Look down on Vietnam from China

Is China really superior to us? : The fallacy that authoritarian regimes are better at fighting Corona

Volker Perthes is director of the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin.

In the debate about the international effects of the corona pandemic, one can often hear that the crisis is strengthening authoritarian forms of government and rule. That is a steep thesis, especially one that is suitable for television. The reality test, however, offers a more nuanced picture.

At first glance, the thesis of the advantage of autocracies develops suggestive power because nobody claims the opposite: that the pandemic in general strengthens democratic states or the European Union as a model of a community of democracies.

In fact, even the leading democratic power, the USA, does not give a good picture in the crisis. On the other hand, China is pulling out all the stops to highlight its own successes in the fight against the virus or aid for other countries - and to brand the failures of democratic states as typical of the system.

Facts play less of a role than well-staged images. Added to this is real frustration over a lack of or belated solidarity within the EU. This creates favorable conditions for both Beijing and Moscow's “mask and material diplomacy”.

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It is no secret that China is covering up its own failure, especially the initial cover-up of the epidemic, but it becomes less important if the EU does not support the fight against corona in the Western Balkans, for example. Or when US President Donald Trump promises to produce vaccines only for its own population.

Controversial handling of the coronavirus

The USA and China consciously use the corona crisis as part of their geopolitical rivalry, which is often staged as a dispute between democratic and authoritarian systems. In terms of substance, however, the pandemic is not exactly suitable for ideological competition.

How well China dealt with the epidemic is likely to remain controversial for a long time. An independent international investigation into the outbreak of the virus is unlikely to take place - the matter is already too politically charged for that.

In the end, one will probably say that the Chinese leadership did a lot wrong, but also done a lot right, with the consequent lockdown in Wuhan even setting international standards.

How different countries deal with the pandemic, regardless of the very different economic, demographic and geographical starting conditions, always has to do with their political peculiarities and the relationship between the state and society.

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However, it is more about how concretely governing, administrating and communicating takes place than about political ideology. There are democratic and authoritarian or semi-democratic states that have managed the crisis well.

In the same way, there are also states in all camps that dealt with the pandemic comparatively poorly. Some autocratic states such as Vietnam or Rwanda were able to contain the virus relatively quickly and effectively while maintaining social cohesion.

Not all states in the EU were successful

In contrast, the opposite is true for Russia, Iran and Turkey. Democracies as diverse as South Korea, Japan, Tunisia, South Africa or Germany and many, but not all, EU countries have so far been considered relatively successful in virus containment.

This is less true for Great Britain, not at all for Brazil, and as far as the United States is concerned, it depends on whether you look at the federal level or at individual states.

Defenders of authoritarian models point out that such systems can quickly make centralized decisions and implement measures such as the isolation of entire cities or electronic contact tracing without much resistance. But democratic states have also shown that they can quickly initiate similar measures in the event of a crisis.

Centralism is no guarantee of good crisis management

In very differently affected countries such as Italy, Germany, Sweden or Korea, approval of the respective governments has even grown. Centralism does not guarantee effective crisis management, but can, as has been shown in France, have disadvantages.

In contrast, the crisis provides good arguments for federal and decentralized models that allow regionally adapted solutions to problems. In the US, the federal structure is likely to have prevented an even bigger catastrophe.

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Taken together, this means that the label “democratic” or “authoritarian” does not allow any statement to be made about the ability of a system or government to deal with the current pandemic or comparable future crises.

Other characteristics that we assume in democracies, but which authoritarian systems are not necessarily lacking, are decisive: an “infrastructure of trust” between citizens and the state, a sufficient degree of social inclusion, social security and justice.

How much inequality is acceptable is answered differently depending on the country. However, social protests almost always have to do with the felt or real exclusion of relevant groups and with a noticeable increase in inequality.

The pandemic exacerbates existing inequalities, at the same time a higher level of inequality also seems to make it more difficult to cope with the crisis.

An intact social contract helps

Successful coping with the pandemic and its consequences therefore requires above all a functioning state and what one could call an intact “social contract”: basic trust in the state and its institutions, ideally also the rulers.

In addition, the ability to act cooperatively and multilaterally is crucial for successfully coping with what is, by its nature, a global crisis.

The donors' conference recently organized by the European Commission for a “global alliance” against Covid-19 offers a good example of a coalition of state and non-state actors that leaves ideological orientations aside.

The protection of global public goods - health, food security, climate protection, biodiversity, but also arms control and peacekeeping - requires pragmatic cooperation with political and ideological rivals. Debates on values ​​or the dispute over human rights, for example with China, can even be conducted much more credibly on this basis.
Global Challenges is a brand of DvH Medien, which also includes Tagesspiegel. The new institute aims to promote the discussion of geopolitical issues through publications by recognized experts. The authors are Prof. Dr. Ann-Kristin Achleitner, Sigmar Gabriel, Günther H. Oettinger, Prof. Dr. Jörg Rocholl, Prof. Dr. Bert Rürup and Prof. Dr. Renate Schubert.

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