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China and the attractions of authoritarianism

How the country has been hurt by Covid-19.    

By Rana Mitter

Four political and economic features define China today: authoritarian government, a consumer-driven economy, a push for more globalisation, and technological innovation. 

Together, these features constitute what Beijing regards as a rival system to the stuttering liberal democracies of the West. The US’s inept response to the coronavirus pandemic has undermined its status as the global leader. Beijing has moved quickly to exploit this, promoting the supposed advantages of its rival authoritarian system and boosting its claim as a pretender to US world leadership.

Nationalist intellectuals in China, such as Zhang Weiwei, argue that authoritarian political systems have distinct advantages, and that “meritocratic” and “hierarchical” government ensures competency in office. While a political neophyte such as Donald Trump can assume the highest office in the United States, no Chinese politician could realistically ever become leader unless he has first run a large province (Xi Jinping was party secretary of Zhejiang province in eastern China between 2002 and 2007).

Political hawks in the West give the Soviet Union as an example of how unsustainable authoritarian regimes are. But the USSR collapsed partly because of its defunct economy and its inability to provide desirable consumer goods. China’s economic revolution, by contrast, has increased the prosperity of its citizens. The Communist Party of China (CCP) uses GDP figures to make the case for top-down, authoritarian politics: China’s 1.4 billion people have a per capita average income of $10,000, whereas in India – the world’s largest democracy – it is $2,300.

China is remorselessly expanding its global reach, as exemplified by the Belt and Road Initiative to create a huge investment zone across Eurasia. One of the most powerful tools in this endeavour is its ability to produce technology with military and civilian uses, such as facial recognition, and hi-tech consumer goods that reinforce its image as a trend-setting, hyper-modern economy. Before the controversy over its role in building the 5G network, Huawei was best known in the UK for making phones. Today, the video-sharing app TikTok, which was developed by China’s ByteDance, is on nearly every teenager’s phone. 

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At the start of 2020, China had weathered international condemnation about its political interference in Hong Kong, and the repressive regime it has imposed on Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. 

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But the Covid-19 pandemic has damaged China’s global reputation, as well as Beijing’s project to convince the world that its version of authoritarianism is a more viable form of political organisation than liberal democracy.

Chinese state media boasts that the speed of the country’s response to the virus could have been achieved only in an authoritarian state. But this argument has been undermined by the success of democracies such as South Korea, Taiwan, and New Zealand in controlling the virus. These countries have done this without concealing or censoring information about the extent of their epidemics. Observers around the world, meanwhile, have described the crisis as China’s Chernobyl moment, while the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, has had to demand there be “no concealing or underreporting” after it became clear that officials were too scared to report the facts honestly.

China’s standing as a champion for the Global South has also been dented. Senior figures in Jair Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil – China’s largest trading partner in Latin America – have condemned China for the spread of Covid-19. Footage of Nigerian men in the city of Guangzhou being forcibly targeted for extra coronavirus testing has also exacerbated tensions between China and much of Africa. 

In the UK, China has seen its prospects frustrated. On 22 May it was reported that Huawei’s role in the construction of Britain’s 5G network would be reduced, with the tech giant’s involvement ending by 2023. This represents a new political mood towards Beijing. In a survey by the British Foreign Policy Group, 83 per cent of the members of the public polled did not trust China. The new Hong Kong security law that Beijing announced on 21 May – raising fears of dissent being criminalised in the semi-autonomous territory – will only deepen this distrust.

International condemnation of China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis will not translate into any domestic pressure on the CCP. Many Chinese citizens criticise the government for cover-ups and corruption, and mock it on social media before censors intervene. Yet when pressed, many will also say that they broadly support their leaders, and believe China should be more assertive in the world. British policy on China will have to acknowledge that the CCP cannot be treated as separate from its people.

But China has also miscalculated its standing in the world. Even though coronavirus has exposed the deficiencies of the US political system, China will be unable to assume a position of global leadership. This is because it lacks the soft power to do so, a power which cannot be made up for merely by having a stylish and innovative tech industry, or by hastily – and very publicly – dispatching face masks to other Covid-stricken countries such as Italy.

The extent to which China has become more authoritarian is striking. Ten years ago, it still possessed a highly invasive state apparatus. But investigative journalism in publications such as the Southern Weekend newspaper was tolerated, as were bloggers who criticised the government; it also honoured the “one country, two systems” arrangement with Hong Kong.

But the limited space for free discussion has become even narrower in recent years. China’s four defining features – authoritarian government, a consumer-driven economy, opening up to globalisation, and technological innovation – have created a strong sense of Chinese identity at home.

But they amount to a political system that is proving hard to sell overseas. Whatever soft power China had amassed since the 1990s, it now confronts a post-Covid world that will be less amenable to its geopolitical ambitions, and less forgiving of its record on freedom.

This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak