China says autocracy works better. Covid tolls will lead people to conclude it’s right

The Party insists it has a superior approach. Fumbling democracies must restore trust before it’s too late

November 21, 2020
 Costfoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
Costfoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

On 18th November, 12 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in the People’s Republic of China, bringing the cumulative total to 86,398. More than 81,000 of those victims had recovered and 4,634, according to the official toll, had died. On the 18th, like any other day in recent months, normal life continued throughout most of the country: people went to work, ate out, went to cinemas, studied at schools and colleges, shopped and moved around, unrestricted by lockdown constraints.

By that November day the United States had passed the dreadful milestone of 250,000 Covid-19 related deaths in around nine months: a toll four times the number of US dead in the ten years of the Vietnam War, seven times the US dead in the Korean War and two-thirds of the total US casualties in WW2.

Europe is in the grip of a new wave. That same day, the UK reached nearly 1.5m total cases since March and more than 50,000 deaths—ten times the Chinese fatalities in a population only a fraction of China’s. As Beijing boasts of rapid economic recovery, the UK continues to suffer a deadly combination of deepening economic pain, a bungled pandemic response and stop-start lockdowns from which only the still-distant promises of a vaccine offer the hope of relief. Increasingly the question is not what will happen to Christmas 2020 in the UK, but whether it will ever feel like Christmas again.

China certainly had a rocky beginning. Wuhan officials suppressed evidence of the early outbreak even within the country itself, which fatally delayed its pandemic response—events that showcased the worst aspects of China’s political system and unleashed a storm of recrimination that lingered into the first weeks of Chinese government action. Reports emerged of a disabled teenager who starved to death when his carer father was forcibly detained, and of the death of Dr Li Wenliang, punished for speaking out; harsh realities beneath a façade of propaganda.

But today Beijing can claim that normal life and economic activity have largely recovered, while outside the country’s borders incompetent or uncaring governments have lost control and failed to protect their citizens. This has become a pillar of the case the Chinese Communist Party is making increasingly insistently: that China’s autocracy is simply a better system of government that not only delivers for its own people but serves as a compelling example for the wider world. Today it is a story that its citizens, and some outside China, find convincing.

The Party has had important help, of course, notably from the White House—where Donald Trump, when not on the golf course, has done more to weaken US standing in the world than even the most ardent communist or Chinese nationalist could have imagined in their wildest dreams. But the debate is not over whether China has suppressed the pandemic—despite some reported scepticism over the official numbers, the evidence that the pandemic has been controlled is overwhelming—but whether its success adds up to an argument for dictatorship over democracy.

The world’s democracies should—and hopefully will—examine their own pandemic failings unflinchingly. When they do, it will be important to draw the right lessons. China has pointed to continuing disasters in the US and in Europe, but closer to home, there are successes that it chooses not to highlight.

Chief among these is Taiwan, the democratic offshore island (or in Beijing’s lexicon, renegade province) that was intimately connected to China at the start of the pandemic through direct flights, including several a day to Wuhan. If the deciding factor in pandemic success was autocracy versus democracy, we should expect to see devastation in both Taiwan and another democratic neighbour, South Korea.

That is not what happened. Taiwan, with a population of 23.7m, had 611 Covid-19 cases—most of them in late March—and suffered seven deaths. South Korea is a similar success story: it flattened the curve quickly without lockdown or businesses closures, deployed highly effective detection, containment and treatment, and the government and the scientific community collaborated closely throughout.

What these successes have in common, apart from a democratic system of government, is hard-won previous experience of deadly epidemics. Taiwan faced a SARS outbreak in 2003, which infected 668 people and killed 181. In 2015 some 17,000 citizens were infected with MERS in South Korea, and 38 died over a six-month period. The economic hit hurt too in South Korea, with losses of around US$2.6bn in tourism revenue and additional expenditure of almost US$1bn on measures to deal with the health crisis.

Both countries responded to these tragedies by setting up the robust and effective preparation and response systems that proved so effective in dealing with Covid-19. Both enjoyed public trust in government and a willingness to comply with mask wearing and other measures, and thus a low infection rate, a very small number of deaths and economies that largely continued to function.

The UK can certainly learn lessons from 2020, but Boris Johnson’s bungling government would do better to avoid the authoritarian temptations embedded in China’s example and look to the virtues of Beijing’s neighbours, where high levels of trust were earned by transparency and competence.