China’s coronavirus response is not a case for authoritarianism

A lot of people seem to think that there’s a simple cure for the coronavirus: authoritarianism.

Article after article in the Western press has touted the superiority of China’s response to the West’s, using its draconian lockdown after the Wuhan outbreak to suggest that liberal democracies simply aren’t up to the harsh tasks of preventing disease spread. It’s a message that Chinese government propaganda has been only too happy to echo.

But the unanimous verdict of political scientists and public health scholars I spoke with is that the theory of authoritarian superiority in this crisis is wrong: There is no evidence that one type of political system has performed systematically better against Covid-19 than the other. China’s response, while eventually good, was criminally slow early on — as was Iran’s, another notably authoritarian regime. Meanwhile, democracies like South Korea and Taiwan had some of the best responses anywhere on the planet.

“Among all the factors, [regime type is] going to be at the bottom of the list,” says Joshua Michaud, an associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “You can have very poor public health practices in an authoritarian system or a democratic system.”

The myth of authoritarian superiority is not only wrong but actively harmful in two key respects.

First, it lets China off the hook for a botched early response to the coronavirus — one that likely led to the disease becoming a global pandemic in the first place. It turns what should be a damning indictment of certain aspects of the Chinese system into an ideological victory for Beijing.

Second, it gives cover to leaders of allegedly democratic states to claim dangerous emergency powers during the crisis. This is happening right now in both Hungary and Israel, where authoritarian-inclined leaders are using the outbreak as a pretense to seize powers undreamed of in normal times. The myth of authoritarian superiority could well grant unnecessary legitimacy to these dangerous moves — and thus needs to be challenged.

“The challenge here is seeing so many people saying authoritarianism works in these cases, when it’s so clearly not authoritarianism that makes a difference. And that’s actually a dangerous argument to make,” says Sofia Fenner, a political scientist at Bryn Mawr who has studied authoritarian-versus-democratic responses to the crisis.

Some of the best performers in coronavirus are democracies — and some of the worst are authoritarian states

When we want to examine a country’s success at containing coronavirus, we don’t merely want to look at the raw number of cases in that country but at how swiftly and effectively the government has taken measures endorsed by public health experts — mandatory social distancing measures, widespread testing, ramped-up production of masks — and whether those measures appear to have slowed the disease’s spread.

On these metrics, the gold standard for a good national response comes from a cluster of three East Asian countries — South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore (Hong Kong is also often mentioned, but it’s not exactly an independent country).

Two of those are large democracies, the other an authoritarian city-state. Yet all three acted almost immediately after the crisis began and started testing individuals, isolating those who tested positive or had contact with those who did, and working swiftly to support their stressed health care systems.

This pattern undermines the notion that you need to have a single authoritarian leader in charge to act decisively. South Korea and Taiwan are both raucous democracies, yet their elected leadership still managed to mobilize swiftly.

What Taiwan and South Korea share in common with Singapore is something political scientists call “state capacity:” the political and economic resources available to a government to implement its policies. Countries with high state capacity are marked by (among other things) effective bureaucracies, high-quality public infrastructure, and a system that centralizes political power at the national level.

All three of the clear East Asian success stories have high state capacity in general. But they also have particularly powerful states when it comes to infections disease response, owing to relatively recent experience with illnesses like SARS, MERS, and H1N1 (swine flu). Their governments were prepared to organize to contain outbreaks with action plans and lessons learned allowing for a swift response.

“The best outcomes so far come from higher-capacity states, regardless of regime type,” Fenner writes in a post on the international relations blog Duck of Minerva. “Many of the high-capacity East Asian cases also benefited from recent experience dealing with SARS and H1N1; they have had opportunities to develop state capacities specifically suited to this kind of crisis.”

In this photo illustration the airline and flag carrier of South Korea, Korean Air, logo seen displayed on a smartphone with a computer model of the COVID-19 coronavirus on the background.

Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

When you move from the best performers to the worst ones, you also don’t see clear variation by regime type. The hardest hit countries outside of China — a unique situation I’ll examine in a second — are Italy, the United States, and Iran. That’s two wealthy democracies, peers of South Korea and Taiwan, and one middle-income authoritarian regime.

These states not only have lower capacity than the East Asian states — America’s federalist system, for example, makes decisive whole-of-government responses to any problem more complex — but also leadership failures.

In all three countries, elements of the faction in power chose to downplay the crisis early rather than immediately introduce national policies to stem the virus’s spread. When South Korea and Taiwan were aggressively combating the virus in late February, the head of Italy’s ruling Democratic Party was encouraging people to go out drinking, Trump was saying the virus would soon blow over, and the Iranian regime was permitting people to congregate at major religious sites in the holy city of Qom despite a confirmed local outbreak.

Much of the perception of relative authoritarian competence during the outbreak, at least in the United States, seems fueled by high case numbers and horror stories in democratic European countries like Italy and Spain. Indeed, there are a striking number of cases in several major European countries. But treating Europe in aggregate conceals significant variation inside the continent. Germany, for example, has had a relatively large number of cases but both a low death rate and a relatively widespread testing regime.

Moreover, comparing authoritarian states to democratic ones purely based on official or verifiable case numbers might be a deeply misleading exercise.

While democracies have procedures that require transparency on these issues, authoritarian states often work very hard to cover up the number of cases to make themselves look good — threatening to punish journalists, bureaucrats, and even health care workers who contradict the official line.

This makes it hard to know when data on infections and testing from authoritarian countries should be treated as reliable. In Egypt, for example, there have only been 366 official coronavirus cases as of March 24. But a group of Canada-based experts developed a model, using publicly available data from early March, that estimated Egypt’s actual case number at either (depending on assumptions) around 6,000 or 19,000.

Of course, not all democracies do a great job on testing either. The United States and Japan, in particular, stand out as having strikingly low testing numbers per capita — and, at least in the case of the United States, the reasons for such limited testing appear to be political in nature.

But overall, in the cases where we have reliable data, there is no obviously superior performance by authoritarian states over democratic ones. And when we get a fuller picture, there’s even a chance democratic states might end up looking even better by comparison.

The curious case of China

At the heart of the case for authoritarian supremacy is the idea that China should be the world’s model for responding to coronavirus. This is certainly what its government wants you to think — but experts say the reality is a lot more complicated.

The Chinese argument is that, after the outbreak began spreading rapidly in the city of Wuhan, the government did an extraordinary job at addressing the crisis. It locked down the population, set up dedicated treatment areas that kept coronavirus patients away from more general hospital populations, and put body temperature detectors around doorways that could identify a person with a fever and immediately send them to a treatment center. Today, according to the Chinese government, there are zero new cases in Wuhan.

Despite the dubious reliability of such data, experts do believe that China’s government deserves credit for its approach to the Wuhan outbreak. Its intense efforts to identify and isolate the infected — at times by using surveillance capabilities, like facial recognition software, that many liberal democracies might be squeamish about employing — seem to have helped turn the tide.

But defining success based on what happened only after the virus began spreading widely in Wuhan ignores China’s significant failure: an early, systematic effort to downplay and ignore the homegrown disease that allowed COVID-19 to spread rapidly in the first place.

“The fact is: five million people left Wuhan before it was locked down, and that’s why we have a global issue,” says Dali Yang, a political scientist and China expert at the University of Chicago.

Timelines of the coronavirus outbreak in China, like this one from Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, make clear how badly the Chinese government messed up. Not only did they not impose a lockdown in December, when it became clear that China was dealing with a new and dangerous respiratory illness, but they covered it up.

The most famous example is Dr. Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to raise the alarm but was forced to sign a confession admitting to “spreading false rumors” — and then, ultimately, died of the coronavirus. But he’s not the only one: on New Year’s Day, Chinese police hauled in eight doctors who had posted about the disease on social media for questioning.

