The Democracy Institute's April 19 roundtable discussion sought answers to examine whether China’s Covid-19 management legitimizes its non-democratic system.
The panelists were Joanna Klabisch (Asienhaus Stiftung), award-winning journalist; Shi Ming, Richard Turcsanyi (Central European Institute of Asian Studies) discussing the role of civil society, vaccine nationalism, orientalism and the issues of administration; moderator Agota Revesz (Technische Universität Berlin) and former Ambassador of Hungary to China; and Sandor Kusai (Pazmany Peter Catholic University) as a discussant.
Joanna Klabisch started with the role of the civil society as it is not just the system to consider when looking at how China handled Covid-19. The pandemic made a major impact on the experience of the people. Even if China has the most successful propaganda machine in the world, as the state institutions are immovable, people volunteer to get food for others for example.
“It showed the limits and the weaknesses of the system as people made success possible,” she claimed. Even if China could ’move back to normal’, the country suffers a huge international reputational crisis.
“The answer to the opening question would depend on who you ask - Chinese citizens, Europeans or the rest,” said Richard Turcsanyi turning the light on that aspect. He emphasized that most Europeans see China negatively, but it is different, for example in Latvia, Belarus and Serbia where the view of China has improved because of the medical supplement and the vaccines as well.
For the Chinese communist party, it is the public opinion of the Chinese that matters and according to surveys, support has never been larger than it is now. Even if there was a massive outcry and people wanted more freedom of speech for example, in comparison with the very bad pandemic management of several European, democratic countries, the Chinese performance looks amazing.
“They went back to pre-corona while we are sitting in lockdown,” he added. Turcsanyi also quoted surveys related to the trust in vaccines: more than 80 percent of the Chinese trust more in vaccines that they produced – these numbers are significantly smaller in other countries. “Formerly, Chinese associated Western products with good quality but there is a changing perception. The Covid-19 just escalated it,” he added.
Shi Ming warned the audience that we cannot trust social statistics as people are not allowed to talk, but they did not forget that the whole pandemic had started with great mistakes of the government. According to him, successful pandemic management depended on how administrations were capable of the quick distribution of all the needed resources and noted the ’price’: the Chinese lockdown was 100 percent, every factory was closed and whole villages were suffering from lack of supply.
“If [administrations] did something good, it was not due to political system but due to detailed behavior and procedures,” he said referring to the high and fast rate of vaccination in the US under the Biden administration and the German lockdown, adding, “We should not hurry with our assumption that democracies are falling and autocracy is successful.”
Richard Turcsanyi agreed on the fact that the political system is not an explanation for successful pandemic handling. He added that it is rather a question of basic trust of the citizens towards the government and that Western-European countries were told to be arrogant and overconfident during the pandemic.
“Democracy in Europe proved to be rigid,” he concluded and underlined it with a personal story from a conference in Portugal that was held while infections were present in several countries, but the coronavirus have not yet been declared a pandemic.
According to Shi Ming, we should pay attention to the interaction of society and administration: during the first wave of the coronavirus in Europe, administrations and people were both scared and agreed on restrictions but then this pattern of interaction has changed.
Joanna Klabisch was not so optimistic about flexibility and reaction time. Making a reference to the SARS pandemic, she said that “It is also about the dealing of a trauma. Some Asian countries were closer to epidemics. There are also different issues of orientalism.” In Asian societies, she added, if you are sick, wearing a mask is normal. She also focused on how Asian countries are using digitalization – tracking, testing and isolation – making a big impact on successful pandemic-management. “We should also look at that institutional knowledge, administrative issues and the interplay between population and the administration,” she said.
“It is not an issue of democracy or autocracy. It is a question of elementary functioning of society, administration and governance,” declared Sandor Kusai, referring to the opening question of the discussion. According to the former diplomat, we can see the beginning of a new cold war between the US and China, and Europe has to make choices which is not good for us by definition. “Even the trust on vaccines is misleading, it should not be political.”
He also told a personal story: on one hand, he is theoretically protected as he had gotten two shots; on the other hand, he got the Chinese vaccine. He thinks that in Europe we have spent too much energy on debating issues and too less on taking actions. Furthermore, he raised the question of absolutization of individual rights. “It is very important but it should have limitations, for example up to the point until it does not hurt others’ rights.”
Joanna Klabisch also added that the whole pandemic-management had been politicized from the beginning and she worries about the increasing Anti-Asian racism. Shi Ming continued that it is important that we have to separate Chinese people from the Chinese administration: “It is not just a moral standing, it a practical matter.” Then Turcsanyi reflected on the issue of perception with a survey result:“Unfortunately Europeans do link Chinese people to China. They view China critically and Chinese people negatively.” He is pessimistic: “Chinese still see Europeans positively, but it can work vice-versa as with the tensions between Europe and China mentioned there,” he warned.
According to the issues of global governance, the lack of data makes it very problematic. “There is also a systematic and an ideological factor of admitting mistakes,” said Johanna Klabisch, adding that “The problem comes when it has a global, international effect.” Sandor Kusai also emphasized the information bubble that exists everywhere. The quality and the situation of global governance – like the role of WHO – corresponds to our society, he said, but also noted that "the WHO could help the vaccine nationalism, but it has limited power as it is dependent on the member states.”
Agota Revesz asked: what should we talk about in a month's time? What would be the next opening question? According to Sandor Kusai it is how Europe could make necessary choices in the changing international order regarding to China. Besides mentioning how we can get back to open dialogue and cooperation, Shi Ming added: “Everyone starts the dialogue with being rivals to each other. But rivals are not enemies. We have to exchange views with mutual efforts. But the question is: how we can do that?”
Article by Emese Dobos.
Watch the full discussion here:
The CEU Democracy Institute strives to enable the renewal and strengthening of democratic and open societies through world-class research, collaboration across academic and professional disciplines, the free exchange of ideas, and public engagement on a local, regional, and global scale. The Institute is based at Central European University’s campus in Budapest, Hungary.