COVID and the Chinese Social Contract
'BERLIN – In October, the Communist Party of China convened its 20th National Congress, primarily to confirm President Xi Jinping’s hold over the country’s leadership. Everything went according to his plan: the CPC’s top governing body, the Standing Committee, is now staffed only by his most devoted henchmen. With Xi having secured a third term as general secretary – and thus as president – one man now has absolute power in China for the first time since the days of Mao Zedong.
Gone is the principle of collective, term-limited leadership that Deng Xiaoping introduced following Mao’s death – a time when China was just beginning its massively successful modernization phase. Yet, as recent history shows, the return to one-man rule in a country of 1.4 billion people represents one of the greatest risks to China and its status as a rising superpower second only to the United States.
Yes, under Xi, the Chinese regime’s power has increasingly seemed unlimited and unrestricted, owing to massive investments in state-of-the-art digital mass surveillance and social control systems. Yet the CPC’s strength is not based only on all-encompassing “smart” repression. Rather, it is the result of the party’s tremendous successes in modernizing China.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, China integrated itself into the world economy, becoming its “extended workbench” and its number-one exporting country. China then leveraged this growth to develop a highly efficient mixed economy, with a growing private sector operating alongside the traditional party-controlled state sector. The results were phenomenal: China consistently recorded massive annual growth rates, lifting hundreds of millions of people (especially in the coastal regions) out of absolute poverty and into a newly emerging middle class.
As China became richer, it increased its military power and pursued more dominant positions on the technological frontier. Within the space of just a few years, its technological successes – born predominantly of the private high-tech sector – made it a serious rival to US Big Tech. For a few years in the late 2010s, it seemed to be only a matter of time before China would replace the US as the world’s largest economy and overwhelmingly dominant technological superpower.
Then came the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019. Despite some Chinese authorities’ efforts to cover up the emerging epidemic, it soon became the entire world’s problem. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be a pandemic, and the global economy ground to a halt as countries locked down to contain the spread of the virus.
But different countries adopted different strategies over the medium term, depending on their respective cultural and historical traditions. The open, democratic societies of the West, for example, embraced transparency and relied on voluntary self-isolation and the rapid development of effective vaccines. Three years later, their populations are now largely immunized – though many people have died.
By contrast, China relied from the beginning on draconian containment measures. Under its zero-COVID policy, every detected infection resulted in forced, closely supervised quarantines for all those affected. For a long time, this strategy seemed superior to the Western approach. China had far fewer deaths, and because it had isolated itself from the rest of the world, its domestic economy also recovered faster than those of the US and Europe. Accordingly, many around the world began to suspect that authoritarian command economies are better equipped for such crises than are the West’s messy, pluralist liberal democracies.
But this view has proved to be deeply mistaken. We now know that China’s zero-COVID policy required a suspension of the social contract between the CPC and the people. Xi seems to have overlooked the fact that today’s China – at least the large metropolises that drive the economy – is not the China of the 1960s and 1970s.
The new China simply is not suited for policies that require the authorities to shut down entire mega-cities with no notice, often locking workers in factories for weeks at a time. Moreover, owing to China’s position in the world economy, self-isolation was always going to be costly. Not only did zero-COVID create enormous disruptions in international supply chains; it also caused considerable damage to China’s own export sector.
Xi wanted to use the pandemic to demonstrate the superiority of the Chinese system over the declining West. Yet this meant that, out of nationalistic arrogance, he refused to import the vastly superior Western mRNA vaccines. With China’s huge population remaining under-vaccinated and unprotected, lifting the zero-COVID measures was bound to be risky.
But so, too, were the never-ending lockdowns. Just weeks after the 20th Party Congress, public frustration exploded across China’s large metropolises. Protesters held up sheets of white paper to decry the CPC’s censorship regime, and the “revolt of the blank sheets” spread like a bushfire. Xi had clearly overreached.
How could China’s seemingly all-powerful autocrat understand so little about the social contract on which his power rests? For all its difficulties, liberal democracy – with its transparency and self-imposed limits – has once again proved more efficient and resilient than autocracy. Accountability to the people and the rule of law is not a weakness; it is a decisive source of strength. Where Xi sees a cacophony of clashing opinions and subversive free expression, the West sees a flexible and self-correcting form of collective intelligence. The results speak for themselves.
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.
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