Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID-19 Part 7: The Chinese State's Evolution

by Michael C. Dorf

Donald Trump's repeated references to SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) as a "Chinese virus" encourages racism against Asians and Asian Americans, undercuts the willingness of the Chinese government to provide us with vitally needed assistance that it is almost uniquely positioned to provide, and serves to distract Americans from the ways in which his administration has, through incompetence and egotism, turned what would have been an extremely challenging public health emergency for any normal President into a catastrophe.

There is still time to act to greatly reduce the destructive impact of COVID-19, but the time is now. A national lockdown of the sort that California is now implementing for even as little as three weeks would slow the spread of the virus and buy sufficient time to ramp up testing so that the U.S. could shift to the sort of extensive testing and individual isolation regimes that have allowed South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan to fight the virus without shutting down ordinary life. If you haven't already, read this for a fuller picture.

With effective border control, China, where for two days in a row, there have been zero cases of local spread, can now move to something like the testing-plus-isolation regimes that its East Asian neighbors adopted earlier in their respective epidemics. And that leads me to today's topic, which is inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic but actually about something else entirely: what the Chinese government's response to the outbreak tells us about the nature of that government.

Bernie Sanders courted substantial trouble recently when he praised Fidel Castro's literacy program, despite the fact that in the same breath he condemned the authoritarian nature of Castro's regime. I understand why some people, especially Cuban-Americans, would give Sanders a hard time notwithstanding the disclaimer. It would be at best in poor taste to point to Hitler's revival of the German economy as a positive, even if accompanied by a renunciation of the Holocaust; if one regards a regime as beyond the pale, then praising any of its accomplishments--even if genuine--can be in poor taste.

Accordingly, let me make clear that I also understand that many people have reason to regard the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a malign force in the world. It suppresses dissent with brutal means and is engaged in a horrific and ongoing project of detention and oppression of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities. Thus, I want to be unequivocally clear that the goal of this column is not to praise the CCP while also acknowledging its flaws. The goal isn't praise at all. I merely want to float a hypothesis.

And the hypothesis is this: The modern CCP appears to conceptualize its people differently today than in the past. It appears to conceptualize (most of) them as individuals. I include the parenthetical qualifier "most of" to acknowledge the horrific oppression of ethnic minorities, and I say "appears" because the evidence I shall cite--the CCP's response to the COVID-19 pandemic--is only suggestive, as I shall explain.

Karl Marx expected communism to first take hold in the most advanced industrialized countries of the world (Germany to be precise), because he regarded a proletarian revolt as the logical end-stage of capitalism's supposedly self-defeating logic. Yet the first and most significant communist regime arose in Russia at a time when it was substantially less developed than western Europe. The same was true, only more so, when communists came to power in China. To conform their respective societies to the Marxist orthodoxy, both Lenin (quickly followed by Stalin) and Mao embarked on brutal projects of industrialization, while adapting the orthodoxy to agrarian societies through agricultural collectivization. The Soviet five-year plans and Mao's Great Leap Forward were human catastrophes, rivaling the horrors of Nazism among the greatest atrocities of the 20th Century.

Soviet communism moderated in the post-Stalin years, until eventually Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost exposed the system as unsustainable, which led in rapid succession to the dissolution of the USSR, "shock therapy" of transition in Russia to what turned out to be crony capitalism under Boris Yeltsin, and eventually the revanchism of the last two decades under Vladimir Putin. Yet while Putin's Russia is by no means a liberal democracy, neither is it simply a continuation of the old Soviet Union. Despite his KGB roots, Putin seems more interested in being Czar than General Secretary.

China has followed a somewhat different path. After Mao's death, Deng loosened restrictions on private enterprise, eventually setting the country on a course towards state capitalism in all but name. Wary of the Soviet/Russian example, however, political freedoms in China did not come. Less than half a year after the Tiananmen massacre, the CCP (still led by Deng, albeit unofficially) no doubt felt vindicated when the Berlin Wall fell. It is thus tempting to see the current regime in China as more or less continuous with the one that seized power during the civil war following WWII.

