If you are like me and you follow the news (perhaps too much), you may have been struck by an unusual pang of jealousy. China, yes China, the former epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak, saw its GDP grow by more than 4.9 percent in the third quarter of 2020, the only major world economy to do so.
While the rest of the developed world (and indeed the world) is still reeling from a spike in cases and sharp economic recession, in Wuhan crowds celebrated a return to normalcy with a massive pool party in August. In contrast to certain recent mass gatherings in the United States, which are continuing despite the recent outbreak there, this gathering in Wuhan was an indication that China (despite the concerns of reliability of its data and regardless of the origin/blame issue) has now spectacularly contained the virus, with the obvious social and economic benefits that accompany such success. This could not stand in greater contrast to the United States and Europe, which are now experiencing unprecedented surges in Covid cases.
Watching these developments from Israel, which is itself emerging from a difficult and contentious lockdown after earning the notorious first place title in Covid cases per million people, it’s almost impossible not be hear that slight, nagging doubt, that pang of jealousy. It almost (emphasis on the word almost) makes you want to live in China. How nice would it be to not have to worry about getting infected wherever you go, to be able to travel freely and meet up with loved ones without fear?
It would be misleading to say that authoritarian regimes are better posed inherently to deal with public health crises like Covid. Just look at Russia and Iran, both of which are top 15 countries in terms of cases and deaths due to Covid. However, there is also no denying that the pandemic has also laid bare the weaknesses inherent in the democratic system that made so many western liberal countries struggle initially (and currently) with the virus. Speaking of countries I am familiar with personally, in the United States, a strong tradition and valuation of personal liberties meant enforcing things like lockdowns and mask-wearing appear like an infringement of personal liberties (which it is, even if justified). In Israel, a vibrant (to say the least) political and societal culture meant that tribal and parochial interests were protected at the expense of coherent policy formation and collective responsibility.
However, it takes just one cursory glance at the costs of living under an authoritarian system like in China to realize that jealousy is a mirage. If you are a Uighur Muslim living in China at the moment, you were facing persecution before Covid and you will face persecution after the pandemic ends. If you live in Hong Kong, you are now more vulnerable than ever to arrest simply for speaking your mind, a right which is taken for granted in the Western world. And if you live in mainland China, everything, from your internet access to the number of children you can have is regulated.
In essence, the philosophical question here boils down to freedom versus (theoretical) public/personal welfare. When we are free and can express ourselves freely, that includes the ability to speak and behave in ways that harm others. A quick glance at the state of affairs in the United States makes this painfully obvious. To temper, this exists the state whose fundamental responsibility is (or at least is supposed to be) the welfare of its citizens as a whole. This leads to the issue of how we determine what that welfare is exactly. One example is balancing the freedom of citizens to not wear masks versus the public health risk to the larger populace (to be clear – wear a mask, the question is philosophical).
But in general, do citizens have the right to make bad choices for themselves, or bad choices that affect others, even if mildly (bad health choices even in normal times put a strain on healthcare systems which must then treat the consequences of those choices)? And if the state steps in saying this particular individual choice or action are too destructive, then where do we draw the line for justified versus unjustified intervention? This is a delicate balance to maintain, especially when the parameters are often subjective and contentious. However, it is clear that some kinds of government intervention are generally accepted (traffic lights, for example) whereas others are not. The question of intervention becomes even more challenging when dealing with finite resources, which inevitably means that any decision taken will create winners or losers.
These are the kinds of struggles that democracies that respect civil liberties must contend with, and it is no easy task. The aftermath of the presidential elections in the United States really drives home just how contentious the democratic process can be, and that democratic norms and institutions are not to be taken for granted. Yet it is precisely the mess that the United States (and Israel too for that matter) faces which makes me appreciate that which we have. The Chinese Communist Party may have a vision they believe is best for their people, their country, and the world – but don’t be fooled. The term ‘Enlightened Despotism’ was an oxymoron when first introduced and it remains so today. While the government may need to make decisions that are to the detriment of some for the benefit of the country and its citizens overall, in democracies at least civil rights and liberties are a consideration, something which cannot be said of autocracies and dictatorships. So, while I look at the images from Wuhan and China’s economic growth with considerable envy, there are some things that money simply cannot buy, and for those things, I remain forever grateful.