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.