Last July I was in Shanghai as the city, with the same population as Australia, introduced a tough new waste recycling regime. Backed up by trained volunteers, fines, and a huge waste processing network, one of the world’s largest cities took an important step towards sustainability. Good news, one would have thought. Yet the Guardian’s headline was ‘A Sort of Eco-dictatorship’, replete with grumbling residents, fines as ‘coercion’, and all dismissed by an ‘expert’ as ‘mere window dressing’. A shift to sustainable waste management on a vast scale, a pilot for the largest country on Earth, was simply put in the ‘authoritarian China’ bin. This at a time when Australia was still working out what to do in response to the Chinese ban on landfill waste export two years after it took effect (and they’d had warning). This kind of reporting resurfaced in January, led as always by the vociferous China hater Bill Bishop, as the Corona Virus began to make news. That is, an immediate locking down of China as authoritarian regime, now exporting its mistakes to us.
This was to be Xi’s Tiananmen moment, the Communist Party’s Chernobyl, its failure to protect the public revoking the ‘mandate of heaven’. A Guardian podcast, in the middle of this crisis as 1.4 billion people were confined to their homes, discussed initial cover-ups (a fair point) but then suggested this maybe the end of the Communist Regime. Reports of someone out of curfew being handcuffed to a lamppost elicited discussion of ‘the struggle of the Chinese people against the Chinese state’ and the question ‘why are people not in revolt on the streets’? These predictions – as anyone who knew China would tell you – were utterly ill-founded, and yet they filled the headlines and op-eds of the mainstream press. They built on a growing international relations literature in the US and Australia which had pivoted from a realist view – how do we deal with the rise of China – to a ‘woken’one – China has been given a free run at our expense and to our detriment. The Thucydides trap is inevitable, so better spring it now whilst the US and its allies still have an edge. This aggressive pivot and the reporting to which it gives rise has not served Australia – or the West – well in this crisis.
In its desire to see the demise of the Chinese Communist Party – in this view the only viable option – it deludes itself and others as to the CPCs capacity and its wide support in China. These writers are keen to make a distinction between the Chinese government and the Chinese people, but they talk of ‘regime change’ as if this meant the same as ousting Morrison or Trump. What they mean is a large scale political, social, economic and cultural transformation of China into something acceptable to the West. Not only is this not on the cards but it has zero support in China. Reform yes, but not regime change. This failure had serious consequences.
The concern to force China into a ‘dictatorship versus the people’ narrative meant that the lived experience of the virus emergency in China went under-reported. The ‘human interest’ stories we saw in Italy or France barely surfaced, though they were there to be seen. Many people in Wuhan– undergoing what we all now might have to go through – saw themselves as saving their fellow citizens, and the rest of the world. A Chinese colleague mailed me to say that they felt proud of what their country had done to earn the gratitude of the world. I tried not to deflate her. This all contributed to the ‘othering’of the virus, as something that could only happen in China, a backwards country not able to deal with it as would an advanced democracy. It also suggested that China’s strict methods, which gradually gained some grudging admiration, could not be implemented in the West. They were needed as in China no-one trusted the government, whereas in democracies we have open information. There is less of that now.
This is not to excuse the Chinese government of its mistakes. Ok, the virus was unknown, and it threatened the lunar new year holiday; but all mistakes reveal the qualities of the system that makes them. In this case risk averse local officials not wanting to put their head up first and sitting hard on those that did. But who now globally, after a crucial month of highly visible health warnings was wasted, is able to keep on casting stones – other than those who blame China for exporting its mistakes. The Chinese response, when it got going, was ruthlessly efficient. It will require some serious investigation, by health professionals and epidemiologists, to determine what they did well, what not, and what could be done differently. But there is also a political reckoning, and it will be a hard one.
China has shown that it possesses a certain state capacity that has been seriously eroded in the West, especially the Anglosphere. Political scientist Christopher Hood suggested thirty years ago, that ‘new public management’ was imposing cost-efficiencies at the expense of commitment to ‘honesty and fairness’, and the capacity for ‘reliability, adaptivity and robustness’. He asked presciently, ‘whether the emphasis on cost-cutting, contracting-out, compartmentalizing and top-slicing is compatible with safety culture at the front line’. Some answers are now forthcoming – from the health services to the NBN. At bottom, there is an erosion of trust in government. It is not just the obvious decline in the capacity of states to deal with this crisis, but also of the social capacity to work collaboratively with trusted state authorities. China has both capacity and this trust; so too do the democracies of South Korea and Taiwan. A country does not need to be ‘authoritarian’ to act competently, but nor does being a ‘democracy’ guarantee that it will do so.
Underlying the hollowing out of the state has been the extension of the market to every nook and cranny of social, cultural and political life. It is now held as the very essence of the rational. In the China narrative the progress of ‘free’ market capitalism and democracyare as one; that things have not turned out as planned shows that these markets – state capitalism – cannot really be free. What this occludes is the growing sense in the West that capitalism and democracy are not always happy bedfellows. In fact, capitalism is quite happy to dispense with democracy when circumstances require. The current global crisis raises questions about every state’s (lack of) capacity to ensure the basic welfare of its citizens. This crisis thus connects us to China, because there too people are asking about how the system can be made more responsive to their needs, able to listen to their voices. This, it should now be clear by now, is not guaranteed by the bare mechanism of a party electoral system. A new compact between state and citizens is required, in both the West and China, and this challenge takes us beyond Us and Them.
For right now the Thucydides trap has mis-sprung. It is China that is a global health leader, the capable state to which one might consider turning to for help, as the US fumbles its way into disaster. And the Party has made propaganda capitalout of it – right back at that coming out of the US and Australia. The task now is surely to step outside this binary and refuse to be told what our core values are by those who would wage cold and hot war against China. The world faces some profound challenges and China has its contribution to make, as do we.