Covid-19 has merely accelerated the great geopolitical reality of the 21st century: the rise of Xi's China and the decline of Trump's America © Reuters/Kevin Lamarque & Shutterstock; Xie Huanchi/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Coronavirus, the rise of “acceptable authoritarianism” and the battle for democracy

Coronavirus has upended the world order and called basic liberal values into question. With authoritarianism on the rise, can democracy as we know it survive?
June 5, 2020

The announcement that democracy had been suspended in the United Kingdom was the seventh item on the BBC News at Ten on 13th March. The year-long postponement of around 120 local elections, including the mayoralties of London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, was mentioned in passing, with no voices raised in opposition. The last time elections had been postponed for longer than a month was during the Second World War.

Two weeks later, the prime minister’s declaration that all citizens must stay at home, with the warning that police forces would fine those refusing to comply, was made in advance of any vote by MPs. The Coronavirus Act, rammed through parliament two days later, included a swathe of new powers for the state over the citizen.

If you wanted to protest these decisions the most you could do was write a letter or sign a petition. For the first two months of lockdown, we were barred from meeting anyone outside our own household—the right to hold a demonstration was effectively suspended.

That such decisions could take place in a liberal democracy would have been unimaginable just a few short months ago. That those decisions had the overwhelming support of the population make this moment stranger still. Our entire way of life was changed, by fiat, and we accepted it.

It happened in other democracies too—indeed in almost every democracy around the world, and almost every member of the European Union. And as the lockdowns are eased, they are being replaced by mass surveillance. In return for the freedom to step outside their homes, citizens are allowing their governments to know where they are, who they have met and the state of their health—phone data, credit card payments, CCTV have all been used to track law-abiding citizens.

Politicians have discussed the idea of “immunity passports,” dividing populations into those who are free and those who are not. One of the tech companies consulted by the UK government has suggested the use of “facial biometrics.” The idea of governments tracking us through our movements, our phones, even our faces—proposals once seen as the preserve of paranoid dictatorships—have become acceptable; or, at the very least, the lesser of two evils.

In fragile democracies, Covid-19 has provided an excuse for an authoritarian turn. In Kenya, hundreds have been rounded up and placed in quarantine for such breaches as not wearing masks. In Malaysia, authorities have sought out and detained undocumented migrants on the pretext of fighting the virus. In Turkey, the government has detained hundreds of people for “provocative and abusive” social media posts—or, as you or I would put it, criticising the government’s response.

Perhaps most shockingly, in Hungary—a member of the European Union—Prime Minister Viktor Orbán introduced new legislation with no sunset clause that allows him to rule by decree, effectively turning the country into a dictatorship, unless he personally chooses to relinquish those powers.

The steps that democratic governments across the world have taken to protect us from Covid-19 have deprived us of our liberty, increased the power of the police, and reduced the power of our elected parliaments. To save lives in our liberal democracies we have become—and in some respects could well remain—illiberal and undemocratic.

“If we compare the United States only to China, then authoritarianism may well being to look tempting”

At the same time, China—the antithesis of a liberal democracy—is proclaiming victory, arguing that its swifter, tougher measures have not only shown how to successfully combat Covid-19 but also demonstrated the merits of a more effective model for governing.

This is a global crisis, met by more than 200 different national responses. Since the end of the Second World War, liberal democracies have proclaimed that their form of governance is superior to anything else. Covid-19 is a bracing test of whether we were right.

1. Democracies versus dictatorships

“We should not be surprised,” wrote the political scientist Ivan Krastev in March, “if, the day after the crisis, China looks like a winner and the United States looks like a loser.” The rise of China and the decline of the US has been the great geopolitical reality of the early 21st century. The two nations’ response to Covid-19 has dramatically accelerated the shift in the balance of power and esteem.

China’s lockdown appears to have worked. The death toll is astonishingly low: under 5,000 for a nation of 1.4bn compared to a toll, so far, of over 100,000 out of a population a quarter of the size. In other words, the virus has been almost one hundred times more deadly in the US.

The Chinese economy is now back open for business to a far greater extent than western economies, after initial measures that were much more draconian. For weeks, residents in the most affected parts of the country were not allowed out of their homes. In some cities, party officials were posted outside apartment blocks to ensure compliance. As the lockdown was lifted it was replaced with bio-surveillance; smartphones became informants—if you broke the rules, your phone would report you.

