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Imagining a Post-pandemic Political Order?

by Yifeng Chen

№ 27/2021 from Mar 16, 2021

Yifeng Chen

Covid 19

Covid 19
Image Credit: Transformer18 (Flickr)

China’s performance during COVID-19 is impressive despite its initial missteps, with negligible number of new cases. It has also largely restored its economic and social life, including in Wuhan. Most recently, four vaccines have been approved for mass inoculation. Vaccination is prioritized to high-risk groups and, by 9th February 2021, more than 40 million doses have been administered. Chinese vaccines have also been delivered to countries all over the world.

China’s pandemic response has triggered different interpretations. While Gerhards and Zürn see it as a success for China, Börzel and Risse’s evaluation is more mixed. Gerhards and Zürn identify “testing, tracking, and isolating” and data digitization as being key to tracking and controlling the spread of the virus, Börzel and Risse point to the relevance of cultural norms and political structure. The central issue underlying the debate is whether the failure of the West in combating the pandemic is structural to the liberal model, or incidental at the policy-making level. Arguably, the deep concern is that the pandemic may have the side effect of destabilizing liberal democracies and promoting the authoritarian model.

At the outset, it is inappropriate to view the fight against the pandemic as a playground for regime competition between China and liberal democracies. Very few Chinese tend to interpret the success of China combating COVID-19 as a victory of its political system. As is noted in both contributions, the success or failure among countries in handling the pandemic has no correlation with their political system. On one hand, some democratic countries have performed rather well (such as South Korea), many others not (such as the US or the UK)—yet the failure of some does not testify to the failure of democracy as a valid political system. On the other hand, countries do not perform well simply because of their authoritarian system.

To attribute the performance of China narrowly to its political system does not do justice to the full picture of its internal dynamics in responding to COVID-19. Efficient administration, social mobilization, and party leadership are crucial elements that lead to the success of getting the pandemic under control, yet it is too simplistic a conclusion. Many corporations, philanthropic organizations, professional groups, and volunteers have actively participated in the combat against COVID-19 on their own initiative. Life under lockdown is made possible by couriers, volunteers, public health experts, and families caring for others .

It might also help to consider China’s performance out of the liberal/authoritarian dichotomy. Many measures taken are indistinguishable between liberal democracies and authoritarian states—while China’s lockdown of Wuhan was widely criticized for being draconian, the same measure was shortly followed by Italy, UK, and other European countries. It is important to overcome the liberal bias and make an authentic account of China’s political system and its performance. Historians suggest that the centralized political system in China has deep historical roots, dictated by the persistent need for management against floods and famine, and of defence against Nomadic cattlemen from the North (Wittfogel 1957, Huang 1988).[i] To highlight the profoundness of the structural embeddedness of Chinese political system, it is crucial to acknowledge that it was designed for crisis management and social mobilization—it is unique and not susceptible of generalization.

In addition to performance legitimacy, the so-called responsive politics in China plays an important role in shaping the governmental policies and sustaining the system’s legitimacy. A real concern is the lagging nature of the bureaucratic response to social problems—such as developing an open government, respect for individual autonomy, greater protection of privacy, and greater social protection for the disadvantaged and the marginalized.

The failure of some Western countries in fighting COVID-19 may also have little to do with democracy as a system. Some of the challenges to liberal democracies predate the outbreak, and have been exacerbated by it. Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro were in power before the pandemic; right-wing populism in Hungary was on the rise already a decade ago; growing social disparity and hollowing of the middle class had been a political and socioeconomic issue for more than a decade; inequality of access to medical resources in the US has been a persistent phenomenon (Witt, 2020).[ii] Some of the problems are at the policy-making level in nature. The policy of herd immunity practiced in the UK and Sweden exposed the vulnerable to social Darwinism. With many young people disregarding the social distancing rules, the death toll of the elderly in caring homes is unacceptably high. It is also a concern for the South that the North has had almost monopolistic access to vaccines to the exclusion of developing countries.[iii]

It has been suggested that “democracies were not created for states of exception but for normality” (Innerarity, 2020).[iv] It is not necessarily so, as democracies often normalize exceptions. The pandemic experience does raise questions to the liberal cannons. Should the line between the public sphere and the personal privacy be temporarily redrawn at a time of crisis? How can we ensure effectiveness of democratic leadership and electoral accountability? How can technocracy interact with democracy when scientific opinions divide? When it comes to the liberal script, it may be useful to examine the ideas of the civic spirit, obligation of caring for others, limited but responsive government, and virtuous leadership.

A post-pandemic social order may offer political space for new ideas and commitments. Both China and liberal democracies can learn from the experience. The primary lesson of the pandemic is not to encourage authoritarianism, but to re-assert civic spirit and responsible leadership, highlighting the importance of inclusive politics against populism or social Darwinism.

Yifeng Chen is an associate professor of law at the Peking University Law School. His fields of interest include international law, international organizations, global governance, and international labour protection.


[i] Karl August Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (Yale University Press, 1957); Ray Huang, China: A Macro History (M.E. Sharpe, 1988).

[ii] John Fabian Witt, American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to COVID-19 (Yale University Press, 2020).

[iii] The Guardian, “Most poor nations ‘will take until 2024 to achieve mass Covid-19 immunisation’” <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/27/most-poor-nations-will-take-until-2024-to-achieve-mass-covid-19-immunisation?CMP=share_btn_tw>.

[iv] Daniel Innerarity, “Understanding, Deciding, and Learning: The Key Political Challenges in Times of Pandemic”, in Miguel Poiares Maduro, Paul W Kahn (eds.), Democracy in Times of Pandemic: Different Futures Imagined (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 122–135.