Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, Chinese leaders have touted their hybrid model of authoritarian capitalism as a superior form of government to liberal democracies. Suffering from a collective loss of confidence, many outside observers, particularly in the West, concurred: Liberal democracies appeared to be no match for the unstoppable juggernaut of China’s state-led economic machine, which emerged relatively unscathed from the global economic meltdown.
Many assumed that China had been able to buck the trend of history by successfully grafting the branches of a quasi-free market economy onto the trunk of a Leninist-style dictatorship.
The 2019 novel coronavirus has blown a crater-sized hole into this misguided line of thought.
As more information leaks out from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, it is clear that Beijing was unable to prevent the virus from spreading out of control precisely because it lacks the accountability, freedom of speech and free flow of information that form the bedrock of democracies.
Proponents of the “Chinese century” thesis have long argued that since it rules in perpetuity, the Chinese Communist Party is able to make long-term strategic decisions that allow it to leapfrog the development cycles of democratic nations and exploit a supposed inherent flaw in their design: the myopic exigencies of the electoral cycle. In short: China’s lack of democracy is its strength.
They fretted that China had discovered the Holy Grail of statecraft: a political and economic model far more efficient, robust and responsive than the increasingly incontinent, self-absorbed and dysfunctional democracies of the “free world.”
It is remarkable how short some people’s memories are. Of course, the world has been here before: The iron fist of international communism, spearheaded by the Soviet Union, was once destined to sweep all that came before it.
Reporting by Chinese and foreign media has painted a deplorable picture of cover-ups and wasted opportunity in Wuhan and thrown into sharp relief the weakness of China’s authoritarian model of governance, characterized by extreme paranoia, an obsession with secrecy and a reliance on the suppression of information to maintain a grip on power.
According to China’s Caixin Media, the first known case of the virus was discovered on Dec. 8. The mysterious new infectious disease quickly spread through the city and attracted the attention of local health officials. Yet, as soon as the central government got whiff of the problem, its knee-jerk reaction was to smother the truth, detain whistle-blower doctors and enact draconian censorship laws.
On Jan. 20, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) belatedly issued official instructions to deal with the outbreak after renowned epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan (鍾南山) was wheeled out to prepare the ground by announcing that human-to-human transmission had occurred.
In the intervening six-week period, vital time was squandered when basic prevention and control measures should have been implemented. Wuhan residents were left wholly in the dark about the virus in their midst.
It is the bitterest of ironies that the fundamental building blocks of democratic societies — government accountability, press freedom and freedom of speech — which China’s leaders and intellectuals have long scorned, are precisely the medicine that was needed to save the country from its present calamity.
Locked down and under quarantine, Wuhan has become a vast prison for its residents, abandoned to their fate by their government to face an entirely preventable epidemic, which has engulfed the rest of China and might yet become a global pandemic.
When China’s rotten regime is eventually toppled, do not be surprised if the architects of its fall originate from Wuhan.
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