The key here is "more or less." State capitalism under Deng's successors obviously falls on the "less" side of things, whereas political authoritarianism falls on the "more" side. But I want to suggest that perhaps there is another dimension to the "less" side. China under Mao had little regard for individuals, much less the rights of individuals. The Great Leap Forward and like programs were deemed successful when they boosted industrialization, even though millions of people starved.

By contrast, after suppressing the dire warning of Dr. Li Wenliang and others for a month during which the COVID-19 outbreak might have been contained, Chinese policy appeared to have settled on a plan designed to save as many people--individuals--as possible, even at great cost to the economy. If you think that was obviously going to happen, think again. Imagine if the novel coronavirus had emerged under Mao--whose Great Leap Forward is estimated to have killed 45 million people (many deliberately).

By mid-January it was becoming clear that what we now call COVID-19 primarily kills the old and sick, people who, on average, do not contribute much to the economy. Once it stopped censoring the doctors, China attacked the virus by mobilizing a medical response and locking down Wuhan and then much of the rest of the country. The economic cost has been and will continue to be enormous. It's possible that CCP leadership calculated that minimizing the human death toll by strangling off economic activity would actually benefit the country economically relative to allowing it to spread unchecked, but it's also possible--indeed I think more likely--that the current CCP leadership chose to save their peoples' lives for the sake of saving their lives. That's a decision Mao probably would not have made if he saw the economic cost as enormous and the victims as primarily expendable.

What explains what I'll tentatively describe as the much more humane approach from the actual current CCP than what we might have expected during the Maoist era? My working hypothesis is that today's regime is more humane than Maoist China--at least for ethnic Chinese and non-dissidents (a very important caveat). This is my working assumption, based in part on my interactions over the last three decades with Chinese scholars and students. They lack political freedom, but China simply isn't the Orwellian state it was during the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

But now I need to qualify my hypothesis in two important ways. First, Xi is arguably different from his recent predecessors. More than any post-Mao leader other than Deng, Xi has sought to consolidate power and foster something resembling a cult of personality. The prospects for Chinese liberalization generally are bleaker today than they were a decade ago. So my claim that the current regime is substantially more humane than the Mao-era regime is not a claim that China is becoming less authoritarian.

Second, I am also not claiming that the greater solicitude for the welfare of individuals reflects a top-down reorientation of the CCP's priorities. It strikes me as more likely an accession to popular opinion.

But wait. Why does an authoritarian regime care about popular opinion? There is a robust literature (nicely encapsulated in the Chinese case here) explaining that even authoritarian states need some legitimacy with their people to survive.

China since Deng has sought popular legitimacy in two main ways. First, there's a "deal" by which the people get economic growth if they don't complain about the regime. Years of double-digit annual economic growth held up the CCP's end of the bargain. Whether slower growth as the Chinese economy has matured will suffice remains to be seen.

That leaves the CCP even more reliant on its second source of legitimacy: a shared sense of Chinese culture and nationhood as a unifying force. And one key feature of that culture interacts with popular opinion in a way that made a let-the-old-and-sick-die strategy unthinkable.

For millennia, Chinese and more broadly east Asian cultures have revered the old. That's true of many world cultures, of course, but China retains more of the traditional attitude than does, say, American "youth culture." With working-age adults living with and providing much of the social safety net for their aging parents, an approach that treated people as expendable because they're old would be extremely unpopular.

It is possible that if the CCP leadership were unconstrained by popular opinion, it might deploy Maoist tactics. I doubt that, but it's not important for present purposes that I distinguish between a CCP that acts in ways that are humane on principle versus one that acts that way only because popular opinion constrains it to do so. Either way, it is clear that the Chinese government has changed so much from the Maoist days along not just the economic dimension but also along other dimensions that it is has undergone a change in kind, not just degree. There has not been regime change, but as a practical matter the regime has changed.

