The human capacity to transcend the past and even the present is powerful. Three years after a devastating coronavirus pandemic took hold, nearly every country has dropped restrictions and mostly resumed normal life. The one country where COVID has never seemed to end, however, is China.
After the country’s largest protests in decades, Chinese officials are finally rolling back some of their harshest “zero COVID” pandemic regulations. But China’s COVID regime still remains one of the world’s most restrictive, with officials retaining the ability to enforce lockdowns in designated “high-risk areas.” The adoption of zero-COVID measures and now their abrupt reversal have revived a debate over whether autocracies like China are more effective at governance than democracies like America.
No American should be tempted by this false equivalence. China’s pandemic strategy has been woefully misguided from the start, illustrating the many dangers of one-man rule and an all-encompassing surveillance state.
The authoritarian bargain in China has long been clear: Citizens forsake their freedom in return for economic gains through cheap labor. Because dictatorships, by definition, do not enjoy democratic legitimacy, their legitimacy relies almost entirely on performance—what political scientists call “output legitimacy.” The problem with this sort of legitimacy is that it can easily be undone by unusual circumstances and external shocks. China’s strict measures may have succeeded in containing COVID early on, but its draconian policies ever since have tested the limits of the populace’s patience. The once-formidable Chinese economy has ground to a halt, crippling businesses and sending youth unemployment to record highs. As a frustrated protester in the city of Chongqing put it: “There is only one disease in the world, that is, being unfree and poor, and now we have both.”
In the beginning, many observers hailed China as a model of pandemic management. As cases of the virus piled up and the United States dithered in March and April of 2020, China moved rapidly, building “instant hospitals” from scratch in days, introducing door-to-door health checks, and enforcing city-wide quarantines. The World Health Organization offered its “deepest congratulations” to China in the fall of 2020 “for having reached such a successful outcome.” The prestigious journal Lancet Infectious Diseases appeared to take some pleasure in contrasting China’s pandemic management with America’s under the Trump administration.
China’s early approach no doubt saved many lives. But over time, as much of the world moved past COVID, China intensified its zero-tolerance strategy, to the extent that citizens in one border city were prohibited from leaving their homes for 119 days earlier this year. Yet after a recent Washington Post article pointed out a flaw in China’s zero-COVID policy—few people in the country have developed natural immunity to the virus—some in the media came to China’s defense. To this day, even critiques of China’s COVID policy seem unable to jettison the narrative that China’s model was preferable to the alternatives. A recent New York Times article, for example, read:
After the initial outbreak of Covid in 2020, China’s economy bounced back quickly. While the rest of the world remained in lockdown, China’s hard-line approach to keeping the coronavirus in check worked well and its economy roared to life. In particular, exports were a bright spot as Chinese factories manufactured many of the products that the rest of the world bought online during isolation.
For those who allowed themselves to be tempted by the Chinese model, the question is why. It was a model that could only be imposed by brute force and by effectively shutting an entire country off from the rest of the world, a very difficult thing to do unless you happened to live on a remote island.
Despite their faults, democracies are morally and politically superior to autocracies, however efficient, strong, or “benevolent” the latter appear to be. Appearances are deceiving. In China, there were no pesky voters, checks and balances, bureaucratic constraints, or fractious debates over “following the science” to worry about. There was no polarization. But that’s because polarization is possible only when citizens can express contrasting opinions in public. It might be unfashionable to say so, but the United States is better not in spite of its democracy, but because of it.
It’s true that autocracies are often more efficient than their democratic counterparts. If the only relevant metric were getting things done without delay, the Chinese government is undoubtedly impressive. But efficiency, like all things, comes at a cost, and sometimes the cost is quite high. Similarly, authoritarian states might produce better policy outcomes in the short run. The problem with autocrats, though, is that even if they make “good” decisions for a particular stretch of time, their good judgment never seems to last. In reality, the “benevolent dictator” is rare. As an idea, it belongs more in speculative fiction than it does in political analysis. Because any mere mortal is prone to error, bias, and delusion, it is only a matter of time before a single leader—without an electorate to counter his or her excesses—begins making unwise, even destructive, choices. And then there is no obvious way to undo the damage, because there is no mechanism through which to censure, constrain, or remove the leader.
When it comes to democracy and its inherent slowness, the flaws are themselves the feature. As I argue in The Problem of Democracy, democracies have the virtue—albeit also the vulnerability—of being better than they seem. Many democracies, however imperfect in the moment, become more appealing in the future. The political theorist David Runciman writes that to understand American democracy, one must “learn not to take it at face value,” because it usually ends up working despite looking like it shouldn’t. China offers an essential counterpoint. Under Chinese autocracy, things weren’t better than they seemed; they were worse.
In 2015, the political scientist Daniel Bell published a book, The China Model, which trumpeted China’s political system as a viable and even appealing alternative to Western democracy. At the time, the notion that China hadn’t merely risen but was fated to continue rising indefinitely was still a popular, if somewhat lazy, trope. Bell’s more far-reaching argument was that East Asian “meritocracy,” however undemocratic, allowed qualified leaders to prioritize the community’s long-term interest while eschewing the more fleeting whims and passions of the masses. The book came out just as the prospect of Donald Trump running the U.S. government was looking more plausible. Four years of democratic chaos at home, including during the COVID outbreak, made authoritarian competence abroad seem both pleasant and predictable.
In practice, however, the Chinese “model” quickly went to work disproving its own premises. On the night of Joe Biden’s electoral victory in 2020, Xi Jinping reportedly told the president-elect that “autocracies will run the world.” Now it’s worth asking whether autocracies can even run their own countries.