Coronavirus, Neoconservatism and Totalitarianism: The Case of China



“A crisis forces us back to the questions themselves and requires from us either new or old answers, but in any case direct judgments. A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices. Such an attitude not only sharpens the crisis but makes us forfeit the experience of reality and the opportunity for reflection it provides.”1

Applied to the current pandemic crisis, this quote implies two things. First, there is a need to question the answers given to the crisis by governments and societies. Then, we must try to take advantage of this “experience of truth” to better reflect upon our research objects.

These interconnected needs lead us to try to assess not only the Chinese government’s “management of the crisis”, but also the way the Chinese society reacted to both the crisis and its management. This crisis also serves as an indicator of a certain number of ongoing phenomena in Chinese society that are generally neglected or perhaps misinterpreted.

However, this “new eye” cannot ignore the theoretical frameworks and the methodological debates that dominated scholarship before the crisis. When Hannah Arendt talks of prejudices, she refers to these frameworks and debates. As far as contemporary interpretations of China (and elsewhere in Asia) go two main trends monopolize the scene. First, neoconservatism considers that the difference of political regimes between democratic countries and non-democratic ones explains the differences between societies in almost all domains of social life. Second, culturalism reduces variations between societies to specific and irreducible cultural traits.

The central point of this text will be to show that these “prejudices” prevent us from understanding and explaining the responses to the crisis. Because the crisis is global but reveals very diverse attitudes and modes of management, a comparison with other societies, particularly those in European countries, is necessary and could allow progress to be made in overcoming these prejudices. This short text does not aim to exhaust the subject, but rather to open up a few avenues for research.

China as the Totalitarian Other

Criticisms of the Chinese reaction were mainly directed at the alleged totalitarian nature of the regime. It is true that when China was the only country facing the epidemic, everything seemed to justify this sweeping judgment. Indeed, the concerns of whistle-blower doctors and the crackdown on “citizen journalists” continue to be used by many observers as explanations for the government's delay in revealing the epidemic and initiating the first steps in trying to combat it. The apparent lack of consideration for the pain and dignity of overworked caregivers, and even the haste to get rid of the bodies of those who died from the infection, were interpreted as signs of the inhumanity of the one-party system. The sometimes brutal confinements—as in Hubei—and the use of drones and other technologies for locating and monitoring individuals appeared to be a logical consequence of the political system’s propensity for the idea of “Big brother is watching you”. The liberal reforms that hit Chinese hospitals between the 1990s and 2009/2010 could explain the trouble the capitalistic-bureaucratic system had in being able to react in an efficient way. Finally, the obvious underestimation of figures, in particular of deaths, are interpreted as the responsibility of a regime that refuses to lose face, whatever the cost.

The Other as a Model?

And then things changed. When Italy started to be hit, when fear started to hit other European countries, the discourse changed. China is still accused of being responsible for the pandemic, for having warned other countries too little and too late, for having become the real boss of the WHO, etc. Yet today, Wuhan has become a “model”. Although, until March, many Western leaders considered that this model, originating in an undemocratic country with no real social media networks, was inapplicable in our countries, the discourse today is very different. Containment is becoming the norm. We, European countries, drastically control movements, we use drones, we talk about spy applications, we talk about controlling telephone data to track down recalcitrant people. Certainly, we haven’t reached the heights of Wuhan's radicalism, but it seems that the barriers have been broken.

What is interesting is that this attraction to the Chinese model rarely takes into account the fact that it is based on actions limited to a province where the situation was dramatic. Elsewhere, there was no widespread and drastic containment. The authorities relied on other assets specific to Chinese society. On the one hand, a call for civic-mindedness—I will come back to this—and on the other hand the re-mobilisation of Maoist institutions (such as residents’ committees) whose role had greatly diminished. The reproduction of past social forms in capitalist China has also had a decisive role. Here, I refer to the dominant model of contemporary housing, i.e. large apartment blocks (a kind of gated community) that are all equipped with entry control systems, which have become essential elements of a general control system for measuring and regulating movements. In many cities, it has sufficed for residents of such complexes to decide to ban the entry of non-residents and organise themselves or the security services accordingly, to confine de facto without confining de jure. There is nothing like this in Europe, where it is difficult to imagine how similar controls could have been implemented at the entrance to buildings. There are further examples later on where the historical context seems to have provided the leaders in China with a helping hand.