Chinese officials have tried to portray this failure as a local problem, errors by city and provincial authorities. But a recent report by the Wall Street Journal points out that Chinese President Xi Jinping was personally involved in the disease’s handling during the decisive period in the disease’s spread:

It now appears that, based on a speech by Mr. Xi published in a Communist Party magazine in February, he was leading the epidemic response when Wuhan went ahead with New Year celebrations despite the risk of wider infections. He was also leading the response when authorities let some five million people leave Wuhan without screening, and when they waited until Jan. 20 to announce the virus was spreading between humans.

It is hard to overstate how significant these errors were. One recent study found that, if China had acted to lock down Wuhan just three weeks earlier, it would have reduced the number of cases by 95 percent — thus “significantly limiting the geographical spread of the disease.”

It’s also not obvious how much the uniquely authoritarian features of the Chinese response, like its reliance on its intrusive electronic surveillance system, improved its response over and above nearby democracies. Many of China’s most effective policies, like widespread use of fever checks, were similar to those employed by South Korea and Taiwan— democratic countries that arguably implemented effective measures faster than China

The failures in China, by contrast, are quite fairly attributable to features of its political system. China’s government has a well-known tendency, both at the local and national level, to repress information that threatens the party’s reputation and hold on power. The initial efforts to cover up the virus flow directly from its insistence on controlling politically sensitive information — something that’s much harder in a democratic state.

There are some important positive lessons to be gleaned from China’s response to coronavirus. But we cannot confuse the need to learn from specific public health measures with valorization of China’s political system — one that’s responsible for the fact of the global pandemic in the first place.

The risks of authoritarian apologia

Valorizing authoritarianism during coronavirus doesn’t just let Beijing off easy. It also makes the coronavirus crisis more dangerous for democracy: if people think that the only way to fight the disease is by handing powers over to a strongman, then there’s a chance they’ll do just that.

These concerns are especially acute in countries going through “democratic backsliding:” the process of moving away from a democratic political system and toward some version of authoritarianism. In these countries, initially elected leaders accumulate more and more power, eliminating checks on their authority and undermining the opposition; in the worst case, they eventually become impossible to remove through electoral means.

The risk is that the exigencies of coronavirus allow these leaders to accumulate even power — and for observers to excuse away their anti-democratic as necessary to respond to a global crisis.

This is not a hypothetical concern. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents won enough political support after a recent election to begin the process of replacing him with a new prime minister. Yet Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009 and has grown more and more autocratic as his time in office has gone on, is taking advantage of the coronavirus to cement his hold on power.

Israelis protest against Netanyahu in Jerusalem, while still attempting social distancing, on March 25.
Emmanuel Dundand/AFP/Getty Images

One of his key political allies, the speaker of Israel’s Knesset, blocked the legislative body from meeting — and has been governing more-or-less by the prime minister’s personal orders, in what some Israeli observers are terming a kind of coup. The Supreme Court issued a ruling that Netanyahu must allow parliament to reconvene by Wednesday; in response, the opposition leader struck a deal with Netanyahu to serve in his government, inexplicably handing a victory to anti-democratic implacability.

In Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has eliminated democracy in all but name, democracy may well die an official death during the crisis. A new bill in Hungary’s parliament, where Orbán loyalists have a two-thirds majority, would allow the strongman to rule by personal decree for an indefinite period of time. It would also allow the government to jail journalists who publish what it terms to be false information for up to five years.

In both the Israeli and Hungarian cases, these power grabs are being sold as necessary steps during an emergency. It’s logic that only makes sense in a world where we believe that suspending the basic norms of democratic politics are necessary for a swift and effective response during a public health emergency.

Happily, though, this argument is false. Democracies can address public health crises, including this one, without suspending the most fundamental features of a free society. It’s a fact we need to insist on — regardless of what the Chinese government wants us to think.

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