The Politics of COVID-19: Reflex vs. Reflexion
In the early phase of COVID-19, when the epidemic was confined to China, international commentators were quick to jump to the assertion that politics is the problem. This assertion has come out not only from journalists or politicians, but also from scholars. Almost a reflex, economist-philosopher Amartya Sen’s dictum “[disasters] relate closely to the absence of freedom of information and criticism” is, consciously or unconsciously, adopted as the intellectual underpinning of the assertion.2 Sen’s dictum (and its adoption) can be challenged from various angles, one of which being the limitation of its cognitive framework – where the distinction between information and knowledge is ignored. An alternative is economist Albert Hirschman’s “exit, voice, and loyalty” framework, which, this essay seeks to corroborate, seems more appropriate for making sense of the politics of COVID-19.3
By late April 2020, when the number of infections both in the European Union and in the United States exceeded a million, the term “China’s Chernobyl moment”, which had been in vogue in the previous months among Western commentators and politicians, seemed to completely lose its currency. This term, although not discernibly being used inside China, can be judged to also reflect a crisis of trust in a significant part of the Chinese society.
Contrary to the belief that the currency lost of the term was caused by heightened state censorship or brainwashing, what seems far more important is the contrast between China and the West (particularly the US) in the actual performance of containing the epidemic. Indeed, in the arena of propaganda warfare, another Soviet-related term “China’s Sputnik moment” came out instead. This term shows admitting, reluctantly, China’s superior performance, while also warning that celebrating the superiority is premature.
The prematurity claim is both politically and intellectually motivated. It is deeply rooted in the cognitive frameworks of mainstream ideologies and social sciences, in the form of the “democracy versus authoritarianism” dichotomy.
Philosopher Francis Fukuyama asserts: “it is wrong to hold up the CCP’s [the Communist Party of China] totalitarian approach in dealing with the virus as a model to be emulated by other countries.”4 Likewise, economist Daron Acemoglu depicts a worrying “China-lite” scenario that could turn true in the West: “in times of deep uncertainty, when there is a need for high-level coordination and leadership, many people’s first instinct is to turn once again to Hobbesian solutions.”5 In a more intellectual tone, economist Branko Milanovic asserts: “the Soviet Union’s Sputnik moment proved fleeting, and so might China’s, if the other side [the US] chooses to tap into its significant advantages, such as flexibility of decision-making, accountability of local governments, and transparency.”6
To appraise these assertions, and to explore for possible alternatives to their Sen-lite cognitive frameworks, one can start by attempting a more systematic conception of issues of governance along the line of the options of “exit, voice, and loyalty”. “Exit” entails pure market relationships that are arm’s-length in nature and can be set up or terminated any time at will by either side of the trading parties. The premise of the relationships is that the product being traded is well-defined and clear to both sides. “Voice” and “loyalty” entail long-term relationships, which are necessary if the product in question is idiosyncratic in nature. There is a fine difference between these latter two options, though. The “voice” relationships are still market exchange. They are necessary to safeguard the exchange, in the circumstances where information incompleteness or asymmetry could fundamentally undermine the exchange. The “loyalty” relationships imply that the problem with defining the product is one of lacking knowledge, rather than information. Information exists objectively, while knowledge is the outcome of acquisition via learning – and learning by collective efforts. Hence, co-operation, as opposed to competition, is necessary for yielding the desirable outcomes.7
In the case of the matters under discussion, the “product” refers to government-led actions for combating the coronavirus crisis. These actions necessarily confront great uncertainties that are insufficiency in knowledge, given the fact that COVID-19 (its transmission and death rates as well as its precise mechanisms of transmission) has hitherto remained an “unknown”, or at best a “quasi-known”. To effectively combat the epidemic, it requires co-operation, and therefore active interaction, between the state and the people.
Institutional economist Chenggang Xu and organisational sociologist Xueguang Zhou both highlight the importance of the “voice” option in their criticism of China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.8 This criticism seems to have elements of truth, in view of possible mishandling by local authorities and/or National Health Commission professionals in the early stage of the epidemic outbreak. Yet, these elements cannot be the main truth, as the critics clearly ignore the “unexpected unknown” nature of the epidemic in its initial outbreak.9
More important, by passing on the blame from the governance structures to the basic political system, the critics face difficulty of explaining China’s subsequent success in containing the epidemic. The critics seem to share the same cognitive frameworks as Fukuyama, Acemoglu, and the like, of simply characterising the Chinese system as “authoritarian”. They tend to perceive the drastic measures that successfully contained the epidemic – resources mobilisation, comprehensive testing, universal tracing, full-scale lockdowns, etc. – as being super-imposed by the authorities on the people. In contrast, Chinese New Left scholars such as Wang Hui and Wei Nanzhi rather contend that Chinas’ efforts of combating the epidemic have involved the active co-operation between the state and the people. Without the co-operation, the drastic measures initiated by the state would not have been effectively implemented, let alone achieving the objectives. The revolutionary tradition of the “People’s War” has been said to be in action.10
Milanovic, sticking to the “democracy versus authoritarianism” dichotomy, has drawn the opposite conclusion. By praising the “flexibility” of the governance structures and basic political system of the US, he seems to believe that the “exit” option is probably better for combating the epidemic. Conceptually, “exit”, or market relationships, are characterised by flexibility, as opposed to the rigidity of the long-term relationships of “voice” or “loyalty”. In the face of the epidemic as an objective existence entailing compulsoriness for individuals, rather than an ordinary good or service where individuals are free to choose, flexibility could be a disadvantage rather than an advantage. It requires compulsory measures underpinned by long-term relationships between the state and the people, and indeed active co-operation between the two sides, for coping with the epidemic as a “quasi-known”.
