As the Covid-19 epidemic has taken hold, there has been a deluge of commentary on what might be called the “politics of disease”. Travel bans, closed borders, policy responses and funding allocations all reflect directly on the exercise of power. Given the stakes involved, this will be watched closely, as well it should.
This is personal for me, since I am now “working from home”. At least I am working in a reasonably safe environment. There are many others in this country who have to brave infection to get to work. And many others who as a result of this will not be working at all, or will not be returning to work when the crisis ends.
But nowhere is the “politics of disease” as important as it is in respect of China. China – the People’s Republic of China – is the world’s rising behemoth. That is, at least, a widely held view. Its economy has grown at breakneck speed since the late 1970s; its economy is, according to the World Bank, second in size only to that of the US, around three times the size of Japan’s and Germany’s, and five times that of the United Kingdom. It is projected to become the world’s largest in the not-too-distant future.
The World Bank further estimates that as many as 850 million Chinese people have risen from poverty over the past four decades. This is praiseworthy by any measure.
In addition, China is a rising political force, flexing its diplomatic muscle in its region and abroad. Chinese aid and investment is doing much to change the prospects of recipients around the world. Ideologically, it has to an extent stepped into the role once occupied by the Soviet Union: an orientation point of sorts for leftist and anti-Western political thought. For others, China heralds a multi-polar world, a counterbalance to the United States, a future which many political thinkers greet with enthusiasm.
China’s formal diplomacy has been finessed, seeking to promote its interests as aligned with those of other (particularly developing) countries around the world, while exploiting rifts and resentments towards its competitors and offering at least a vision of development that demands less of governments in terms of democratisation and accountability, while holding out the notion of rapid prosperity.
I have encountered this narrative first-hand from Chinese officials, hearing from Chinese diplomats how China fully endorses democracy and human rights, but with an (undefined) “Chinese understanding”, and that people really don’t care about these abstract ideas, at any rate not until they reach an (undefined) level of development.
It has had some undeniable success in this. The “Chinese model” – authoritarian political control, along with an efficient bureaucracy and state-owned companies, producing growth and rising prosperity – has become a point of major interest for governments in the developing world and for policy analysts.
And this goes beyond a mere admiration for the supposed efficiencies of China’s political and economic systems. It is a normative admiration, not just a utilitarian one. It builds on a long-standing tradition that cultural or civilisational factors make countries more or less suited to democracy – the so-called “Asian values” (or for that matter “African values”) proposition.
In many democratic societies, this is coupled with frustration at lacklustre economic performance, social problems, and concerns about the exclusion of an underclass.
In my observation, there has been a remarkable shift in the enthusiasm for democracy and civil liberties as a normative good, to a relativism in which they are merely one of a number of equally valid options.
When representatives of the Chinese state are in the room, I have sensed a marked deference and straining to avoid criticism and giving offence by people who would not extend this behaviour to an American or a German or a Zimbabwean. This is not, by the way, a uniquely South African thing. (It’s about the culture, because the Chinese have their own way of doing things, and they don’t take kindly to criticism, comes the mumbled explanation.)
For many (whom I would broadly describe as “progressive”) the electoral success of “populist” parties, candidates and causes – think Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, or the blowback in continental Europe against immigration – have added to the momentum, here. Ordinary “low information” people cannot be trusted with societal affairs, nor should their views be respected; a good dose of control, expertise and management by elites (presumably including by those who look dreamily on this future) is needed. A moral and intellectual oligarchy, perhaps.
Let’s face it, said one gentleman on social media a little while ago, democracy has failed. China represented not only a better system, but a more moral one. Democracy is simply not an uncontested game any more, and personal freedom is viewed with ambivalence, and China’s rise has contributed to this.
Or, as the African National Congress put it in a 2015 discussion document: “China[’s] economic development trajectory remains a leading example of the triumph of humanity over adversity. The exemplary role of the collective leadership of the Communist Party of China in this regard should be a guiding lodestar of our own struggle.”
