What China’s Approach to the Wuhan Virus Tells Us about Politics in Dictatorships

It is easy to become fascinated by the images from Wuhan.

Wuhan Huoshenshan Hospital under construction. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Stunning aerial photographs show dozens of Chinese diggers deployed on a plot of land to build a brand new hospital. The hospital will be completed in just a few days!

While building anything from a motorway to an art museum can take years in democracies such as Norway – often involving tugs-of-war (followed by rematches) between political parties and long-drawn-out consultations and dialogues with affected parties – the Chinese regime is apparently showing great energy and efficiency in its response to the current crisis.

Perhaps it’s not so bad after all to have an “energetic” regime that can override opposition, mobilize the country’s resources, and efficiently implement measures to achieve its goals?

Perhaps dictatorships have some advantages after all?

A “poster child” for political effectiveness

The idea that dictatorships are capable and effective, and democracies are sluggish and inefficient, is far from new.

Hitler’s contemporaries admired his regime for its efficient building of major road networks that still exist as today’s Autobahn. Mussolini was praised as the man who finally got Italian trains to run on time. Stalin’s Five Year Plans and economic mass mobilizations enabled a rate of investment and industrialization in the Soviet Union that no democracy presumably could manage.

In the 1970s and 1980s, authoritarian Asian regimes in Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea were admired as miracles of industrialized growth, and since then China has taken over the role of authoritarian “poster child” for efficient policy implementation, rapid industrialization and just as rapid economic growth.

Only half the truth

The capable and efficient policy-making, however, is only half the truth about politics in dictatorships, which are often embellished by a regime’s propaganda machine.

Regimes are eager to project an image for you to admire, without further reflection, the hospital construction in today’s Wuhan or the Autobahn building programme in Germany 90 years ago, and sometimes they may also embellish the truth.

But there is a flipside of the coin:
Politics in dictatorships are about far more than effective industrialization and infrastructure construction.

While some such projects may be successful, autocracies also pursue other, grandiose initiatives – cooked up by the leader and pushed through without opposition – that go wrong and are hugely expensive for taxpayers.

There are policies that direct enormous resources to prestige projects that will benefit elites in the country’s capital, such as gleaming airports or even more gleaming skyscrapers, while schools and healthcare facilities for ordinary people elsewhere in the country fall into decay.

There are policies that are implemented despite the fact that experts and bureaucrats actually know better, but are either censured or censure themselves. Who wants to give bad news to a dictator if there’s a real risk that the messenger will get shot?

Secrecy, censorship and self-censorship

We need go no further back in history than the outbreak of the Wuhan corona virus to illustrate some of these points.

While the Chinese regime would prefer to direct the focus onto its resolute building of hospitals, the preceding weeks featured a political dynamic that is well known to students of dictatorship politics: reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times reveal how the Chinese authorities actively and successfully sought to keep a lid on news about the virus, even ordering the police to detain medical personnel who attempted to raise the alarm.

One result was that other health personnel, who were not in police detention, kept silent, even though it became clearer and clearer as time went on that a new and dangerous virus had emerged. The Chinese (state-owned) media also kept quiet about the virus that was devastating Wuhan.

When the regime changed tack and implemented its “effective measures”, it was already rather late in the day. Because of the secrecy and the opportunity the virus had to spread “in the dark”, there is now a greater danger of a global pandemic, and the global economy is already experiencing tremors as a result of the Wuhan virus.

Secrecy, censorship and self-censorship may have contributed to the loss of many human lives and enormous economic resources.

Concentration of power

Comparative studies of democracies and dictatorships repeatedly find much greater variation in the types of policies adopted by dictatorships, and also in the consequences of such policies.

For example, dictatorships dominate lists of countries that have experienced so-called “economic growth miracles”, but they are even more dominant in lists of countries experiencing catastrophic economic outcomes.

The concentration of power in a dictator more easily allows major resources and large-scale efforts to be directed towards generating change, once the dictator has identified the desired direction. Sometimes this generates rapid economic growth, if this is what the regime wants and the right instruments are put in place.

In other situations the dictator may want to use resources to enrich himself and his associates, rather than benefiting the economy more generally.

Or, sometimes a dictator may have ambitions to generate growth, but forces through a completely misguided policy, without listening to or even being presented with any opposition, which creates a crisis.

A possible example of the latter situation occurred in China around 60 years ago, when Mao Zedong forced through “The Great Leap Forward”, which aimed to industrialize China at record speed. The result was millions of people starving to death and economic collapse.

No one dares contradict the leader

Politics in dictatorships display enormous variation. Rapid infrastructure construction and industrialization are only part of the picture, and then such developments are often to be found in a handful of regimes that we hear a lot about, such as today’s China.

Just as important – and even more widespread in most countries with authoritarian regimes – are episodes of misjudged policies resulting from obstructions to the flow of information, with no one daring to contradict the leader. Alternatively, we may often observe policies that benefit just a few of the dictator’s supporters, subsidized by the population at large, who do not share the benefits.

The media, social scientists and policy makers should all bear such stories in mind before indulging in uncritical praise of dictatorships that can build brand new hospitals in just a few days.

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