Coronavirus apparently beaten, China began its victory lap. Its success, Chinese diplomats claimed, showed that its model of governance worked. As western democracies anguished over which precious rights to withdraw, Beijing’s international propaganda outfits were loudly trumpeting the advantages of authoritarianism. “The world is now entering a global test of governance in which China is now a leader,” proclaimed the Global Times, an English language newspaper controlled by the Chinese government. “Many western governments ill-equipped to handle coronavirus,” read another headline.

Beijing proudly presented itself as the saviour of other nations. Thanks to its global manufacturing might, the life-saving goods of this crisis—the masks, gowns, gloves and medicine—are all stamped “made in China.” But it hasn’t waited for other countries to buy them. Stepping into the leadership vacuum left by the US, the People’s Republic has sent planes carrying equipment and health officials across the world—more than 100 nations have taken delivery of masks, gowns, ventilators or other equipment.

“Dear Chinese friends, sisters and brothers, welcome to Serbia!” exclaimed the Serbian President Alexander Vucic, when a shipment arrived in Belgrade. “Thank you very much to my brother, President Xi Jinping! Long live China!” Italy received masks and goggles, Spain millions of tests, even the UK received a shipment, boxes labelled with a thoughtfully tailored slogan “keep calm and fight coronavirus,” our own wartime heritage invoked to remind us who our new allies are in the battle against the virus.

Testing kits, face masks and goggles were sent to 10 Pacific island states, while officials from all 10 took part in teleconferences with Chinese counterparts advising them on how to deal with the pandemic. While most international organisations have floundered, the alternative networks Beijing has gradually nurtured over the last 15 years have swung into action—the 17+1 with central and eastern European nations; the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation; and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which gives Beijing influence over central Asia.

The contrast with the US is stark. Since the election of Donald Trump, the slow eclipse of American leadership in the world has given way to a rapid downward spiral. His lies, breathtaking in their range, ferociousness and sheer volume; his brazen support for the far-right at home and abroad; his vicious attacks on anyone who dares to oppose him, however timidly—all this is counter to the whole spirit of liberal democracy, driving it apart from established allies and greatly sapping America’s fabled soft power.

In the first two months of the crisis, Trump tried to ignore Covid-19, dismissing it as “flu,” suggested it would disappear “like a miracle,” that the weather would sort it, or that he had simply heard “it’s going to be just fine.” Once he realised a deadly virus wouldn’t back down in the face of a volley of tweets, he changed tack and claimed it was a war and only he could defeat it.

At his daily press briefings he acted like a petty tyrant, abusing reporters who have the temerity to ask him questions he doesn’t like (“you should say ‘thank you very much for good judgment,” he told one from CBS News). As reliably mendacious as he is capricious, he has brazenly covered up his administration’s shortcomings: the lack of testing and PPE for medics and carers.

He has undermined the lockdown by railing against it, refused to wear the masks his own administration recommended, and touted miracle cures—at one point suggesting it would be “interesting to check” whether injecting bleach could treat the virus; at another, broadcasting to the world that he had personally been taking an entirely unproven drug.

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Petty tyrant: Donald Trump's daily press briefings on coronavirus have been given over to ambushing reporters and undermining lockdown orders ©Kevin Dietsch/Pool/EPA-efe/Shutterstock

In past crises the world has turned to the US for help—or the US has imposed it without anyone asking. Not this time. Trump has vowed to defund the World Health Organisation (WHO), failed to join allies in the global quest for a vaccine, and has requisitioned US-made medical equipment that was bound for other nations.

The US, the nation with more resources than any other on earth, should have been the most prepared for a pandemic—indeed, it was the most prepared before Trump took office. But today, it has the world’s highest death toll.

If we view the United States of America as our beacon of hope, then democracy is indeed in trouble. And if we compare it only to China, then authoritarianism may well begin to look tempting. But look beyond the two superpowers and a different picture emerges: democracies have, overall, dealt with coronavirus far more effectively than dictatorships.

Instead of allowing China to luxuriate in its comparison with a malfunctioning US, judge it instead against its democratic neighbours: Taiwan, seven deaths in a population of 24m; South Korea, 272 deaths in a population of 51m; Japan, 894 deaths in a population of 126m. In this light, China’s record is average,
at best.

Indeed, China’s autocratic nature helped to unleash the spread of the virus in the first place. The outbreak was covered up by local officials; whistleblowers, such as the 34-year-old doctor Li Wenliang who eventually lost his life to the virus, were gagged or ignored. The government lied to the WHO and only admitted Covid-19’s existence when they were confronted with the evidence. Critics of Beijing’s response have been “disappeared.” Had China had a free press and a transparent government, the outbreak might have been contained before it took hold.