Still Totalitarianism

It can therefore be said that the “success” of the “Wuhan model” has been used to justify the use of total confinement and the undermining of civil liberties in the West. Criticism of the totalitarian nature of the measures taken has largely faded. Nevertheless, the equation that China equals totalitarianism remains prevalent in most Western media. The Chinese population is denied any capacity to act as a “subject”—in both meanings of the term.

While a large part of the population played the game of voluntary confinement and accepted the climate of war installed by the government, this reaction is still analysed today as the effect of propaganda on a population under influence and not as an expression of civic-mindedness.

China continues to be accused of having been slow to react (this is true, but probably much less so than during the SARS crisis) and of lying about the figures. But here too, the criticisms are becoming more ambiguous and less convincing as the pandemic spreads. Western countries are also accused of having delayed reaction or reacted inappropriately, or of having worsened the effects of the pandemic by years of cutting health budget, or of not having learned from Asian experiences. We also find that while the Chinese death figures are most certainly wrong for Wuhan—there is no indication that elsewhere in China the epidemic has been particularly virulent2—this is true elsewhere too. The French figures have neglected deaths outside hospitals, and many deaths have not been tested in Italy. And yet, the involuntary nature of these omissions is implicitly contrasted with the malignancy of Chinese amnesia. It is emphasised that the Party would have liked to hide its mistakes. And indeed, the political system can be blamed for the underestimation—again, I will come back to this—but on the whole we can well imagine that the panic, the fact that the hospitals in Wuhan were quickly overwhelmed, the concern to get rid of the bodies quickly, so many phenomena which are very present today in Europe, can easily explain part of the underestimation of the figures. We also know that we must be wary of the total mortality figures in times of epidemics because of the excess mortality due to the neglect of the usual pathologies treated by the health care system. In short, we, Europeans, are discovering everything that China discovered before us.

Confucius and the Coronavirus

Although it seems weaker today, the culturalist prejudice that also serves as a paradigm for the analysis of China has not disappeared. Moreover, even though South Korea and Taiwan are democratic regimes, there is a tendency among many politicians and journalists to classify these countries in a subcategory, that of “Confucianist” democracies. If these states have been able to “trace” individuals suspected of being infected, if they have been particularly intrusive with individuals who tested positive but were not symptomatic, if the use of masks has been systematic, it is presumed to be because there is an old background of “traditional China” in all these countries which from the outset would lead individuals to privilege the collective and obey the authorities. The other factors—civic-mindedness, the low degree of social and numerical marginality of the working classes in these societies, or the transparency, educational concern, and consistency of the authorities—are not considered as explanatory factors. Moreover, the total and systematic confinement that Europe is now resorting to—which these countries have never implemented—can be understood as being more restrictive for individuals. From the point of view of civil liberties, is it more serious to prevent people who are not ill from going out or to force them to wear a mask?

China COVID19. Photo copyright: Unsplash

Chinese Specificities

The argument against neoconservative and culturalist prejudices, as well as the fact that it is becoming clear that the attitude of the governments of democratic countries is not radically different from that of the Chinese government—far from it—should not hide the fact that this crisis also makes it possible to better grasp Chinese specificities. Foremost among these is the extensive use of the methods of the Maoist era. Some might speak of totalitarian resilience; I would rather speak of historicity, in the sense that Maoist methods are part of an arsenal of practices that remains at the heart of the imaginaire of both the authorities and the population in China. When the government announced the measures to isolate Hubei and to cut off trains and planes, etc., no one was surprised. Likewise, the building of a hospital in a few days and the sending of 40,000 “volunteer” care workers to Wuhan are reminiscent of the mythology of the Great Leap Forward and the more recent “Silk Roads” project. Additionally, isolating residences from each other has played a major role in controlling movement long before this. Thus, far from being offended by this, residents have found it reassuring to be protected. The rhetoric of the nation at war, of survival, of unity, refers to the saga of the Party as the power by which China came to be what it is. It is also this imaginary world that leads many Chinese, especially the middle class, to consider that security, comfort, and consumption are essential elements of the good life.

