COVID-19, Authoritarianism Vs. Democracy: What the Epidemic Reveals about the Orientalism of our Categories of Thought


Is democracy or authoritarianism the best regime against coronavirus?

During the first weeks of February 2020, the very existence of the epidemic was analyzed1 as deriving almost mechanically from the authoritarian characteristics of China, in particular: the lack of freedom of expression and the inertia of a rigid bureaucratic structure. It was State censorship that had silenced whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang. It was the oppressive bureaucratic structure that had prevented the flow of information from the local level to the central authorities, transforming a local epidemic into a world pandemic of unprecedented scale. On this basis, many voices called for taking China to the United Nations International Court of Justice for breach of its international obligations.2 Even if the summoning of Dr. Li Wenliang to the police station for spreading false rumours was immediately denounced by the Supreme Court as being a case of police abuse,3 such information was largely left unreported in the Western media,4 partly because it challenged the dominant narrative according to which the epidemic was to be blamed on the authoritarian nature of the Chinese political system, especially its institutionalised regime of censorship.

The aforementioned argument is not new. It claims that any natural catastrophe is in fact a political problem resulting from a lack of democratic governance, namely a lack of accountability, itself a product of lack of transparency fed by lack of freedom of the press. This “vicious-cycle” theory finds its roots in the work of renowned economist and philosopher Amartya Sen who, in his PhD published in 1981,5 argues that famine is not so much about lack of food as about lack of democratic governance. In a democracy, he claims, where information circulates freely and governments are held accountable, governments must stop famines wherever they occur. The exercise of freedom of expression prompts government action. Today, following Amartya Sen, many researchers state that democracy is the best cure against famine.6 On the basis of such theories (extrapolated to technological catastrophes epitomised by the Chernobyl accident), Western democracies have believed in their immunity against the coronavirus: their democratic “identity” should make them coronavirus-proof.

The notion of democracy is not only a category of analysis (a Weberian ideal type). It works today largely as an identity marker for the West, the signifier of its very quintessence. As such, it establishes and perpetuates the superiority complex of the West vis-à-vis “the Rest”, democracy being held as the universal model of the “end of history”.7 Western democracies have thus unsurprisingly long been annoyed at the fact that China blatantly refuses to “transit” toward democracy in accordance with the prophecy of democracy as the end of history and the West as the destiny of the world.

In the face of the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan, Western democracies have repeatedly asserted the superiority of their political regime—with, in the background, the belief in a form of superior democratic rationality. However, from March-April onwards, as Western democracies in turn came to be seriously affected by the disease, this stance started to reveal its illusory as well as deadly character.

Does Democracy Protect Against Disease?

When the epidemic was announced, in France as in many Western countries, the media discourse immediately engaged in a denunciation of the Chinese political system: editorials, op-eds, and broadcast or televised debates condemned the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, considered a “martyr of the coronavirus”,8 analysing how it revealed of the “failure” of the Chinese system,9 particularly of its “totalitarianism”.10 French media have not hesitated to attribute Dr. Li’s death to his treatment by Chinese authorities, writing at length about his “imprisonment”,11 or even, for some, going as far as to suggest his murder by the Chinese authorities.12 In other words, the coronavirus was framed less as an issue of public health than as a matter of foreign policy/politics. By the end of January, the announcement of the lockdown in China reinforced this reading even further: the lockdown was presented as a totalitarian measure dictated by the profound nature of the Chinese regime, rather than by the severity of the problem in epidemiological terms. The decision to put tens of millions of people under house arrest reinforced the feeling of radical alterity between Europe and China: more than ever, it was out of the question to compare the two entities. Meanwhile, the superiority of democracy was energetically reaffirmed.13

Then, from March onwards, while the prospect of confinement no longer appeared so “exotic/archaic” in Europe and as Wuhan started to lift its lockdown, editorials and op-eds began to question the ability of democracy to handle the crisis any better than China had.14 The question was raised as to whether authoritarianism might not ultimately be better able to respond to health crises, although the answer remained invariably negative: no, of course not.15

Finally, from early April onwards, when China reported its “success” in eradicating the virus, Western democracies imposed quarantine measures—although European mortality rates quickly escalated to higher numbers than in China. Since then, editorials and op-eds have returned to the discourse of non-comparability, arguing that Chinese numbers were fake, which was typical of Chinese “propaganda”,16 itself a product of China being a “structurally deceitful country”.17 Thus, it was argued, given the lack of comparable data (statistics in democracies being assumed to be honest and reliable), the comparison between democracy and dictatorship would be impossible—as well as being morally unacceptable.

Are Public Policies Comparable Only Among Democracies?

