Democracies are weak-willed and short-sighted. They prioritize immediate gratification over long-term interests. They lack vision and strategic consistency, because each individual pursues his own interests and leaders are only focused on the next election. They fail to foster a shared sense of identity, and fall into political, social, and ethnic divisions.
When up against a pandemic or superior foe, they will fail.
This is the tune of Chinese state media, an ever-growing chorus of anti-democracy diatribes.
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As the People’s Daily wrote in a March article title Two Powers, Two Systems, And Two Responses in Coronavirus Battle, “The Chinese government put the lives and health of people first as it sought to prevent and control the outbreak, and being able to bring the whole system together for this purpose is an advantage of the Chinese system… Obviously, the US government has been slow to respond to the outbreak and this has wasted precious time.”
China is seeking to use the pandemic as a prime example of the supremacy of the Chinese system, and to restructure the global order when the dust settles.
In a well-coordinated and relentless propaganda campaign, China dismisses democracy and lauds dictatorship. This is nothing new, but is China right this time?
Is There Truth to the Argument?
— People's Daily, China (@PDChina) March 12, 2020
Chinese state media is doing what it always does: attacking democracy as a corrupt and illegitimate system in favor of an autocratic model. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, as China calls it, helps the country to define its interests and mobilize its vast population and resources to move in one single direction.
How did this model work during this year’s public health crisis?
It is hard to deny that China’s draconian quarantine measures worked to stem a much larger plague within the country, but it came at great cost. People died trapped in their homes by the Chinese government of causes including but not limited to COVID-19. Families screamed out of their windows, pleading for someone to help a family member who’d suffered a heart attack or couldn’t access crucial medications.
The West watched these measures with disapproval and cautious condemnation, typical of a world ever more reluctant to get on the Red Dragon’s bad side.
The result of shutting everyone in their homes for weeks, essentially at gunpoint, was predictable in its outcome: the virus leveled off. Intense quarantine measures worked, even if they violated human rights along the way.
As Europe and the United States appear set to blow past Chinese case numbers, China is taking a victory lap for how it handled a virus which started in its country.
Cost and Benefit
It is true that in a democracy, it is more difficult to impose an intense, immediate quarantine in response to a pandemic. The United States, with a free press broadcasting the human costs, would struggle to allow Americans to die trapped in their homes, their government betraying constitutionally guaranteed liberties in their final moments of life.
Even in a pandemic, it is difficult for a democracy to completely deny the liberties of its citizens, and few things deprive one of liberty more than being locked indefinitely at home.
For this reason, the outbreak will hit the US and Europe harder than it hit China. It has also hit autocracies like Iran much harder as well, hurting China’s argument that dictatorships somehow magically prevent plagues.
It is certain that, regardless of the costs tallied at the end, the pandemic will end in the relatively near future. The West would do well to stay united, focused on mitigating the fallout, and dedicated to the values that made us the stewards of an international order.
It would also do well not to cede the international narrative to China, nor to forget where the pandemic began in the first place.