Chinese President Xi Jinping on a visit to two institutes in Beijing in March (Xinhua)
Chinese President Xi Jinping on a visit to two institutes in Beijing in March (Xinhua)

Quarantine and self-isolation around the world mean that people have time to do a lot more reading over the coming months. To give our readers some ideas MercatorNet is featuring short book reviews from contributors and readers.

You might also be interested in two great reading lists from MercatorNet:

101 books Gen Ys must read before they die

101 books Millennials must read before they die


On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century
by Timothy Snyder
New York, 2017. 130 pp

This slim volume published in 2017 by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder was intended as a timely warning for Americans about the state of their decaying democracy after Trump took the presidency in 2016. Citing historical lessons from the failed democracies of 20th Century Europe, Synder listed 20 memorable lessons for the American public, urging them to safeguard their democratic institutions.

Today, when much of the world is under lockdown because of the spread of Covid-19, international cooperation and collaboration has become a matter of life and death. Yet Trump and Xi still fail to cooperate. Instead, these strongmen politicians escalate the conflicts between US and China, putting the health of their nations’ economy and security – and now even their literal health – in greater peril.

Snyder pointed out in his 2018 book The Road to Unfreedom that when the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world lived with the false comfort of historical determinism, believing that liberal democracy was the inevitable destination of human history.

However, Snyder warns his readers that the 2016 US presidential election indicates that there is no predetermined destiny. Democratic institutions do not and cannot persist on their own but are urgently in need of the continuous sustenance of civil society and a well-informed public to ensure their survival.

Our current virus-driven social distancing and home confinements demonstrate in the most tangible way that Synder is right. The lack of information transparency in China during the early developments of Covid-19 led to a greater spread of the virus worldwide. When the virus hit the democratic world, the governments of Italy and America similarly reacted sluggishly, often issuing reassurances rooted more in wishful thinking than advice from medical experts.

Today, the Chinese government claims that they have gotten the disease under control and is eagerly extolling their draconian measures of population control to democratic countries. Beware, Synder warns, a temporary situation can easily become a new normal. For those who hope to preserve liberty and democracy, On Tyranny may be an even more urgent read in 2020 than it was in 2017.

A few of the newly relevant and illuminating lessons from the book that I extracted during my own home confinement include:

Lesson 10: Believe in truth

Snyder warns “If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights”.

When the whole world is sinking into the uncertain future brought by Covid-19, it is of utmost importance to enable cooperation between nations and build trust between people and their governing institutions. However, the lack of information transparency in China undermines the trust between nations and the confidence people have in their governments.

Since the breakout of Covid-19 in December 2019, the Chinese government has punished whistleblowers, arrested citizen reporters, tightened internet censorship, and expelled American journalists. Its propaganda machines meanwhile churn out success stories of the nation’s ability to combat the disease with its “superior” social system that can efficiently lockdown its population and mobilize the whole nation’s resources. Truth is blurred by the haze of political propaganda, and no rational, scientific decisions can be made based on such highly selective representations designed to manipulate public opinion.  

Lesson 3: Beware the one-party state

The one-party state is omnipotent and is capable of making political life impossible for their opponents. Snyder urges the American public to preserve the multiparty election system as democracy is fundamentally the promise of the continuity of the State when political power switches hands.

In a one-party state, the party is perceived as the State. The continuity of the State appears to be tied to the survival of the party. China has been ruled by a one-party state for 70 years. The Party’s firm control over media, intelligence and military means that even when the country has been shaken by major political trauma and the subsequent loss of life, such as the Great Famine from 1958-62 or the Cultural Revolution from 1966-76, the Party’s hold on power is unshakeable .

Lesson 4: Take responsibility for the face of the world

Snyder cites Václav Havel’s greengrocer parable and explained the danger of conformity. Havel pointed out that when a greengrocer puts the slogan “Workers of the World Unite!” onto his window, he might merely be following the rules so that he can retreat into his private life without being bothered by authorities. However, such small, seemingly harmless acts contribute to the persistence of apparent loyalty, making the initiation of any resistance unthinkable.

On March 18 two microbiologists from Hong Kong University, Prof. Yuen Kwok-yung and Dr. D.C. Lung, published an article in Ming Bao, a Hong Kong Newspaper, which pointed out that Covid-19 originated from Wuhan China. On the same night, they retracted their article stating that they are scientists who do not understand nor wish to be involved in politics.

Synder says “Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do”. The minor choices we make in life determine the degree of freedom we enjoy in our public life and civil societies.

Lesson 20: Be as courageous as you can.

“If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny”.   

Perhaps the most cogent lesson from Covid-19 is that the world should no longer tolerate authoritarian control over information that is unhinged from fact. Our mutual survival might depend in large part on a commitment to truthful communication and international collaboration.    

Emma Zhang

Emma Zhang is Lecturer of English at Hong Kong Baptist University