Chang Che is a freelance journalist.
In a futuristic work of art that went viral this fall, the Chinese artist Fan Wennan envisions a world brought to heel by Communist China.
By the year 2098, America is a satellite state, and Manhattan a tourist attraction memorializing the “tragedy” of Western decay. Plastered across the beige columns of the former New York Stock Exchange hangs the lurid red flag of the “People’s Union of America.”
As emergent vaccines signal a provisional end to the pandemic, how we choose to interpret the lessons of the past year will have consequences for future generations. Some wax philosophical on our penchant for undue suffering, while others use historical patterns to glean that which is yet to come. Yet the most popular story of the year was geopolitical: how the uneven effects of the pandemic revealed the truth of the best political model.
Since March, Chinese nationalists have championed the view that their country’s successful handling of the pandemic vindicates its authoritarian model of governance. Its essential features — political centralization, lack of respect for civil rights and strong state capacity — many say, make it especially well equipped for emergency situations like the pandemic.
With China’s market roaring back in full force, even liberal-minded analysts have entertained the thought. Nikkei’s senior executive editor Ryosuke Harada, for example, in the article “Tech gaps and a pushy China pose challenges for the world” published on Dec. 16, acknowledged that China had pulled ahead of its Western counterparts by using “authoritarian rule.” That the U.S., a byword for democracy, continues to handle the pandemic worse than most other developed countries, is the perfect sequel to the nationalist tale.
Yet reality paints a more complex picture. According to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, the countries with the lowest number of COVID related deaths per capita are an eclectic bunch. They include China, but also South Korea, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan, all of which tout democratic elections, a separation of powers and basic protections for civil liberties. Countries that fared the worst against the pandemic were equally diverse. The U.S. had one of the highest deaths per capita from the virus. Yet following close behind it were Russia and Iran, two systems that could pass as China’s cousins.
It is a broad truism that authoritarian governments are more decisive than their democratic counterparts. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that this theory is spectacularly flawed. In the weeks leading up to China’s shutdown of Wuhan on Jan. 23, political centralization discouraged discretionary action at the local level. Wuhan officials, either out of fear or habit, failed to take matters into their own hands, instead waiting for authorization from the central government — a fatal flaw in an emergency. State censorship, another pillar of authoritarianism, suppressed the online rancor that typically follows a viral outbreak, prolonging valuable information about the virus that could have reached other regions and countries.
While authoritarian China faltered, democratic New Zealand, in what was considered a radical move, closed its borders just weeks after the first case was reported, instituting an aggressive lockdown measure that urged citizens to interact only with those they lived with. In early May, the country reported zero new cases.
These examples help to reveal how the structure of a society holds less purchase on us than we think. State systems or models do not tackle a pandemic; its people do. And the recurring thread among the successful responses seems to have been the decisiveness of state leaders, accompanied by a responsible public willing to listen and compromise.
South Korea’s government prepared their testing capabilities as early as January even though cases only began to swell in early March. At the same time, citizens of South Korea accepted the trade-offs in privacy to allow real-time tracking of COVID patients for the sake of public health. Decisive leadership, responsible citizens, cohesive social structures: these are not secret ingredients in a cocktail of Chinese ingenuity. They are the basic building blocks of any effective governance. Political success is rooted in humanism, not communism.
The case of the U.S. also supports the claim that what mattered this year was not where authority comes from, but how it was used. It was President Donald Trump’s ham-handed leadership — discarding his predecessor’s pandemic playbook, repeated dismissals of the virus’ severity, disregard for expert advice and, even now, failing to provide a coherent national response — that damaged the country. Replace him with Jacinda Ardern, and the outcome would have been very different.
In China, I became convinced that it was not the state’s directives that drove the effectiveness of the response in February and March. A Chinese friend had told me that she had grown despondent by the propaganda blitz she witnessed in January, when all traces of negative media coverage of the virus effectively vanished.
“I thought to myself ‘they’re totally brainwashing us’,” she said. When I asked her how she had coped with it, she told me, quite paradoxically, that she had sent daily reminders to all her friends: “Don’t give the state any extra trouble.” That sacrificial instinct, a willingness to incur some personal cost in service of a common goal, was a running theme across many of the stories from this year.
The pandemic has already become a prop in the theater of great power politics, widening the chasm between democrats and authoritarians. Yet the lesson of 2020 was the opposite: that some metrics of a good society are widely shared. They reach across the old boundaries of the Iron Curtain, linking countries East and West, big and small. When asked how we managed the virus, the answer to future generations will be simple: we did it together.