The Covid-19 outbreak should give us pause. It’s true enough that China’s reaction to the pandemic had garnered praise, not least from the World Health Organisation. For what it was – lockdowns, population control and deploying masses of medical personnel. This was the sort of thing that its governance and political system is geared towards, as one commentator euphemistically put it, “with the advantage of having a centrally-controlled political system which is light on human rights”.
China has even sent assistance elsewhere.
Yet this is a selective account. Probably the best chance that the world had to contain the outbreak was at its start. A study at the University of Southampton determined that proper intervention three weeks earlier could have reduced the impact of the virus by up to 95%.
The drive was to obfuscate and deny – even to the point of destroying samples of the virus. This was not merely “bungling”, but the logical course of a political system geared to control. That things are wrong, that “control” has been compromised, that the reputation of the country (and, in its political arrangements, this should be taken to mean its ruling party) has been damaged is a nightmare scenario as real for its leaders as an actual outbreak of disease. It mirrored the Chinese government’s response to previous outbreaks, such as HIV in the late 1980s, and Sars in 2003.
Those who voiced concern early on found themselves on the wrong side of the security apparatus. They numbered at the very least in the hundreds and included the late Dr Li Wenliang, the whistle-blower doctor who had warned of the disease in December. A Chinese professor who correctly pointed to the lack of action by the Chinese authorities – “They all blithely stood by as the crucial window of opportunity to deal with the outbreak of the infection snapped shut in their faces” – found himself under house arrest. A number of journalists were expelled from the country. A prominent Chinese businessman who criticised the response to the outbreak has gone “missing”.
The Chinese government has, of course, also sought to keep its rival Taiwan isolated from global planning. This is despite Taiwan’s being a major transport and business hub, with extensive contacts with the mainland; politics aside, its exclusion puts the world at risk. Ironically, it has done exceptionally well in containing the virus – a demonstration of what a combination of clear-eyed understanding of the dynamics of the mainland, a geared-up health system, competent administration and open, transparent state and private sector action can do.
In a recent piece on the outbreak, and what it portends for China’s growing role in the world, Samir Saran of the India-based think tank, the Observer Research Foundation, commented:
“As a political regime centred around the absolute inviolability of the Communist Party, China’s domestic reaction should surprise nobody. In many ways, the CPC’s international response reflected the idiosyncrasies of its domestic politics. China delayed notifying the WHO and in permitting it to inspect the situation in Wuhan; released vital genetic information to the international community a full week after it was isolated; and allowed millions of individuals from Wuhan to leave the city unscreened, many of whom then travelled the world. Countries which received much of that traffic are now grappling with more deaths than they can handle.
“We know that China was certainly aware of the scale of the health crisis: in the early days of the outbreak, General Secretary Xi was conspicuously missing from state media reports, despite claiming to have addressed the Party about the outbreak in early-January. This would have happened only because of the uncertainty surrounding China’s efforts to contain the virus. He was made the focal point of the response after his ‘Ides of March’ visit to Wuhan when the CPC was confident that it had the situation under control.”
More recently, Chinese officials have taken to spreading ludicrous falsehoods – “fake news”, in popular parlance – about the virus being a bioweapon deliberately introduced into China. (Incidentally, this echoes a Cold War misinformation campaign about the origins of AIDS.)
All of this raises some very serious red flags (pardon the pun) for those who have celebrated the rise of China – not least those in South Africa’s own political class and commentariat. As Saran argues, it “irrefutably demonstrates” that the leadership of the Communist Party of China is willing to risk the interests of the world to promote its own.
Perhaps more to the point, it should raise serious misgivings about the model that China embodies. The Covid-19 outbreak shows that authoritarian control is not always the twin of effectiveness. In this case, the lack of freedom, the dogged determination of the CPC to protect its own sense of dominance, have driven this pandemic. That we on distant shores are confined to our homes is the outcome. It is remarkable how little this figures into most South African commentary on the pandemic.
Democracy and freedom are messy; they can produce indecision and inefficiency – yet they also hold within them the ability to self-correct, to allow unpleasant truths to be aired. It is a curb on the imperiousness of those who “know better” or “see the bigger picture”. The circumstances under which we find ourselves today should be a caution against dispensing with them. The Covid-19 pandemic shows the risks. DM