World is paying for Xi's autocracy
Updated: Feb 29, 2020
The coronavirus outbreak in China has sharpened the world's attention once again on the political process there.
This column was published in the Bangkok Post, Friday January 31st, 2020.
"China's leaders sometimes seem 3 metres tall, presiding over a political and economic juggernaut that's founded universities at the rate of one a week and that recently used more more cement in three years that the United States did in the entire 20th century.
President Donald Trump has hailed president Xi JinPing as a "brilliant leader" and Michael Bloomberg says Mr Xi is "not a dictator". But we're now seeing the dangers of Mr Xi's authoritarian model, for China and the world.
The first known coronavirus infection in the city of Wuhan presented symptoms beginning on Dec 1, and by late December there was alarm in Wuhan's medical circles. That would have been the moment for the authorities to act decisively.
And act decisively they did - not against the virus, but against whistleblowers who were trying to call attention to the health threat. A doctor who told a WeChat group about the virus was disciplined and forced to admit wrongdoing. The police reported giving "education" and "criticism" to eight frontline doctors for "rumour-mongering" about the epidemic, instead of punishing these doctors, Mr Xi should have listened to them.
China informed the World Health Organisation of the virus on Dec 31 but kept its own citizens in the dark; as other countries reported infections even as China pretended that it had confined the outbreak to Wuhan, Chinese joked grimly about a "patriotic" virus that only struck foreigners.
Wuhan's mayor said he wasn't authorised to discuss the virus until late this month [January]. In the intervening time, people travelled to and from Wuhan and didn't take precautions.
The government finally ordered a lockdown on Jan 23 that quarantined people in Wuhan. But by then, five million people had already fled the city.
Because the government covered up the epidemic in the early stages, hospitals were not able to gather supplies, leading to shortages of testing kits, masks and protective gear. Some doctors were reduced to making goggles out of plastic folders.
One reason for the early cover-up is that Mr Xi's China has systematically gutted institutions like journalism, social media, nongovernmental organisations, the legal professions and others that might provide accountability. These institutions were never robust in China, but on and off they were tolerated until Mr Xi came along.
I conducted a series of experiments on Chinese blogs over the years beginning in 2003 and was sometimes surprised by what I could get away with - but no longer. Mr Xi has dragged China backwards in terms of civil society, crushing almost every wisp of freedom and oversight.
For the same reason that Mr Xi's increasingly authoritarian China bungled the coronavirus outbreak, it also mishandled a swine flu virus that since 2018 has devastated China's hog industry and killed almost one-quarter of the world's pigs.
Dictators often make poor decisions because they don't get accurate information: When you squelch independent voices you end up just getting flattery and optimism from those around you. Senior Chinese Officials have told me that they are routinely lied to on trips to meet local officials and must dispatch their drivers and secretaries to assess the truth and gauge the real mood.
For this and other reasons, Mr Xi has made a series of mistakes. He mishandled and inflamed the political crisis in Hong Kong, he inadvertently assured the re-election of his nemesis as president of Taiwan, and he has presided over worsening relations with the United States and many other countries.
The coronavirus has already reached the Xinjiang region in the Far West of China, and one risk is that it will spread in the internment camps where China is confining about one million Muslims with poor sanitation and limited health care.
Viruses are challenges for any country, and it's only fair to note that China does a better job protecting its people from measles that the U.S. does. It's a credit to China's system that a baby born in Beijing today has a longer life expectancy than a baby born in Washington D.C. More broadly, the United States, which has several impoverished counties with lower life expectancy than Cambodia or Bangladesh, is in no position to lecture anyone about health.
But with a dose of humility, let's get over any misplaced admiration some Americans have for Mr Xi's authoritarian model.
The Chinese social contract has been that citizens will not get ballots but will live steadily better lives, yet China's economy is now as weak as it has been in three decades - and the coronavirus will sap growth further. Mr Xi is not living up to his end of the bargain, and this is seen in the anger emerging on Chinese social media despite the efforts of censors.
I don't know if Mr Xi is in political trouble for his misrule, but he should be. He's a preening dictator, and with this outbreak, some citizens are paying the price."
Nicholas D Kristof
Columnist with New York Times
Writer for The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci, explains how China’s use of surveillance and censorship makes it harder for Xi Jinping to know what’s going on in his own country. In fact, in light of what has happened with Covid-19, authoritarianism’s fatal flaw has been revealed.