Of course, as a strong believer in liberal democracy as the ideal, I remain a critic of China's treatment of ethnic minorities and dissidents. But that should not blind us to the evidence of the current nature of the Chinese government. A clearer picture of China will be helpful in cooperating during the current catastrophe and, if the world ever returns to normal, in numerous other respects as well.

N.B. Thanks to Neysun Mahboubi and Taisu Zhang -- who no doubt do not agree with all of the foregoing -- for comments on an earlier draft.


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

While I happen to agree with most of what is said here, I want to note that among the requisite scholars (historians, economists …), at least the ones I’ve read over the years (Riskin, Drèze and Sen, Yang Jishang, Ó Gráda…), Dikötter’s estimates for the number deaths during the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962), in effect, due to the Great Famine, are still considered high, the number, no less horrific in any case, being closer to 25-30 million (and some arguing less than that). And I have never read other scholars claiming that many of these deaths were “deliberate” (they were, nonetheless, inexcusable insofar as they were due to the authoritarian political nature of the regime’s Maoist variation on Party-State Communism). The word “deliberate” (involving intentionality and responsibility) however, is appropriate when accounting for the millions who died during the Cultural Revolution (roughly 1966-1976).

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Another comment: one of the non-economic dimensions in which the regime has changed, reflecting its sensitivity to public opinion (which is why it endeavors, often successfully, to manipulate) and its concern for legitimacy, is evidenced in the revival of Confucian ideology or “Confucianism” (not necessarily equivalent, indeed, sometimes quite different from what scholars, especially philosophers, have taught us about Confucian and neo-Confucian philosophies/worldviews; some of that which is christened ‘Confucian’ actually pre-dates Confucius), which earlier Maoist/Communist ideologues relentlessly attacked as backwards or regressive, etc.

Scott said...

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is not revisionism. Rather, it is Bukharin's correct and humane line taken to its logical conclusion.
The encroachment is a limited, strategic retreat. Reform and opening up has brought us to a secure place, close to the end of the primary phase of socialism. This has allowed Xi room to prioritize lives over growth.

Frank Willa said...

I think that with the framing and caveats you point to, you have captured a balance and tone that is the counterpoint to a small minded hostility expressed by referring to the virus as "Chinese".
It is a culture that as you says values old age, and things that have withstood the test of time. Something I have read terms it as "youthfulness within old age". There is value placed on longevity and health.
As is said we do not have a problem with the people of a country; even when we have a problem with the current regime.
The pettiness of name calling, race baiting, and blaming is beyond tiresome in a health crisis.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Alas, Frank, it was some time ago that we learned to expect name calling, race baiting, and blaming from this demagogic President, as it serves as a time-tested dog whistle for many of his political supporters.

Joe said...
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Joe said...

I'm wary of the framing here as suggested by the first comment to a degree.

I would leave such hypothesizing to those more expert on the history.

As to Frank Willa's comment, there has been repeated examples of attacks on Asian-Americans (flagged in part by a local assembly woman who is a friend of my state senator), including actual physical attacks.

In reply, we got a question at the press conference about "Chinese food." Asinine stuff mixed with more serious concerns.

I'd add btw that the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime was shown to delay for a tragic amount of time an adequate response. To the extent that sort of thing corrupts the Trump Administration, it is a warning.

Woodrow Buchanan said...

These are odd arguments, that Xi is not Mao and that the C.C.P. responds to its people. Do they help us to understand the C.C.P.? I evaluate their merits but ultimately conclude that they do not.

They are potentially useful arguments to make, first, in consideration of widespread ignorance about China’s recent political history (how easily can even the educated differentiate the policies of Deng, Jiang Zemin, Hu, and Xi?), and, second, to correct certain assumptions that free citizens tend to make about authoritarian governments (e.g., no institutionalized dissent necessarily means wilfully insulated kleptocracies à la Zimbabwe). To some people (perhaps especially those getting their first taste of wannabe-totalitarianism under Trump), it really may be news that having absolute power does not obligate one to use it incompetently.