In the face of the coronavirus danger, the Chinese government has reacted as it has done in the past, striking hard and militarising the whole society. But it would be simplistic to see in this reaction an “authoritarian resilience”,3 because decisions have been made also with reference to new political practices. Since the 1990s, the Chinese state has been mainly concerned with social issues and the administration of society. The ruling class knows that it is by satisfying society that it can preserve its power. The methods and the imaginaire linked to the “national destiny” of the CCP have been used to preserve the social contract signed after the Tiananmen Square movement: the preservation of the one-party system against the guarantee of a good life (xiaokang, literally “small prosperity”) for all. It was the need to respect this social contract that led to the hesitations of the government and in particular of the Hubei authorities in the first weeks of the coronavirus epidemic. Alerting the central authorities, announcing that a potentially man-to-man transmissible epidemic was looming, was the assurance of both a terrible economic crisis and the liquidation of the local bureaucracy necessarily made responsible for possible misinformation. Hence the underestimation of the number of deaths, which is explained by a desire to achieve good results despite the disaster.

Of course, a parallel can be drawn here with Europe as well. European countries have tried to avoid taking strong measures to protect growth. In this respect, the testimony of Francesco Macario, the Secretary of the Communist Refoundation in Bergamo is edifying. To the very end, the city council and the business community were opposed to any preventive measures.4 But the essential difference between the two situations is that the “Chinese dream”, this hope that every Chinese person—including migrant workers—can one day become a “middle class” or even better, is a strong element of today’s imagination in China. Conversely, I do not think that most Europeans expect tomorrow to be better than today. In France, the social, cultural, and digital divides are such that the possibilities for collective narrative are weak. It is this Chinese dream (no doubt largely illusory but terribly effective) that binds Chinese society together and that has paradoxically made it possible for the population and the state to forget for a time the obsession with economic growth. For a time only, of course.

Political Risks

Neoconservative biases have largely dominated not only interpretations of China’s response to the pandemic, but also the analysis of the political risks that the pandemic could entail in China. Some have even wondered whether the coronavirus was China's Chernobyl. The metaphor is irrelevant, of course. Not only because the two events are not comparable, but also because the times have changed: unlike the Soviet Union in the 1980s, China is not at the end of the line. But the idea is clear. Still waiting for the overthrow of this “aberrant” regime, neoconservative analysts expected the population to break with a state that not only lies but is incapable of protecting them. Yet the complexity of the political context cannot fit into this framework. First, criticising the state and supporting the regime are two attitudes that are not contradictory for most Chinese people. Many citizens know that not everything has been perfect, that the Party has made mistakes. In the past too, mistakes (the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution) have not prevented the Party from moving forward. But once again the Party is saving China. The policies that have been carried out, even the most radical ones, have received the support of the people. It is not in times of war that the people will support the idea of destabilising the regime.

The prejudices of the neoconservatives lead them to mistake public opinion for social networks. Even if all social categories (and ages groups) have access to social media networks and the Internet today—another difference with Europe—most of them do not take the authorities to task on these platforms. They can express doubts and criticisms. In the case of social conflicts for instance, it is more a question of revealing injustices, defending interests, and in some way improving the social system than overturning it. Only a small minority takes risks by openly criticising the regime. If in this environment perceived as “westernised”, criticism can lead to a desire for a change of regime—but this is not systematic either—this attitude is very much a minority one. Finally, and the crisis has made this clear, the political scene is not solved by an opposition between social networks (people) and the Party. Here too, the neoconservative paradigm is unable to get out of this simplistic idea according to which in a democratic regime the population can only want, very strongly, to get rid of the “totalitarian yoke”. Every event, every phenomenon is read only through this prism: a new opportunity for rupture.

In reality, social networks and the media are as much a space for conservatism as for contestation. First, revealing the errors and shortcomings of bureaucracies serves the interests of higher authorities. The opacity of the regime, the complexity of the bureaucratic mechanisms, and the relations between the central and local authorities facilitate secrecy and make it difficult for the centre to know the local situation. It is only when this secrecy is broken that it is possible to see clearly. If hundreds of executives have been dismissed in Hubei it is also because citizen journalists have helped to expose problems to the government. Thanks to them, Beijing knew what was going on at the local level.