Not very many situations lend themselves to international comparison better than the one arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic. John Stuart Mill, one of the founders of qualitative comparison, established in his System of Logic, published in 1843, a typology of the comparative methodologies to isolate and test the variables of a given phenomenon: the method of most similar cases producing differing outcomes and the method of most different cases producing similar outcomes.18

The China-France comparison seems a priori to be in the matrix of the most different cases: for the same outcome, namely the suppression of the virus, two different methods, one democratic, the other authoritarian. Yet, the most similar cases comparison appears to be a better fit: the two countries have used the same methods, namely lockdown (confinement), but with dissimilar results. China aimed to eradicate the virus, France to slow down its pace (the so-called “flattening” of the curve). Of course, the lockdown was stricter in China than in France, but progressively, with the use of drones and methods of surveillance, this gap has reduced.19 In certain respects, the French lockdown was both more stringent and more massive than the one imposed in China: China confined only one province and a handful of cities, a tiny part of its population, without declaring a state of emergency, while Paris imposed a national lockdown on its 67 million inhabitants and declared a state of emergency.

In France, the media pushed a narrative of blaming and shaming China, which in turn delayed rather than prompted the reaction of the French government to take public health measures against the coronavirus. The expected positive effects of freedom of the press and transparency in terms of inducing prompt government reaction to the crisis did not materialise. The initial absence of reaction toward the virus contrasts with the “overreaction” deployed against the H1N1 flu in 2009, which had a much lower death rate than COVID-19 but was first declared in the United States, another country considered to be part of the “club of liberal Western democracies”. So, why did Amartya Sen’s theory, once extrapolated to epidemics, not prove to be true in the case of COVID-19?

The Democracy-Dictatorship Binary: An Orientalist Reading of Comparative Politics

In 1978, Edward Saïd, following Syed Hussein Alatas,20 defined Orientalism as an epistemic process at the heart of the domination of the West, a process built on a series of essentialising stereotypes.21 From an Orientalist perspective, the COVID-19 epidemic was interpreted in the West as the dysfunctional, even well-deserved, offspring of Chinese totalitarianism, rather than as a public health event. Biases and stereotypes against China, reactivated by the start of the epidemic, are not only racist against Chinese people per se but also reveal deeper stereotypes of authoritarian regimes, of which Beijing is currently the paradigmatic case.22 

The origins of the massive media reaction of blaming China can be traced back to the Orientalism of our categories of thought and the categories we use in the social sciences. Such Orientalism lies at the heart of the genesis of the discipline of political science. It suffices to quote Montesquieu, who was the first, in his Spirit of the Laws, to establish despotism as the “natural” condition of the East, based on his readings on Japan, China, Siam, and the Ottoman Empire.23

Next, in Montesquieu’s wake, John Stuart Mill and Max Weber associated freedom, legality, and modernity distinctively and exclusively with the West.24 After the Second World War, transitology, which borrows heavily from the theory of modernisation derived from the Weberian thesis, became one of the pillars of the discipline of comparative politics.25 Non-Western countries were intended to “transit” toward democracy. The dictatorship-democracy dichotomy became the new semiotic avatar of the differential degrees of civilization between West and East. The central question, formulated from the West, focused on how to “assist” non-democratic countries to democratise, reactivating the myth of the civilising mission of the West.

From the 1980s onwards, the social sciences were diversely affected by the Saïd revolution. If Orientalism had a major impact on the discipline of anthropology, it had a lesser impact on other social sciences. In political science and public law in particular, Eurocentrism was vigorously denounced, but the comparison between dictatorships and democracies remained limited to the emphasis of their profound, ontological alterity. Orientalism diffused with more ease within the interdisciplinary field of “area studies”, a somewhat marginalised field. If most of the “areas” forming the units of area studies were to some degree homogeneous in religious or political terms—real or fantasied26—this was not the case of Oriental Asia, characterised by its extreme religious as well as political diversity.

Can We Think of Ourselves as “Fellows” of China? Reflections from the Confucianist Countries of East Asia

In its space of knowledge production, within the Asian “epistemic community”, the democracy-dictatorship dichotomy is seldom used as a determining variable of comparison between public policies; likewise, the political and media discourse, as displayed by public TV channels such as CNA (Singapore) or CGTN (China), is not structured around this question. In East Asia, the comparability of democracies and non-democracies is established prima facie and regional comparison practised on a large scale regardless of regime type.

This dynamic of comparison seems to partly explain the reactivity of the regimes of East Asia regarding COVID-19, notably Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Singapore.27 Each one of them began taking stringent measures as early as January: border controls, isolation, and contact tracing of people infected with the coronavirus. Today, their respective counts have not gone over approximately fifty deaths. These results were gained without a state of emergency being declared or a strict lockdown.28 Whether they are democratic and have great freedom of the press (Taiwan) or authoritarian with a strictly controlled press (Vietnam), these states are part of a common reference matrix including China, regardless of whether China represents a model, a foil, a rival, or a competitor—but, most of all, without the democracy-dictatorship factor coming into play to prevent them from thinking of themselves as “fellows”.

