The term “dictator” comes from ancient Rome — a man whom the republic would temporarily give absolute authority during crises. The advantages of untrammeled power in a crisis are obvious. A dictator can act quickly — no need to spend months negotiating legislation or fighting legal challenges. And he can impose necessary but unpopular policies. So there are times when autocratic rule can look more effective than the messiness of democracies bound by rule of law.
Dictatorship, however, starts to look a lot less attractive if it continues for any length of time.
The most important argument against autocracy is, of course, moral: Very few people can hold unrestrained power for years on end without turning into brutal tyrants.
Beyond that, however, in the long run autocracy is less effective than an open society that allows dissent and debate. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the advantages of having a strongman who can tell everyone what to do are more than offset by the absence of free discussion and independent thought.
I was writing at the time about Vladimir Putin, whose decision to invade a neighboring country looks more disastrous with each passing day. Evidently nobody dared to tell him that Russia’s military might was overrated, that Ukrainians were more patriotic and the West less decadent than he assumed and that Russia remained highly vulnerable to economic sanctions.
But while we’re all justifiably obsessed with the Ukraine war — I’m trying to limit my reading of Ukraine news to 13 hours a day — it’s important to note that there’s a superficially very different yet in a deep sense related debacle unfolding in the world’s other big autocracy: China, which is now experiencing a disastrous failure of its Covid policy.
I know that in the West we’re all supposed to be over Covid, although it is still killing 1,200 Americans a day and infections are surging again in Europe, probably presaging another surge here.
But China is definitely not over Covid. Hong Kong, which for a long time seemed virtually unscathed, is experiencing hundreds of deaths a day, a catastrophe reminiscent of early 2020 in New York — back when there were no vaccines and we didn’t know much about how to limit transmission. Major Chinese cities like Shenzhen, a crucial world manufacturing hub, are back under lockdown. And it’s not at all clear when or how China’s new health crisis will end.
All of this represents a huge reversal of fortune. For much of 2020, China’s “zero Covid” policy — draconian lockdowns whenever and wherever new cases emerged — was hailed by many as a policy triumph. Quite a few commentators, not all of them Chinese, went so far as to cite China’s Covid success as proof that world leadership was passing from America and its allies to the rising Asian superpower.
Then three things went very, very wrong.
First, as much of the world was turning to mRNA vaccines — a new approach adapted to Covid with miraculous speed — China insisted on using its own vaccines, which rely on older technology and have proved far less effective, especially against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Not only did China insist on using inferior but home-developed vaccines, it tried to discourage adoption of Western vaccines by spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Second, vaccination rates among China’s elderly — the most vulnerable group — have lagged. This may in part be because disinformation about mRNA technology has not only discouraged people from taking the most effective vaccines, but it has bled into distrust of vaccines in general. It may also reflect broader distrust of the government; China’s leaders lie to their people all the time, so why believe them when they say you should take your shots?
Finally, the zero-Covid strategy is extremely disruptive in the face of highly contagious variants like Omicron, especially given the weak protection provided by Chinese vaccines.
The thing is, all of these failures, like Putin’s failures in Ukraine, ultimately stem from the inherent weakness of autocratic government.
On vaccines, China succumbed to the kind of blinkered nationalism all too common in authoritarian regimes. Would you have wanted to be a health official telling Xi Jinping that his vaunted vaccines were seriously inferior to Western alternatives, especially after Xi’s minions had gone to considerable lengths to claim the opposite?
On zero Covid, would you want to be an economic official telling Xi that the cost of draconian lockdowns, a policy of which China was so proud, was becoming unsupportable?
And as I said, a government that lies all the time has trouble getting the public to listen even when it’s telling the truth.
I don’t want to engage in Western triumphalism here. Vaccine refusal is a big problem in America, too. And I’m worried that we may be moving too quickly to dismantle Covid rules.
Yet China, like Russia, is now giving us an object lesson in the usefulness of having an open society, where strongmen don’t get to invent their own reality.
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