Secondly, it is striking to note that the same people who denounce in Western newspapers the lack of freedom of expression in the Chinese press, welcome the so-called revelations published in the newspaper Caixin that are supposed to have destabilised the regime. Like all newspapers in China, however, Caixin is controlled by the Party. So, either Caixin has entered into dissent, which would be surprising, or the revelations and criticisms published by the newspaper are part of a political game between factions. Another interpretation would be that there is a particularly effective censorship—nothing gets through, which is the thesis of the neoconservatives—or that the censorship responds to more complex logics. For example, the fact that Caixin tackled head-on the issue of underestimating the number of deaths is anything but a coincidence. It serves, in China and within the Party itself, the interests of those who would like to see the record of crisis management endanger the Xi Jinping line or other less important factions.

Finally, social networks make it possible for the government to know the state of public opinion and of course to contribute to shaping it. In a democratic regime, legitimacy is first of all electoral. In China it is based on the supposed satisfaction of the people. It was social networks that made Dr. Li Wenliang a hero before the Party made it official. There was also an incredible outpouring of apologies and confessions from Wuhan’s leaders about their attitude at the beginning of the epidemic, and even today, the Party aims to listen to the feelings, the pain of the people.

The Political Future

While the crisis requires answers, how the pandemic will challenge (or not) political regimes remains a mystery. In this respect, it is no more absurd to question the resilience of democratic regimes than it is to question the resilience of non-democratic regimes. The neoconservative paradigm should not delude us about the supposed greater solidity of the former in relation to the latter.

Having said that, it seems to me that this text makes it possible to emphasise the following matters. First, it is certainly not today, when the country is at a standstill and a large part of the Chinese population is traumatised, that the rupture of the social contract can take place. We have seen that the trajectory of reforms has led most of the population to believe in a common destiny. Admittedly, the reforms have increased inequalities, but so far they have succeeded in giving everyone the hope (sometimes disappointed, often still pending) of one day entering into “small prosperity”. They have also put China back at the top of the international agenda. In this context, it is not only the trajectory of the reforms to which reference should be made, but the trajectory of the Party that has succeeded in realising the ambition of restoring China's international prestige—an ambition that runs through the very history of China since the Opium Wars. The Party has made many mistakes, has caused much suffering, but it has achieved its objectives: to create a powerful, rich China and to enable its people to live a much better life, at least materially speaking.5

Then, and this is the paradox, this factor of stability (and voluntary submission) is also a factor of requirement. It is on its ability to return to growth that the Party will be judged. Under what conditions? With what degree of success? With what policy? All this is another story. For the time being, the tools the Party has used, that come from different periods of China’s history, have enabled it to persist. This is perhaps what remains of Communism: unlike democratic countries, the Communist ruling classes know that they should not take too many risks with discontent and stability. Nevertheless, before the crisis, the social classes (migrants, peasants, the middle class) showed that they had strong demands. Their overall support for the one-party system is coupled with participation in social conflicts designed to protect their interests and their particular imaginations. There is no reason why these demands should diminish in the medium term. If the Party fails, anything is possible.

Finally, with regard to the specific future of Xi Jinping, the uncertainty is even greater. I am one of those who has always doubted his omnipotence. Certainly, he has been able to strengthen his control over an apparatus which, at the outset, saw in him only a symbol of a powerful and arrogant China and for whom loyalty to the nation and to the Party of bureaucrats is an absolute requirement. Not all the policies he has pursued since coming to power are his own, and they are being implemented only because he has succeeded in creating a certain consensus at the top of the state. The question is: Is Xi Jinping indispensable to the Party? We will soon find out, by 2022 at the latest, at the next Congress.

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Photo copyright: Unsplash

  • 1. Hannah Arendt “The Crisis in Education”, The Crisis of Culture.
  • 2. Many foreigners living in China observed that hospitals in Beijing and Shanghai were not overwhelmed at all. Three quarters of Chinese deaths linked to the coronavirus occurred in the city of Wuhan.
  • 3. See Andrew Nathan, “Authoritarian Resilience,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 14, no. 1 (2003).
  • 4. Francesco Macario explains that the various levels of power (municipality, province, region) keep accusing each other of having done nothing yet they have the possibility to act! Just as in China!
  • 5. /ceri/fr/content/le-recit-de-vie-d-une-generation-la-trajectoire-de-chinois-nes-avec-la-chine-socialiste
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