And for all the PR effort that has been put into its global role, it doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. Much of that kit donated to others has proved defective, and by encouraging rumours about America bringing the virus to Wuhan, Beijing has dabbled in the same sort of dishonest power play as Trump. In recent weeks, China has been using its English-language propaganda networks and social media not just to promote its own message, but also to spread disinformation and sow discord in the west.

Step back and review the diverse list of countries that have endured this crisis well, and it is in fact dominated by democracies. Aside from Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, there has been much to admire in the responses of New Zealand and Australia; of Germany, Denmark, Norway and Austria. It is not all about prosperity, either. After a dark decade economically, Greece has risen to the hour, and so too, in important ways, have Senegal, Ghana and the Indian state of Kerala.

These democracies have different cultures and characteristics, but they all used the ballot box to pick competent leaders who listened to their experts. All enjoy a spirit of transparency and, perhaps most importantly when combatting a virus, a public that trusts its institutions.

When government is truly of the people then it has, in the words of the first and most celebrated student of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, a “singular power,” with no need to corral others into sharing its beliefs, instead being able to rely on making “them permeate the thinking of everyone by a sort of enormous pressure of the mind of all upon the individual intelligence.”

We are, in other words, inclined to believe what the government says to the extent we can identify with our government. (Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings take note). And when such a government asks us to lend it emergency power over us, it makes sense for us to acquiesce to the extent that we are confident that they will give that power back.

These are very deep advantages of the democratic over the authoritarian system. Coronavirus may have accelerated the rise of China and the decline of the US, but across the broader canvass, there is still powerful reason to hope that democracy can out.

Nonetheless, this is a moment of peril. Past global crises—such as the Depression of the 1930s, and the great inflation of the 1970s—have produced grave bouts of democratic self-doubt. In a system founded on the right of the people to criticise and change the way they are governed, periodic collapses in confidence are not so much a bug as an occasionally-dangerous feature. The big question for liberal democracies over the coming months and years is whether they can keep faith in themselves, and remain true to their principles. Everything is still to play for—but nothing is secure.

2. Acceptable authoritarianism

One of the more unnerving aspects of the British lockdown has been the way in which we have all been conscripted into policing it. From social media complaints about joggers failing to respect the two-metre rule, to shaming pictures of individuals sitting down in the park, some of us have enthusiastically dobbed in our neighbours. A YouGov poll in April for Crest, a crime and justice think tank, suggested that 51 per cent of Britons would be comfortable reporting on others.

Some police forces rushed to tap this attitude, setting up online forms encouraging us to report our neighbours for any alleged infringement we spot. Stood in my local park in northeast London this spring, as my son ran around chasing monsters, I glanced around to see if anyone was watching us. Should I do star jumps just in case?

The guidance issued by the government was vague and different police forces and councils interpreted it in different ways. In Derbyshire, the police have used drones to accuse people of breaking the rules by visiting a national park (they weren’t); in Northamptonshire, the Chief Constable, Nick Adderley said that while his police force would not “start to marshal supermarkets and check the items in baskets and trolleys to see whether it’s a legitimate, necessary item,” if people didn’t follow the rules, “we will start to do that.” (He can’t.)

A healthy democracy can, in the end, only be sustained in the vigilance of its people. But even before Covid-19 there had been signs of a dangerous complacency setting in. In the midst of the Brexit impasse last year, a Hansard Society poll revealed that 54 per cent of Britons believed that “Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules.”

Coronavirus, and our response to it, has now confirmed how comfortable we are with “acceptable authoritarianism.” The lockdown was wildly popular—more than 90 per cent approval in the early weeks, according to a YouGov poll. The Crest survey also showed majority support for deploying facial recognition technology to identify those breaching the rules, as well as for the use of drones to photograph people taking “unnecessary journeys.” Almost 40 per cent favoured the police naming and shaming offenders on social media.

“The idea that government ministers are merely vassals for the decisions of experts is corrosive to the spirit of democracy”

While the changes feel sudden, everything that has been done to all of us in the past few weeks has been done to many of the vulnerable in society for far longer—and in some cases forever. (The idea that police officers might stretch the limit of their powers is no surprise to any person of colour, or anyone from Liverpool, or from Orgreave, or from Northern Ireland).

But a good starting point for acceptable authoritarianism in 21st-century Britain would be the Labour government’s abolition, in 2000, of cash payments for asylum seekers. They were replaced with vouchers for  “essential” items, with supermarket cashiers roped in to decide which items in the basket passed that test—razors and socks, for instance, were often disallowed.

