Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.04.10

Can a dictatorship better control COVID-19?

the japan times on March 30, 2020

The answer is supposed to be no, but the reality looks like yes. On March 10, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan and officially declared that the COVID-19 outbreak had been "basically curbed." He said China had succeeded in stabilizing the situation and "turning the tide," and stated, "Now what you must do is fortify your faith. We will definitely win this battle."

The following day, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed that "nobody ever thought (it) would be a problem." He even stated on March 15 that COVID-19 is "something that we have tremendous control of." Now more than 140,000 people have been infected in the United States and 2,400 have died. Here is my take on what went wrong.

1. Here they go again!

The news of the lockdown of Wuhan on Jan. 23 did not come as a surprise. As someone who experienced the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak in Beijing, I knew that something like this would happen again in China. Western medical experts and intelligence services predicted it as well. The Trump administration must have been aware of that.

2. Only power can control China

The Chinese nation is difficult to govern. There is a famous saying in China that states "national policies, local countermeasures." By the time Beijing locked down Wuhan, 5 million residents had reportedly already left the city, simply because they neither obey nor trust the central government. That is why compelling power and force is required to control the people in China. If they are allowed to think and act freely, there would be little social order and chaos would hinder necessary quarantine operations. Beijing was right to reach this conclusion in January.

3. The West outsmarts China?

Arguably, there was an illusion or a wishful thinking in the West. We wanted to believe that people in industrialized democracies are better educated than their Chinese counterparts and therefore are more likely to behave themselves. This was the impression held by Tokyo as of late January but it was wrong.

4. Japan faced criticism

Japanese officials and medical personnel were thrown off-guard by the arrival of a coronavirus-infected cruise ship in Yokohama. They appeared to be panicked and at a loss at what to do to the ship's 3,700 passengers and crew. No wonder they were harshly criticized internationally.

The New York Times wrote, "Hobbled by confusion and mistakes, they played down the risk of infection, ignored best medical practice for evacuating passengers, and activated only low-level protocols for dealing with outbreaks." In retrospect, however, it was just a tip of the COVID-19 iceberg.

5. Infection along the "Belt and Road"

When the COVID-19 outbreaks continued in countries such as Iran, Italy and South Korea, some people in Tokyo attributed the pandemic to the growing Chinese population in these countries, which Beijing considers keys to success in the nation's "Belt and Road" initiative. Their argument, however, lacked scientific rationale.

6. Success in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore

As of the weekend, the number of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore reached 582, 283 and 732 with fatalities of only four, two and two people, respectively. If the pandemic were caused by local Chinese population, their death tolls should have been much higher. Chinese expats are probably not the main reason for the outbreaks.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore all suffered heavily in the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. They had more than 2,000 cases and almost 400 lives were lost. Having learned painful lessons, they never underestimated the new coronavirus because they knew exactly what to do.

7. What went wrong in the U.S.?

It is an irony that the United States, which had only 27 SARS cases with no fatality in 2002-2003, could not prevent a surge of cases. As in the case of Italy or other European nations, Washington underestimated the virulence of COVID-19. Its measures were too little, too late and too reactive.

Why did the most powerful nation on Earth fail to contain its outbreak like small entities such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore? Is it because Trump mishandled the epidemic? Hardly. Even if he had done better, the pandemic would not have stopped in the U.S.

8. Is dictatorship better than democracy?

Never. Although dictatorship seems to have worked against the new virus in China, it did so only in the short run. What was controlled just by force would easily and quickly return to its status quo ante. Chinese control of COVID-19 shall be the same. Artificial control of the outbreak is not sustainable.

What a nation truly needs in fighting a deadly virus like COVID-19 is the strong and spontaneous will of ordinary citizens. If the people do not feel themselves to be part of one nation, they will just obey but not trust their leaders. In this sense, a dictatorship is not more effective in resolving a pandemic in the long run.

9. Is democracy better than dictatorship?

Hardly. It may not work even in the short run. Last week Fareed Zakaria wrote in his Washington Post column:

"The U.S. is on track to have the worst outbreak of coronavirus among wealthy countries, largely because of the ineffectiveness of its government." I do not fully agree with him. Most American bureaucrats are effective.

It was not the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy but the unpreparedness of decision-makers that made the critical difference. It is not about ideologies. The answer is very simple. Washington did not learn from the SARS outbreak while Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore seriously did, period.