One reason democracies handle crises better than authoritarians
Set aside, for the moment, the fact that the gross negligence of China got us into this mess. Once the Communist Party came around to admitting there was an outbreak of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, it mobilized the state apparatus to stanch the bleeding. Tens of thousands are still sick in China, however, that effort may be paying off. Is the Chinese governance model to thank for that success? In an emergency like the coronavirus pandemic, does authoritarian rule outshine democracy?
The Communist Party certainly wants you to think so. As the growth of infections in the country has seemingly slowed, Beijing has pivoted to provisioning protective gear to Italy for a price, while its propagandists engage in a barely concealed display of schadenfreude aimed squarely at the United States. In Washington, the public reminders from the highest levels of government that the coronavirus originated in China betray a feeling of insecurity, a concern that countries around the world might conclude that the Chinese system is superior to the American system when it comes to delivering successful outcomes in a crisis.
While it is difficult to predict the course of the coronavirus in the United States, there is already ample evidence that democracies can succeed in averting an epidemic. Indeed, those looking admiringly at China should redirect their gaze a mere 80 miles southeast. In Taiwan, authorities have effectively contained the coronavirus, and they have done so without the massive curtailing of civil liberties being undertaken in China.
The Chinese approach has involved censorship, draconian restrictions on individual movement, detention of whistleblowers and citizen journalists, and the rapid expansion of a technological panopticon. The Taiwanese approach, meanwhile, has relied on transparency, proactive searches for possible cases, responsible use of data, admittedly aggressive contact tracing, and government support for the sick and quarantined.
Differences in scale contributed to the differences in approach in China and Taiwan. But it is not necessarily the case that the more draconian Chinese approach made a difference in the outcomes. As our colleague Scott Gottlieb at the American Enterprise Institute and Caitlin Rivers of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security have explained, Chinese “cordons were combined with several other more classical mitigation efforts,” like closing schools and moving to telework. “Measuring the relative contribution of each,” they noted, “is all but impossible.”
The instincts inherent in the Chinese system and the Taiwanese system have been plain to see. The first move by Beijing is to control people and information. The main concern of the Communist Party has been as much about how it is seen in handling the crisis as it is about public health. Not so for Taipei, which chose a technocratic yet compassionate approach to countering the virus, one that is in line with its liberal values.
As the United States now faces the reality of competing against China to dominate the international narrative surrounding the coronavirus, it would behoove Washington to applaud Taiwan for its accomplishments with this crisis. When Beijing brags about its successes in countering the disease, Washington should simply point out that Taipei did it better.
When foreigners look at the Chinese response to the coronavirus, they should think not only about the success of Beijing with containing it, but also about the people who were padlocked into their homes, muzzled for speaking out, and deprived medical care for other serious ailments. They should think about the initial cover up, the international experts denied access to the epicenter of the outbreak, and the Chinese government efforts to blame everyone but itself for this global pandemic.
It would be far better for countries grappling with the coronavirus to look to Taiwan, which is internationally isolated, denied membership with the World Health Organization, under constant military threat from China, and yet setting the global standard for combating an epidemic. China may be rich and powerful, but the democracy in Taiwan cannot be beat.
Michael Mazza is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a senior nonresident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar in strategic studies with the American Enterprise Institute.