Not long after, the department for work and pensions began actively encouraging snooping, by urging people to inform on neighbours they suspected of working while claiming the dole—a stance since formalised into an anonymous “benefit cheats hotline.” New Labour also used bosses and landlords to check in on migrants, an approach David Cameron’s government then ramped up with the hostile environment policy, which effectively enlisted NHS staff, employers and anyone renting out a flat as border guards, forced by law to demand that (real or merely suspected) immigrants show them their papers.

One of the reasons why the UK government initially enjoyed such astonishing support, even from people who didn’t vote for it, was because it took care to avoid overt party politics, and present itself as simply “following the science.” In a way, this made for a refreshing break from the expert-bashing populism of the Brexit argument.

But the suggestion that ministers are merely vassals for presenting the decisions of experts is misleading, and corrosive to the whole spirit of democracy. For the reality is that there are always competing arguments, including about interpretation of the technical evidence, and more especially about the policies that follow from it. The Sunday Times has now revealed that some of the government’s scientific advisers believed lockdown should have begun weeks earlier. That initial delay contributed to one of the highest death tolls in the world.

Interestingly, what held Britain back, to such ruinous effect, was less doubt over the science than the government’s doubt over its own standing—there were fears that an order to stay at home would not be adhered to. And in the months ahead, the inescapably political nature of policy will become clearer if “the science” is invoked to justify taking us down a controversial path. We are moving from a period where we all gave up our liberty for the greater good, to one where only certain segments of the population will be asked—perhaps told—to do so.

Longer arm of the law: police disrupt a park gathering during lockdown © Guy Bell/Shutterstock Longer arm of the law: police disrupt a park gathering during lockdown © Guy Bell/Shutterstock

Longer arm of the law: police disrupt a park gathering during lockdown © Guy Bell/Shutterstock

What if, for example, the science suggests that the best way to re-open the country is to “cocoon” the vulnerable, as David Halpern, the director of Whitehall’s Behavioural Insights Team has already suggested? Are “the vulnerable” all of the over-70s, and those with what we’ve come to refer to as “underlying conditions”?

Or do the vulnerable include people of colour who appear to be disproportionately at risk? Would a government be “following the science” if it quarantined different races? In China, many of those who have been quarantined have been placed in government “hotels.” Would we do the same? And, at that point, is “hotel” really the most accurate word?

Since 9/11 there has been an ongoing battle between security and civil liberties. There are inherently tricky balances to strike and our record is mixed. We have accepted an astonishing rise in CCTV cameras, yet pushed back against other schemes such as ID cards. The Freedom of Information Act has increased transparency without endangering effective government, and the Human Rights Act (and the law of privacy that has developed under its auspices) has bolstered individuals’ protection without unduly compromising free speech.

Such calibrated responses to the contours and complexities of real life are a vindication of open democratic processes: these reforms were dreamed up and argued for in civil society, vigorously debated in parliament, and are today openly applied in independent tribunals.

It is when liberal democracies lose their nerve, and attempt to operate in the dark, that things get out of kilter. As the Edward Snowden revelations demonstrated, the moment theoretically democratic governments believe themselves to be operating in secret, they can lapse into near-blanket surveillance.

All those battles about liberty and security are about to be refought. Are we willing to allow the government to track our movements, know who we meet, what we buy, know whether we’re ill? In return for the liberty to leave our homes, the answer is probably yes.

3. The lives of others

There is a phrase popularised by Martin Luther King and wheeled out by Barack Obama on big occasions: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It’s a nice line, but it’s not true. Without wishing to take a metaphorical flourish too literally, the arc only bends towards justice if enough pressure is put upon it.

A resurgence of authoritarianism in liberal democracies won’t just have an impact inside those countries’ own borders—it could have profound consequences on the rest of the world too. The international right to asylum, which has already taken a battering over the past five years, could disappear. However well it has been doing with the virus, Greece has shamefully suspended the asylum application process for anyone arriving on their shores, never mind that this is illegal under both EU and international law.

We could easily move into a period where “public safety” trumps every other value, and freedom of expression, of speech, of religion can all be eroded without a murmur of international opprobrium. On the human rights front, there will surely be more Syrias, and we won’t even pretend to care. We risk looking on as democracy is dismantled in previously liberal societies. Because if the UK can suspend elections, anyone can. And if an EU leader like Orbán can rule by decree, what is to stop anyone else?

