The Coronavirus Crisis and the Chimera of Authoritarian Competence
The ability of China to eventually control the outbreak in Hubei Province may lend superficial credibility to the claim that autocracies are better than democracies at managing public health crises. However, democracies across the world have demonstrated their own ability to flatten the curve, with several democratic countries around the world starting to ease lockdown restrictions.
Instead, the optimal strategy for an autocratic regime to battle the coronavirus is to adopt the Chinese model, which boils down to Mao-style social control backed by digital surveillance. The Chinese state enlisted hundreds of thousands of “grid workers” to enforce quarantine, prevent crowds from gathering, monitor suspected coronavirus cases, and ensure social stability. The grid workers are assisted by more than one million local monitors who log movements, take temperatures, and enforce rules about residents’ activities. Authorities in Beijing went even further: they have employed facial recognition algorithms to identify commuters not wearing masks and even ones who weren’t wearing them properly.
The Chinese approach incurs huge costs even if we accept its efficacy. Without transparency, large populations are prone to panic and over-reaction. This necessitates draconian measures to prevent the chaos that could fuel crisis and outbreaks and further strains the socio-economic system. Without science-driven decisionmaking, responses must be draconian in order to compensate for being uninformed, ineffective, and late. Without collaboration with civil society, the state must spend vast resources to harvest information from its population. The Chinese model, when contrasted with the Taiwan model, does not demonstrate the superiority of the Chinese system, but instead underscores the fundamental problems of authoritarianism.
As the coronavirus ravages the world, different political systems are being put to test on their ability to govern. The ability of China to eventually control the outbreak in Hubei Province may lend superficial credibility to the claim that autocracies are better than democracies at managing public health crises. However, democracies across the world have demonstrated their own ability to flatten the curve, with several democratic countries around the world starting to ease lockdown restrictions. The democratic example of Taiwan is particularly telling, both because of its geographical proximity to the outbreak and the fact that it managed to avoid a lockdown altogether. Learning the lessons from its bitter experience of the first SARS outbreak, the democratic approach of science-driven policymaking, transparency, and state collaboration with civil society has succeeded in controlling the outbreak. Democracies embody the very values that we have fought for and still wish to preserve even in the midst of a global pandemic. Thankfully, the comparison of China and Taiwan shows us that there need not be any trade-off between democracy and effective governance.
Congressman Ted S. Yoho is the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation.
Dr. George Yin is a Research Associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University and a Visiting Assistant Professor of the Department of Political Science in Swarthmore College.
Yin would like to thank Sicheng Zhong (Swarthmore '21) for his research assistance toward this piece.