What has actually happened in the United States is the predominance of the “exit” options exercised by both the state and individuals – existing from the endeavours of combating the epidemic. The actions of both the federal and state governments have been far from adequate, while the general public has been far from co-operative. The anti-lockdown protests in May were vivid demonstrations of exiting from the endeavours. The anti-racist protests in June inevitably had adverse effects on the endeavours. Both of these protests were probably related to the fact that the poor and vulnerable people in the US society were forced to bear the main burdens of the epidemic crisis. In the end, the state and individuals both seem to give up. The US seems to destine towards a peculiar “herd immunity”, one that is in the unknown about when vaccines will turn up and how the coronavirus will mutate.
Fearing that liberal democracies are losing out to authoritarianism in the coronavirus crisis, Fukuyama makes the following appeal: “Before we can think about changing China, we need to change the United States and try to restore its position as a global beacon of liberal democratic values around the world.” But how to achieve it?
Political scientist David Stasavage seeks to provide an answer: “There are several paths that we could take in response to this crisis, and only one of them is desirable – strengthening the federal government by first making investments to reduce distrust among the citizenry”.11 This answer indicates recognising the importance of the state-people relationship, as a cognitive framework that is alternative to the “democracy versus authoritarianism” dichotomy.
Whatever the precise contents of a desirable state-people relationship, trust is at the centre of it. In this light, it seems clear that, thus far, the state-people interaction has formed a virtuous circle in China in combating the epidemic crisis, whereas that in the US has formed a vicious circle. The comparative performance has had fundamental subversive implications for the “democracy versus authoritarianism” dichotomy.
In the official ideology of the People’s Republic, the Chinese political-economic system is labelled “people’s democratic dictatorship”. The emphasis is on the content, rather than the form, of the system. And the “content” refers to the state’s accountability to, and representativeness of, the people. It is claimed that this system with uniformity of interests between the state and the people is superior to the alternative, or rival, system of “bourgeois democratic dictatorship” that is characterised by state-people antagonism. This claim is underpinned by the Leninist tenet that “bourgeois democracy”, after all, is still “bourgeois dictatorship”.
As of 20th September 2020, eight months after China confirmed the outbreak of COVID-19 and almost 200 days after the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic, the number of confirmed infections in China is well below 0.1 million. This stands in stark contrast to the number of more than seven million in the United States, and more than 5.5 million in India – “the beacon of democracy” and the “largest democracy in the world”, respectively. Insofar as this comparative performance is related to the different political(-economic) systems of China vis-a-vis the US/India, it points to the need of intellectual reflexions instead of ideological reflexes.
1. This essay is mainly an excerpt, with some addition and updating work, from the following article: Dic Lo and Yuning Shi (2020) “China versus the US in the pandemic crisis: the state-people nexus confronting systemic challenges”, Working Paper no.237, Department of Economics, SOAS University of London, July 2020. For the vide of a webinar presentation on this topic, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvRUJzekvj4
2. Amartya Sen, “this failure [of the Great Leap Forward famine] is certainly one connected closely with the absence of a relatively free press and the absence of opposition parties free to criticise and chastise the government in power” (‘Food and Freedom’, World Development, 1989, vol.17, no.6, pp.769-781); “In the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press. We cannot find exceptions to this rule” (“Democracy as a Universal Value”, Journal of Democracy, 1999, vol.10, no.3, pp.3-17).
3. Hirschman, Albert O. (1970) Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
4. Fukuyama, Francis (2020) “What kind of regime does China have?”, The American Interest, 18 May, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2020/05/18/what-kind-of-regime-does-china-have/
5. Acemoglu, Daron (2020) “The post-COVID state”, Project Syndicate, 5 June. https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/four-possible-trajectories-after-covid19-daron-acemoglu-2020-06
6. Milanovic, Branko (2020) “Is the pandemic China’s Sputnik Moment?”, Foreign Affairs, 12 May. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-05-12/pandemic-chinas-sputnik-moment
7. For an illustrative discussion of the “exit, voice, and loyalty” framework, and its application to the analysis of Chinese political economy, see Dic Lo (2020) “State-owned enterprises in Chinese economic transformation: institutional functionality and credibility in alternative perspectives”, Journal of Economic Issues, 54 (3): 791-815.
8. Xu, Chenggang (2020) “The defects of the system as revealed by the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan”, The Twenty-First Century (er shi yi shi ji), no.178: 105-109. http://www.cuhk.edu.hk/ics/21c/media/articles/c178-202002005.pdf. Zhou, Xueguang (2020) “Organizational response to COVID-19 crisis: reflections on the Chinese bureaucracy and its resilience”, Management and Organization Review, 16 (3): 473-484.
9. It requires another piece of work to analyse the possible mishandling of the initial outbreak of COVID-19 by the Chinese authorities concerned, and to assess its consequence in relation to the actual record of the epidemic. See the citation in Note 1 above on this.
10. Wang, Hui (2020) “Why should we commemorate Lenin today?”, BCR Journal, April. https://www.guancha.cn/wang-hui/2020_04_22_547798_s.shtml. Wei, Nanzhi (2020) “Procedure justice alone cannot satisfy the Chines people, and the communist party clearly knows this”, Guanchazhe (the observers), 4 July. https://www.guancha.cn/weinanzhi/2020_07_04_556292.shtml
11. Stasavage, David. 2020. “Covid-19 has exposed the weakness of America’s federal government”, 1 July. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/01/opinions/covid-19-america-federal-government-stasavage/index.html
The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.
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