China’s zero COVID policy was wrong from the start
The human ability to transcend the past and even the present is powerful. Three years after a devastating coronavirus pandemic took hold, nearly every country has dropped restrictions and mostly returned to normal life. The one country where COVID never seemed to end, however, is China.
After the country’s biggest protests in decades, Chinese officials are finally to move back some of their toughest regulations in the event of a COVID zero pandemic. But China’s COVID regime remains one of the most restrictive in the world, with officials retaining the ability to apply locks in designated high-risk areas. The adoption of zero COVID measures and now their abrupt reversal have reignited a debate about whether autocracies like China are more effective in governance than democracies like America.
No American should be tempted by this false equivalence. China’s pandemic strategy was woefully misguided from the start, illustrating the many dangers of a one-man rule and global surveillance state.
The authoritarian market in China has long been clear: citizens give up their freedom in exchange for economic gains through cheap labor. Because dictatorships, by definition, do not enjoy democratic legitimacy, their legitimacy rests almost entirely on performance, what political scientists call exit legitimacy. The problem with this type of legitimacy is that it can easily be undone by unusual circumstances and external shocks. China’s strict measures may have succeeded in containing COVID early on, but its draconian policies since then have tested the limits of people’s patience. China’s once formidable economy has stopped, crippling businesses and sending youth unemployment to record highs. As a frustrated protester in Chongqing city Put the: There is only one disease in the world, that is, not being free and being poor, and now we have both.
At first, many observers hailed China as a model for handling the pandemic. As virus cases piled up and the United States hesitated in March and April 2020, China acted quickly, building instant hospitals from scratch in days, introducing door-to-door health checks and enforcing city-wide quarantines. The World Health Organization Free its heartiest congratulations to China in the fall of 2020 for achieving such an outcome. The prestigious magazine Lancet Infectious Diseases seemed to take a bit of fun by contrasting the handling of the pandemic in China with that of the Americas under the Trump administration.
China’s early approach has undoubtedly saved many lives. But over time, as much of the world has moved beyond COVID, China has escalated its zero-tolerance strategy, as citizens of a border town were forbidden to leave their homes for 119 days earlier this year. Yet after a recent Washington Post article pointed out a flaw in China’s zero COVID policy few people in the country have developed natural immunity to the virus some in the media came to the defense of China. To this day, even critics of China’s COVID policy seem unable to dismiss the narrative that the Chinese model was preferable to the alternatives. A recent New York Times items, for example, Lily:
After the first Covid outbreak in 2020, China’s economy rebounded rapidly. While the rest of the world remained in lockdown, China’s hardline approach to controlling the coronavirus worked well and its economy came back to life. In particular, exports were a bright spot, as Chinese factories were making many of the products that the rest of the world was buying online during the lockdown.
For those who have been tempted by the Chinese model, the question is why. It was a pattern that could only be imposed by brute force and in shut down a whole country from the rest of the world, a very difficult thing to do unless you live on a distant island.
Despite their flaws, democracies are morally and politically superior to autocracies, no matter how efficient, strong, or benevolent the latter appear. Appearances are deceptive. In China, there were no pesky voters, checks and balances, bureaucratic constraints or heated debates over respect for science. There was no polarization. But that’s because polarization is only possible when citizens can express contrasting opinions in public. It may be old-fashioned to say it, but the United States is better not in spite of its democracy, but because of it.
It is true that autocracies are often more efficient than their democratic counterparts. If the only relevant measure was to get things done without delay, the Chinese government is undoubtedly impressive. But efficiency, like all things, has a cost, and sometimes the cost is quite high. Likewise, authoritarian states might produce better short-term political outcomes. The problem with autocrats, however, is that even though they make good decisions for a while, their good judgment never seems to last. In reality, the benevolent dictator is rare. As an idea, it belongs more into speculative fiction than in political analysis. Because every mere mortal is subject to error, prejudice and delusion, it is only a matter of time before a single ruler without an electorate to counter his excesses begins to make unwise choices, even destructive. And then there’s no obvious way to undo the damage, because there’s no mechanism to censor, coerce, or remove the leader.
When it comes to democracy and its inherent slowness, the flaws are themselves the hallmark. As I say in The problem of democracy, democracies have the virtue but also the vulnerability of being better than they appear. Many democracies, even imperfect today, become more attractive in the future. Political theorist David Runciman writing that to understand American democracy, you have to learn not to take it at face value, because it usually ends up working despite how it looks. China offers an essential counterpoint. Under the Chinese autocracy, things were no better than they seemed; they were worse.
In 2015, political scientist Daniel Bell published a book, The Chinese model, which presented the Chinese political system as a viable and even attractive alternative to Western democracy. At the time, the idea that China had not simply risen but was destined to continue rising indefinitely was still a popular, if somewhat lazy, trope. Bell’s further argument was that East Asian meritocracy, however undemocratic, allowed skilled leaders to prioritize the long-term interests of the community while avoiding the more fleeting whims and passions of masses. The book came out just when the prospect of Donald Trump running the US government seemed more plausible. Four years of democratic chaos at home, including during the COVID outbreak, has made authoritarian jurisdiction abroad both enjoyable and predictable.
In practice, however, the Chinese model quickly set to work disproving its own premises. On the evening of Joe Bidens’ electoral victory in 2020, Xi Jinping would have said President-elect that autocracies will rule the world. Now, it’s worth asking whether autocracies can even run their own country.
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