Covid-19 responses show that democracy is vulnerable to authoritarianism, if not appreciated and guarded.
By Todd Wang*
China made no secret in pursuing on-the-record praise for its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. China tried to influence German government officials to offer positive comments about Beijing’s actions to control the coronavirus outbreak, as reported by Die Welt newspaper . The German foreign ministry recommended that German officials reject such overtures, suggesting that China is “pursuing an intensified information and propaganda policy with regard to the coronavirus.” China denied the report.
The report from Germany combined with a US Department of Homeland Security document, suggesting that China delayed reporting levels of contagion while stockpiling supplies, prompted many countries to resist snap assessments. Earlier, in a March 18 Twitter post, EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen wrote, we are grateful for China’s support” after the nation announced it would provide 2 million surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks and 50,000 testing kits, some later discarded for quality problems.
In conversations about the coronavirus, American and foreign colleagues suggested that China did a good job in controlling the outbreak and before going on to question if Western governments could be as effective. Some genuinely suggested that the response could demonstrate the superiority of China’s political system.
While Chinese authorities want the world to believe this, the message is not appropriate for those living in democracy.
Decades of propaganda have conditioned many Chinese citizens to believe that the country has a system advantage, enabling it to “do big things with concentrated strength.” So, it is not surprising for China to unleash its propaganda machine, exploiting a “victory” in containing Covid-19 cases in a short time. What is surprising is how many Western media outlets reiterated this proud notion of “only China can do it.”
Yet this notion flies in the face of reality. Let’s examine some of the arguments used to substantiate this claim:
1) China demonstrated unparalleled speed and efficiency in responding to the outbreak.
China provided live broadcasts of construction of two temporary hospitals in Wuhan over the course of 10 days, and many Westerners were impressed, comparing it with slow infrastructure building at home. For example, a new airport in Berlin, planned soon after the collapse of Berlin Wall in 1989, broke ground in 2006 and still cannot be used years. During this same time, China built and opened more than 100 new airports.
“China’s demonstration of China power, China spirit, China efficiency and the image of a responsible big nation, had won high praise from the international community,” noted Xi Jinping in a tone-setting message during a February meeting on pandemic control and social development in Beijing. Later, he congratulated the Chinese as “such a great people, such a great nation, and such a great national spirit,” urging “the unyielding socialism road with Chinese characteristic, self-confidence of our theory, self-confidence of our system and self-confidence of our culture. “
This does not mean that democratic systems cannot move quickly. During World War II, the United States mobilized to build aircraft carriers at the rate of one per week. At the onset of the coronavirus, the US army began to deploy field hospitals in New York, and the Navy sent two hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles, with 1,000 beds each, to lessen the burden for civilian hospitals. In London, the military and National Health Service contractors built Nightingale Hospital in nine days with state-of the-art equipment for 4,000 beds.
2) Only China can control the epidemic effectively with strict city- and countrywide lockdowns.
Other countries followed a range of methods and Western countries have shown, if necessary, they can undertake strict measures. China did not invent the concept of quarantine, and democratic systems have demonstrated that they can restrict people’s movements during a crisis. Most democratic countries impose quarantines based on scientific evidence and the rule of law instead of administrative orders from treacherous bureaucrats. For example, Germany followed the Infektionsschutzgesetz, or the Protection against Infection Act, based on protocols in infectious disease control since the World War II. Officials imposed a three-week shelter-in-place order for six counties in the San Francisco area. Timely communications and aid helped build citizen confidence in enduring pandemic lockdowns.
3) Only China can send over 40,000 medical workers to a city at one simple order from the government.
China could dispatch many more doctors and nurses overnight if the government had wanted. Xiaoxiang Morning Post in Hunan Province summarized Chinese reports sourcing US media on the status of US health care staff, including high rates of infections, lack of protective gear, minimal testing and termination for those who complained about such matters. Global Times relied on US social media reports that many US nurses were resigning from hospitals due to the lack of protective gear.
Yet, Chinese media reports that western countries struggled to secure a sufficient medical workforce were misleading. Yes, nobody in the United States can order a doctor in Wisconsin to fly to New York City if she does not want to go – but numerous doctors and other health care providers quickly volunteered for such roles. By April 7, the response was overwhelming. More than 85,000 medical volunteers responded to New York State’s call for help, reported the Washington Post, with about 7,000 assigned to hospitals. Even without China’s centralized system, democratic countries can also get enough medical workers at a critical time.
The foremost objective of China’s political system, of all non-democracies, actually, is to keep society under control. Government officials are accountable only to their superiors and not the people who bear the actual cost of their decisions. There are no checks and balance or protected constitutional rights.
Multiple tragedies have unfolded in China over the past five months – the government’s cover-up as the epidemic emerged; censorship of social media, including police scolding Doctor Li Wenliang and another seven medical workers for “spreading rumors” that “endanger social stability” and the disappearance of Chen Qiushi and two other citizen journalists who tried to report Wuhan’s true death toll.
Along with censorship, officials and community workers at grassroots level frequently resort to abuse or deception to meet imposed targets by any means necessary. As many as 5 million people may have flown out of Wuhan after the lockdown was announced, mostly families with privileged information sources that allowed them to use the 10-hour gap between the announcement and the deadline when the lockdown went into effect. Doctors and patients had to walk between home and hospitals daily because public transportation stopped, before the government arranged substitute transportation. Authorities sealed homes, using metal bars, with suspected cases and delivered food to them at high prices. Hospitals forcibly discharged terminal cancer patients to free beds for Covid patients. Local government officials created an image of Potemkin village, demonstrating inspection of one community satisfied with their quarantine. A disabled child was found dead at home a week after his single-parent father had been quarantined, and a 6-year-old, was found living alone with his grandfather’s dead body for a week.
The list goes on of stories often ignored in the discussion of China’s “system advantages.” For now, only systems likes China’s can sacrifice people’s rights to achieve government objectives, and building hospitals in days or producing masks in quantity may not compensate.
Eight decades after World War II and three decades since the Cold War, the world seems to have mostly forgotten about the evils of totalitarian regimes. China’s growing economic power overshadows any longing for liberty and democracy, with most people expressing comfort and even pride in the current system.
Citizens of the West must remain alert to authoritarianism’s threat, hanging over the heads of 1.4 billion people and ready to spread, jeopardizing Western societies. Those enjoying liberty and democracy in peace and abundance for many years may take such rights for granted. Democracy is vulnerable, a system that could overturn quickly if not appreciated and guarded.
*Todd Wang, based in Shanghai, majored in International Politics and worked as a journalist for a Chinese national newspaper before working in senior management positions for multinational companies. He is now a consultant for western companies operating in China, helping identify and manage cultural differences.
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