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Beijing’s response to Covid underlines that the world needs more democracy, not less

There is no escaping the fact that COVID-19 may not have become a pandemic if China were a democracy with a free flow of information through an independent media and accountable political leadership.

Written by Shyam Saran |
Updated: April 20, 2020 9:17:58 am
coronavirus, coronavirus world updates, coronavirus china, covid-19, coronavirus wuhan, who on coronavirus, china wuhan Passengers wearing masks and covered with plastic bags walk outside the Shanghai railway station in Shanghai, China. (Reuters/File)

There is a desperate effort on the part of China to erase its culpability in unleashing COVID-19 across the world through the lack of transparency inherent in its one-party authoritarian system. It has sought to overcome the damaging global public opinion which it has suffered by a subsequent sustained propaganda campaign. This has two aspects.

One highlights the success China claims to have achieved in arresting the pandemic within the country through drastic measures on a massive scale, thereby demonstrating the superiority of its authoritarian system as contrasted with the delayed and often less-than-effective measures taken in democratic European countries and the US in particular. The other seeks blanket publicity of its provision of much-needed medical equipment and medical teams to assist affected countries. The main target is Europe, though assistance to other countries is also given prominence. Chinese diplomats are using Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms to create an image of a benign China providing public goods to a grateful community of beleaguered nations. In reporting on India, Chinese media has often highlighted the plight of migrant workers and the frequent violations of social distancing regulations. It is true that India has sought and received much-needed medical supplies from China.

Here is what China would like us to believe: The COVID-19 virus did erupt in Wuhan, but it may not have originated in China. There may have been a delay in acknowledging the seriousness of the crisis, but this was due to missteps by the local leadership in Wuhan city and Hubei province. Once the gravity of the situation was recognised, Chinese leaders promptly informed the WHO and shared the DNA sequence of the virus with it and other countries. The unprecedented measures adopted by Chinese authorities, which also imposed great suffering on the Chinese people, bought valuable time for the rest of the world to get prepared to deal with the pandemic. Having achieved notable success in arresting the spread of the virus, valuable assistance is now being provided to affected countries in the spirit of solidarity. China’s economy is beginning to recover and this will contribute to the recovery of the global economy.

Has China demonstrated the superiority of China’s one-party system as compared to democracies? There is no escaping the fact that COVID-19 may not have become a pandemic if China were a democracy with a free flow of information through an independent media and accountable political leadership. This is like original sin, which cannot be whitewashed. There are democracies which have done as well if not better than China without resorting to its sledgehammer tactics. Notably, there is Taiwan, which is constantly bullied by China. There is South Korea, which has even held parliamentary elections after having brought the pandemic under control. Even in India, the government is providing daily updates on the spread of the virus. The media is able to report on the shortcomings in government policies, which are then addressed, though not always efficiently. The bottom line is that as a result of being a democracy, we have a better chance of knowing the true dimensions of the crisis, of being able to obtain constant feedback on people’s reactions and access the best advice from multiple sources.

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Are we certain of what the situation in China is? In an interview to Financial Times, President Emmanuel Macron of France gave a clear answer. “There is no comparison,” he said, “between countries where information flows freely and citizens can criticise their governments and those where the truth was suppressed. Given these differences, the choices made and what China is today, which I respect, let’s not be so naïve as to say it’s been much better at handling this. We don’t know. These are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.”

Rather than express envy of Chinese authoritarianism, Indians should be thankful that we are a democracy. We need more democracy, not less, to overcome the COVID-19 challenge.

One must acknowledge China’s assistance to affected countries despite reports of defective and low-quality materials. However, the accompanying publicity overdrive has caused resentment rather than gratitude because recipients have often been “persuaded” to express fulsome praise for China. Some social media reports on this have been shown to be fake news. Then there have been reports from Guangzhou on racial discrimination against stranded African students, which has led to a sharp reaction from African countries. This will be difficult to live down.

What about the Chinese economy? There is no doubt that economic activity in China is beginning to revive after a steep drop of 6.8 per cent (year on year) in GDP during the first quarter of 2020. Latest estimates are that the Chinese economy is now functioning at about 80 per cent of the level last year, which is impressive. China’s economy is not as export-dependent as it has been in the past. Exports were 19.5 per cent of GDP in 2018 against 32.6 per cent in 2008. But the external economic environment is critical for China’s globalised economy. It is a significant node in the most important regional and global supply chains. This will be impacted by countries re-shoring production or opting for shorter and closer-to-home supply chains, having suffered from disruptions during the pandemic. Japan will spend $2.2 billion to assist Japanese companies to shift units from China back to Japan or relocate to South East Asia. In 2012, when China-Japan tensions were at a peak, there was a similar move and India was seen as an alternative. But that opportunity was lost. Perhaps India has a second chance.

China will suffer from accelerated “decoupling” from the US economy with COVID-19 sharpening the already fraught bilateral relations. In a sense, China was already decoupled from the US by denying entry to US tech giants, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon, even while its own tech multinationals like Huawei and Alibaba have built markets in the West. This cannot be sustained. The winners in the more digital world which will emerge post-COVID-19 will be the American tech giants, even though the US is politically dysfunctional. Democracies sometimes win even if their politics is frustrating.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and is currently, Senior Fellow, CPR

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