In the first period of the epidemic, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan emulated one another, in a sort of competition for the “gold standard” of the best epidemic response, notwithstanding the fact that the first is a liberal, non-democratic regime, the second an illiberal dominant-party state, and the third a liberal democracy. Comparisons, inspirations, circulations have not been neutralised under the pretext that a democracy could never be compared to an authoritarian regime. By contrast, the incapacity of the Western comparative matrix to integrate together various political regimes is very problematic because it reduces the comparative frame to a handful of countries in the world. Also, political regimes, either democratic or authoritarian, proceed fundamentally in the same way, by articulating processes of legitimation and processes of repression.

Binaries Vs. Empirical Realities: Authoritarian Social Contract and Legitimation Processes

Authoritarian regimes have long been studied exclusively from the perspective of repression, and often in a stereotypical fashion. For the past twenty years, social scientists have tried to make up for lost time, finally becoming interested in the study of authoritarian modes of legitimation. They have analysed the modes of negotiation of the “authoritarian social contract” and the ways in which it produces forms of popular consent.29 They have concluded that authoritarian legitimacy often rests on outcomes rather than processes, in particular, economic development. This observation resonates with the large support of the Chinese population for its president Xi Jinping (or from the Singaporean population toward its Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong), based on the rapid increase in quality of life and economic development.30

It follows that authoritarian governments, whose legitimacy built on the meritocratic principle is concerned with results (output legitimacy), can perhaps not afford as much incompetence vis-à-vis crisis as democratic governments can, insofar as the input legitimacy on which democracies rest is indifferent to outcomes.31 Regarding repression, it must be noted that authoritarian regimes have had less recourse to the state of emergency in the face of the coronavirus than democracies, which have chosen this path on a massive scale32—yet the state of emergency aims precisely to derogate from the rule of law, considered as the ultimate signifier of the irreducible dichotomy between democracy and dictatorship.33

Thus, the commonly held idea that it was unthinkable that a scenario of lockdown like that of China would be implemented in a democracy, where transparency and the free circulation of information, combined with the existence of an organised and mobilised civil society, would be levers to initiate government action (a government action that could not be, by design, anything other than democratic, given the factor of accountability) has not passed the test of reality. What it has done, however, is reveal the blindness born out of the narcissism of our categories of comparative political analysis.

The Democracy-Dictatorship Dichotomy as Epistemological Obstacle to the Comparative Analysis of Public Policy

Why didn’t information about the “Chinese virus” warn authorities of the Western world in time? Besides the usual cognitive biases, Western democracies have not correctly measured the danger posed by coronavirus because of their self-representation as fundamentally different from China, a country exclusively apprehended through the prism of its political regime, considered as totalitarian and therefore ontologically not comparable to France or any other democracy. The association of democracy with the West and dictatorship with the East within the framework of the social construction of their irreducible alterity is a major epistemological obstacle to international comparison. And this bears tragic practical consequences: all “good practices” coming from the East have been met with suspicion and rejection, as shown by the initial affirmation of the inefficiency of the wearing of masks and the liberticide nature of contact tracing even though these solutions were successfully implemented throughout Asia, whether democratic or non-democratic.34

On 24 January 2020, returning from Israel, French president Emmanuel Macron declared: “Dictatorship is a regime where one person or one clan decides the laws: a dictatorship is a regime where there is no change of leaders, never”. Such a blatant ignorance of the world realities at the highest level of the state seems to reveal a failure, upstream, of the categories built and analysed by the social sciences, taught at universities, and taken up by the media. But crises are moments of extreme fluidity, conducive to anomy.35 That is how, with the COVID-19 epidemic, the entire identity-based narrative framework of democracy versus authoritarianism, or the West vs. the Rest, has been profoundly shattered. If this crisis can remind Western democracies that their populations are not less mortal than those of authoritarian regimes, it should also remind them that democracy is not immortal either. The illusions of democratic regimes regarding their own invulnerability are accelerating their decline—with the possibility of bringing the entire Western liberal model to its fall.36

Another question then emerges: more than ignorance, doesn’t maintaining the incomparability of the two categories epitomise a state of denial? In other words, don’t democracies fear the comparison with non-democratic or non-liberal Eastern countries, like China and Singapore? It might be necessary to engage in the decentering or even the “decolonisation” of our categories of political analysis with the aim of putting an end to the Western superiority complex that underpins and reinforces them through the regular reactivation of mystifying reductionisms concerning Eastern despotism. This is urgent as the Western arrogance is eminently destructive: the feeling of invulnerability of Western democracies has already cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, even though examples from East Asia are proofs that it could have been otherwise.

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