruses.”
Yet, we don’t have any evidence that the virus originated in the Lab, and theory has pretty much been disproven (not least, in the US, by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a clearinghouse for US spy-agencies, and the US Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases), with analyses of the virus’ genome (which doesn’t point to an artificial origin).
Yet, what hasn’t been disproven is the Wests long-standing trade war with China: moreover, one could claim we are in the midst of a reconfiguration of global supply chains.
Namely, China overtook the United States as the world’s top manufacturing country in 2010, and was responsible for 28% of global output in 2018, according to United Nations data (quoted from a Reuters report). And, to quote a longer blogpost I wrote on the issue,
“the global supply-chains of “Factory Asia” now produce almost half the world’s goods. Firms like Apple; Nike; Walmart; IBM; Hewlett Packard; Boeing; Kingston; Ford & General Motors all outsource to Asia and began doing so from as early as the late 1980s to as late as mid-2000s. Today, as we are slowly approaching 2020, it is the semiconductor industry behind the tech-monopolies such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon that is at stake: along with their Chinese counterparts (Huawei and the state-led “National Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund”, for example), the technological quadrumvirate of the US already invested research into optical computing, approximate computing and quantum computing-related projects, which are now threatened by the trade wars that led The Economist to dub them as “chip wars”, to highlight the stakes in stopping the outsourced chip production that enables Silicon Valley to run, day by day.”
To this one may add the Hubei province, known as a tech-hub for optical-electronics, telecommunications, and equipment manufacturing and China’s laser industry. When its capital, Wuhan, was first hit by the virus, the repercussions could be felt globally: as Foxconn, the infamous low-waged factory, switched to mask production, for example, dropping Iphone production affected the US giant Apple, caused disruptions that were felt all the way up to Silicon Valley.
Yet, since the mid-2000’s, US and other companies have also been moving out of China, and into Vietnam and Bangladesh long before the pandemic. Trump’s”tariff wall” (with exceptions vital to the US economy), only exacerbated this process. Now, Trump is making the whole situation worse, additionally blaming China for “releasing the lab virus”, and urging US companies to relocate elsewhere, ahead of US elections on November 3rd.
Within China, the pressures to be more competitive in order to react to the increased pressures of outsourcing has sometimes produced fatal consequences. For example – and this is not yet that well known – this process is bound to cause an increase in China’s labor camp system, the second largest in the world, after the US. In order to counter the rising wages of China, and the further outsourcing into Vietnam and Bangladesh (mostly apparel and garment), Chinese prisons were reportedly utilizing more and more inmate labor for the production of export goods, such as garlic, handbags and electronic components (which is illegal under China’s domestic and international trade laws). Walmart is probably the best known case of a US company that used and, afterwards, publicly rejected the use of Chinese inmate labor (and, on another occasion, child labor), after a woman found a note from a prison laborer in a Walmart purse, during shopping in the US.
(Also, for additional info on what the conditions are like for the incarcerated, here’s a short description: “Former prisoners say the pungent acids in the garlic can melt detainees’ fingernails, exposing stinging flesh. Those who can no longer use their hands bite off the garlic skins with their teeth.”, according to a report by the Financial Times. To note that this is one of China’s main exports to – where else? – the US.)
But, in his attack on China, president Trump is not alone, and his response has witnessed not only an increase in attacks on Chinese citizens in the US, but a global response in a similar vein. Japan went the furthest:
“Japan has earmarked $2.2 billion of its record economic stimulus package to help its manufacturers shift production out of China as the coronavirus disrupts supply chains between the major trading partners. The extra budget, compiled to try to offset the devastating effects of the pandemic, includes 220 billion yen ($2 billion) for companies shifting production back to Japan and 23.5 billion yen for those seeking to move production to other countries, according to details of the plan posted online.”, according to Bloomberg.
In another post, Bloomberg also reported a similar move by India:
“The government in April reached out to more than 1,000 companies in the U.S. and through overseas missions to offer incentives for manufacturers seeking to move out of China, according to Indian officials who asked not to be identified, citing rules on speaking with the media. India is prioritizing medical equipment suppliers, food processing units, textiles, leather and auto part makers among more than 550 products covered in the discussions, they said.”
This comes after India’s unemployment rate soared to 27.11% (with over 120 million new unemployed in April alone), amid Modi’s lockdown. And not to mention the US figures, which have been historic: 33.3 million unemployment claims since mid-March, wiping out all gains since 2008, with 1 out of 5 Americans filing for unemployment benefits, and over 2 million in the first week of the virus.
In short, what we are seeing here is a restructuring of the global supply chains, that is, a case-in-point of an inter-imperialist competition. It is yet to hit the Global South’s workforce, and bound to increase as the pandemic takes more lives, and the crisis worsens.
 This is the remnant of China’s penal labor system. In it, there used to exist two forms: the “láogǎi” (reform through labor) and the “laojiao” (re-education through labor). While they sometimes overlapped, the “láogǎi” was usually associated more with the factory-based work, rather than the agricultural-based “laojiao”. Both were officially abolished by 1994, but the infrastructure continues, and their name was changed to “prisons”. According to China’s Labor Watch: “Named after the historical laogai labor camp, which was the original prison camp system established by Mao Zedong in the early 1950s, the term “Laogai System” highlights the historical continuity of Communist Party criminal and administrative detention practices.”