But does these correctives really leave us with any better understanding of the Chinese Communist régime than the misconceptions they would dispel? I am afraid that, in correcting those misconceptions, the argument may very well foster other, potentially even more destructive, misconceptions while discouraging us from making a more fundamental observation about C.C.P.’s governance.

To one of these misconceptions I already alluded above, in parentheses: while it is true that the Party is no longer Maoist, it is becoming more Maoist, not less. That is the trend under Xi: e.g., Jiang and Hu strained to keep China to itself and maintained a largely passive rôle with its neighbors (excepting Taiwan); Xi, however, has emphasized in speeches to the Party and the Army, in alarmingly ominous tones, the probable need for self-sacrifice for the Chinese motherland in the coming years. Revolutionary martyrs who embody such sacrifice, like Lei Feng, have been reanimated—and “cutified”—to promote a collectivist spirit. And in the case of the Wuhan virus, Dr. Dorf omits how the C.C.P. has spun the story, i.e., by stressing the collective effort of the people and their self-sacrifice for the nation. While the policy of protecting people from the virus may appear humane because it does in fact save people’s lives, this policy is being realized in deeply dehumanizing terms that laud the construction of great works, stories of personal sacrifice for the nation, and which lately exude a gloating triumphalism that more people are dying abroad than in China. Is this humane?

More importantly, the C.C.P.-is-actually-not-totally-evil argument obscures a more crucial point about the C.C.P.’s governance, namely, that its great success has long been in solving the very problems that it creates itself. But whereas the problems it creates are inseparable from its economic and political system, the success of some of its solutions is not guaranteed. Indeed those successes themselves, as in environmental and demographic policy, are far more tenuous than they appear. In other words, China has been fortunate to have leadership that has so far chosen, with adequate skill and good luck, which of their self-created crises to solve, when, and with how heavy an hand. This marriage of in-the-nick-of-time solutions to Lady Luck is unlikely to last, for at least two reasons: first, the response to the Wuhan virus shows, as with all prior crises, that the C.C.P. is reluctantly reactive, not proactive. It reacted only when it became a matter of survival.

The other reason is that a totalitarian system’s success depends heavily upon its leader, and Xi offers scant ground for hope: his policy of suppressing dissent and strangling free journalism, his swiftly spoiling China’s hard-won good will, his unforced errors in Hong Kong etc., all beside his Trumpian insecurity bespoken in long-winded titles and honors, suggest that the period of good-enough totalitarian responsiveness is coming to an end.

In sum, then, Xi is not Mao, and the Party has lately calculated (when a cover-up became untenable) that the economic distress of mass virus death was worse than the economic distress of preventing mass virus death. Applause?

Jeff Thaler said...

But to go back to the public health impacts of what was done for a moment....this is what is happening there on the ground in terms of new virus cases:

BEIJING, March 21 (Xinhua) -- Facing a sharp increase of COVID-19 cases from abroad, China will take strict measures to prevent imported cases, said a spokesman of the National Health Commission (NHC) on Saturday.

NHC spokesman Mi Feng said that the total number of imported cases to the Chinese mainland increased by 216 percent to 269 patients from March 11 to 20.

He also noted that the mainland reported no new domestically transmitted COVID-19 cases for the third day in a row on Friday, and provincial-level regions except the hard-hit Hubei Province had been clear of indigenous cases for nine days.

Mi also called for unswerving efforts in preventing the COVID-19 epidemic from rebounding.

Diane Klein said...

If you want to think fruitfully about the Chinese government's ideas about individuals, you cannot omit to mention (and watch) "One Child Nation."

Joe said...

Also, John Oliver's episode on the one child policy was a good watch.

See also, "Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China by Leta Hong Fincher.