Contrary to what many scholars expected back in January 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic did not become China’s Chernobyl moment. Instead, more than a year later, the world has fallen into a collective amnesia that is familiar to Chinese citizens.

As Kai Strittmatter pointed out in his book We Have Been Harmonized (2020), although the Chinese government’s cover up in the early stages of the pandemic caused the virus to spread rapidly around the world, China’s propaganda machine “harnessed the virus for itself in the competition between systems”. While many democratic countries still struggle to contain the virus, China proudly presents itself as “the country with superior political system and therefore had what it takes to become the new global leader”.

The weaknesses of democracies?

There is no denying that China has emerged from this crisis faster than democratic nations like the United States, Canada, England, France, and India. It is questionable, however, to take this as proof that the Chinese authoritarian political system is superior to its democratic counterparts.

The virus presented an emergency, and the governments that dealt with it more effectively are those with a high level of administrative efficiency. China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Japan are frequently seen as examples of densely populated societies that have relatively lower infection and death rates.

Among these examples, three of the governments, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are democratic, and not authoritarian. On the other hand, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are authoritarian states that have relatively high levels of infection. It is more accurate to attribute the effectiveness of emergency response to administrative efficiency rather than the democratic or authoritarian nature of the political system. 

All six countries on the “effective” list are Asian societies with a collectivist cultural heritage and hierarchical social organizations. Their comparative success in handling the virus is a testimony to the effectiveness of hierarchical structure and collectivist culture in facing emergencies. But this does not necessarily mean the hierarchical, collectivist Asian culture is superior. In fact, the efficiency of hierarchical organizations is universally recognized by societies whether individualist or collectivist; democratic or authoritarian.

Social institutions in all societies observe hierarchical culture to a certain degree, depending on the need for that institution to respond to emergencies. For example, the police or military forces of both democratic and authoritarian countries worldwide operate on centralized control and observe strict hierarchy. The uniforms and collective rituals in these institutions are designed to encourage and reinforce a collectivist community.

Short run advantages

The difference between authoritarian China and its democratic counterparts is that the means to control and keep an army operative has been applied to every aspect of civilian life in post 1949 China, creating a government with highly centralized power that can reach to the lowest level of social organizations. When the pandemic broke out, the Chinese government had an “advantage” that no democratic country had — unconstrained power to mobilize national resources and severely limit the freedom of its population.

Although a centralized, militant system has that distinct advantage in coping with emergencies like a pandemic or military invasion, such a system can hold a country back in the long run. In his book Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment (2019), Ahmet T. Kuru convincingly argues that the underdevelopment of economics and education, and the high level of violence that plagues many Muslim nations today has little to do with the teachings of Islam or colonial domination. Instead, it is caused by a highly centralized authoritarian political system.

The Islamic world flourished in the 9th century, leaving intellectual legacies still visible today. However, in response to the Mongol invasion, the Muslim world became increasingly militant and authoritarian. Authoritarianism marginalized the bourgeois and intellectual class, which led to the stifling of innovation and intellectual stagnation that caused the Muslim world to go through a long, steady decline from the 11th century onwards.

When authoritarian states are relatively isolated economically, as Russia was during the Cold War, they are no match for democratic systems. China’s economic miracle in the last 30 years, however, appears to challenge Kuru’s claim of authoritarianism leading to intellectual decline and economic failure. Kuru attributes the success of East Asian authoritarian states to the following factors: “export-oriented production”, “developmentalist policies and economically expansionist goals” and “secular, not religious, ideologies and discourses”.

The ‘low human rights advantage’

The secular ideology factor matters less than export-oriented production and global economic expansion. Indoctrination, whether secular or religious, can stifle intellectual development. However, in the context of economic globalization, an authoritarian state like China can benefit from being part of the global economic system without suffering the consequences of intellectual underdevelopment. When the economic system is globalized, but the democratic political system only operates at the nation-state level, authoritarian states like China enjoy what the Chinese historian Qin Hui (2012) termed a “low human rights advantage”.

As mentioned earlier, China’s ability to mobilize national resources and severely limit human freedom is the reason why China was able to control the spread of the virus more effectively than democratic nations. This success did not rely on science, but on the mechanisms of social restriction, a specific example of low human rights advantage. In the context of economic globalization, China’s low human rights advantage creates new economic and political challenges to the world. China’s cheap labour cost and large consumer market provide an unprecedented economic advantage on the global market (Qin, 2012).

The economic miracle of China is therefore not created by its authoritarian system in isolation but benefits from the fact that China became a part of the global economy by joining the WTO in 2001. As Qin Hui observed, China’s cheap labour and large market attracted massive global capital investment. Though human rights have been improving in legal terms in Western nations, the constant outflow of capital means the working class have been steadily losing their economic bargaining power. China’s low human rights advantage made the rich in both Chinese and Western countries grow richer but deepened socio-economic problems on both sides.

As Kuru (2020) correctly pointed out, the history of the last 200 years suggests that democratic systems are more conductive to human flourishing in the long run as compared to authoritarian systems. As Harvard economist Amartya Sen commented: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”. In contrast, famines have occurred in authoritarian systems when export of food coexisted with starvation of the people. The famine in 1959-61 in China is an extreme example of an authoritarian government’s lack of accountability and its woeful wastefulness in resource allocation.

Democracies need emergency response systems

The current pandemic, however, may alert the world to inefficiencies that appear to be inherent in democratic political systems. This does not imply that democratic systems should give way to authoritarian systems, rather, it highlights the necessity for democratic countries to establish an effective emergency response system to cope with a crisis like Covid-19.

Taiwan, Japan and South Korea’s relative success in containing the virus are evidence that democratic systems can effectively cope with emergencies when the governments’ administrative efficiency is enhanced by the hierarchical and collectivist cultural heritage of these societies.     

The necessity of having an effective emergency response system was recognized by the Roman Republic more than 2000 years ago. They created the title “dictator” for a magistrate who could temporarily exercise absolute power in situations that required an emergency response. Democratic countries today like the United States, Canada, England, France and India do not have an emergency response system like the Romans did. The current pandemic crisis may be the catalyst needed for the formation of a more effective emergency response system. But any such system needs to ensure that the temporary powers of “crisis dictators” are effectively dissolved once the crisis passes.  

References

Kuru, Ahmet T. Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: a Global and Historical Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Qin, Hui. 秦暉. Democracy and free market economy: New conflicts in globalization. Zhongguo Qi Ye Jia,  China Entrepreneur, no. 13, 2012, pp. 40–42.

Strittmatter, Kai. We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State. First U.S. ed., New York: Custom House, 2020.

Emma Zhang

Emma Zhang is Lecturer of English at Hong Kong Baptist University