The absence of principled or effective cross-border alliances redoubles democracy’s frailty. Coronavirus may be a global crisis, but it has been met by national responses. The EU has been weak, the UN absent, the WHO attacked and too often ignored. If liberal democracies are to survive while being worthy of the name, they will need to stand together for their threatened values. They will have to be clear about what is acceptable and what is not—and that means making some bold decisions.

It is time to let America go. It has rarely lived up to the idea that it is the “shining city upon a hill”—America’s belief in democracy has often only applied within its own borders, as anyone living in Indonesia, Chile or DR Congo, to name just a few, can attest.

But the Trump presidency has taken this to a new level. When Trump announced the withdrawal of US funding for the WHO, the remaining parts of the liberal western alliance should have immediately promised to make up the shortfall. When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prevented the G7 from issuing a joint communiqué by insisting it refer to coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus,” it should have released a statement from the G6 and explained publicly why the US was wrong. For too long, western allies have appeased such bullying and, in doing so, failed to stand up for their supposed values. Trump is not your friend; an America led by him is not your ally.

Nor is it too soon to speculate as to how long America can call itself a democracy. Presidential elections are due to take place in November. Can more than 100m people go to the polls if Covid-19 is still rampant? Trump’s denouncement of the most practical fallback, postal voting, as “substantially fraudulent” was so hysterical as to earn a fact-check warning from Twitter; it looked very much like laying down a marker for undermining the electoral process later this year if he doesn’t like the way it’s heading.

It is no longer impossible to imagine him attempting to suspend those elections—a potential first time in US history. Not the Second World War, not even the Civil War could stop Americans voting in November. Should it come to that, liberal democracies cannot stay silent.

By character and inclination, the current president of the US is a fascist. At the moment, Trump remains a fascist operating in a democratic system, but he has spent four years eroding its boundaries. As his despotic response to the riots provoked by the killing of a black man by a white police officer demonstrates, he will destroy any lawful or cultural restraint on his whims whenever he can get away with it.

“Nor is it too soon to speculate how long America can call itself a democracy”

Europe needs to stand firm too against aspiring autocrats in its own neighbourhood. If the Hungarian government doesn’t share your values, they shouldn’t be in your club. And yet far from suspending Hungary’s EU membership, when 14 nations, led by Germany and France, issued a statement condemning Orbán’s new laws they failed to mention the country by name. If Budapest turns to China and Russia, so be it. Liberal democracy means something or it doesn’t.

The diplomacy of democracy cannot be channelled through groupings like the G20, when it is currently led by the brutal autocracy of Saudi Arabia. If the world needs new multilateral organisations, build them. Create a league of democracies, with a set of standards that each member has to continually meet.

Just as coronavirus might usefully draw a line under the delusions of American exceptionalism, it should also finally banish its ageing British cousin. Our liberalism is not intrinsically less vulnerable than other countries because we supposedly haven’t been invaded in a thousand years. And our democracy is not more secure simply because we’ve never lived under a modern dictatorship.

Indeed, our history may leave us more complacent. In the face of the highest Covid-19 death rate on the planet, our prime minister has claimed that other countries have been looking at our “apparent success.” Instead of deluding ourselves about how we’re seen, we should have the humility to learn from those who really are succeeding.

What can we learn from South Korea, a relatively young democracy that the west has tended to ignore? What can we learn from Iceland, a European neighbour that we rarely consider? And even if we are stubbornly bent on Anglo-Saxon inspiration, why not learn from New Zealand as opposed to the US?

There are those who would argue that “liberal democracy” was always an unlikely amalgam. Before the First World War, individual rights and mass people power were often seen as opposed. It was, say these pessimists, only the heat of that conflict that bound them together, and then the need to see off first the Nazis and then Soviet Communism which slowly hypnotised us into believing that they were a natural fit, as opposed to a marriage forged by specific and passing historical contingencies. For liberal democracy’s critics, Covid-19 may put an ageing accident out of its misery.

This is too gloomy: the right to vote and other civil rights have marched forward in lockstep, and societies that enjoy both have generally been—and remain—better run and better able to weather most storms.  The combination of representative democracy, free and fair elections, democratic oversight of institutions, a free press and human rights for all is—still—the best form of governance humanity has devised.

Just as liberal democracy has evolved since the end of the Second World War, it can now rise again to new challenges. Our approach to dealing with the pandemic must be open, must be democratic. We have been asked to trust experts; governments should, in turn, also trust their citizens.

It will be messy, there will be mistakes. But there really is no other way. If liberal democracy is to be saved, it has to be liberal and it has to be democratic.