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And the winner is.... China

by Jürgen Gerhards & Michael Zürn

№ 22/2021 from Jan 18, 2021

Does the management of the coronavirus crisis show the superiority of a technocratic autocracy?

Jürgen Gerhards & Michael Zürn

This text is a short version of an article that appeared in the ’Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’ on Jan. 13, 2021.

Black Virus

Black Virus
Image Credit: Gauthier DELECROIX - 郭天 (Flickr)

For a long time, social scientists have assumed that the liberal model of society consisting of individual self-determination, democracy, capitalist market economy, and welfare state was the ideal way to social development and modernization. This belief was not only based on the claim of normativ superiority, but also on the claim of superior performance. The last decades however, liberal democracies proved to be far more unstable and at risk, as autocratic developments in the United States, Poland or Hungary have shown. And existing autocracies, such as the communist China, turned out to be enormously successful. China has rapidly closed the gap with Western societies in almost all areas of social development. This applies to the enormous increase in prosperity and the number of people living below the poverty line, as well as to the development of transport infrastructure and new technologies, scientific development, and expansion of the educational system. China is now more than just one of the big players in a multipolar international system. It has risen to become the central competitor of liberal democracies, so that even the EU has reactivated the concept of competition between systems.

The competition between China and liberal democracies is not only about economic growth and development. Ultimately, the legitimacy of different social systems is at stake. And this legitimacy is based on two factors. What do political systems achieve for their citizens, and to what extent are decisions based on fair procedures and allow their citizens to make their own decisions? Especially when looking at the first criterion, 2020 was not a good year for the West.

At first glance China seems to be the clear winner when it comes to mastering the COVID-19 pandemic. At the end of 2020, the U.S. recorded nearly 350,000 deaths out of a population of nearly 330 million; the EU (including the U.K.) totaled nearly 430,000 deaths out of a population of 513 million. And China? Approximately 5000 deaths out of a population of nearly 1.4 billion. The difference in the track record is gigantic and the result not very favorable for Western liberal democracies, even if the figures from China cannot be entirely trusted.

But it is not only in terms of health policy that China has been impressively successful in mastering the coronavirus crisis; its record in overcoming the economic and social consequences of the crisis also speaks for itself. As China and a number of other Asian countries managed to successfully contain the pandemic, economic and social life was able to resume under increased control conditions after a relatively short lockdown, while Western societies suffered massive economic and social damage as a result of half-hearted measures. Experts predict an economic growth of around 2% for China in 2020, whereas the economies of the eurozone countries will see a decline of around 8% in 2020, and those of the USA of around 3.8%. To compensate for the economic slump, Western countries have taken on a high level of debt, which will limit the future scope for political action and impose a substantial burden on future generations.

What could the West have done differently and which lessons can be learned for future pandemics? The objection that only authoritarian regimes are able to effectively fight the pandemic by surveilling their citizens and implementing coercive measures falls short, since countries such as Japan, Taiwan or South Korea also have a much better grip on the spread of the virus which resulted in an only short-term lockdown and limited economic damage. The Asian countries' recipe for success is the strict implementation of three measures: "testing, tracking, and isolating". This requires the use of digitized technologies to collect information about citizens' movement patterns, which, in turn, requires at least a temporary invasion of people’s privacy. Unquestionably, this leads to a conflict between three core political goals: "avoidance of high infection and mortality rates," "avoidance of a lockdown with high economic and social costs," and "protection of informational privacy”. There should have been a public debate about how to balance these three goals. Unfortunately, such a discussion has not taken place. However, as the experiences of democratic Asian countries have shown, it is certainly possible to find ways of combining the tracing of individuals with the right to privacy.

The misuse of data is unquestionably a real problem. In Western Europe and North America, however, there is a tendency to largely prohibit the state from digital invasion of privacy, but to allow large private digital companies to access personal data. This is the wrong way to go. Companies have to be strictly controlled; at the same time, the state must be enabled to fulfill central state tasks such as protecting the health of its citizens and fighting crime. Of course, the state is also subject to law and must be subject to strict controls. For every euro spent on building state digital competence, one euro should be devoted to abuse control. That would be in line with the liberal logic of constitutionalism and the separation of powers. The idea of liberal democracy never was to keep the state weak. On the contrary, a well-ordered society needs a well-functioning and competent state, which must be subject to permanent internal control, so that state power cannot be misused. In the age of digitalization, we seem to fear a competent state in the first place

The failure of the West in combating pandemics is therefore not necessarily due to the structural features of the liberal model, but due to misguided policies and a one-sided approach to the dangers of digitizing data. Of course, this does not change the result. The Chinese government is all too happy to attribute the success of its crisis management to the system features of its own regime.

The weakness of Western societies in fighting the pandemic also means that they are too preoccupied with their own problems that they hardly address the actual legitimacy deficit of the Chinese system, namely its lack of democratic legitimacy. The low level of global political attention that the democracy movement in Hong Kong has enjoyed since the outbreak of the pandemic is symptomatic for this.