Liberal democracy is the best vaccine for humans
“Today we are in the midst of a time of wrenching destabilization. We need liberty more than ever, and yet the corridor to liberty is becoming narrower and more treacherous. The danger on the horizon is not ‘just’ the loss of our political freedom, however grim that is in itself; it is also the disintegration of the prosperity and safety that critically depend on liberty. The opposite of the corridor of liberty is the road to ruin.”
If I were a Chinese reading that paragraph after the outbreak of the coronavirus, I think I would have a better understanding of what especially the last two sentences mean. But these two sentences are not currently significant for only the Chinese. I think they should make every citizen in the world shiver, because the developments in China are ringing alarm bells about the fact that the lack of freedoms in one part of the world could have “unintended” yet “deadly” consequences in other parts of the world.
According to the latest reports, more than 900 people have died in mainland China from the coronavirus that emerged in the central city of Wuhan at the end of last year.
At least 25 countries have confirmed cases, but fortunately only two deaths have been recorded outside mainland China - one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.
If the death toll outside mainland China remains low, the international public - especially the public in Western democracies - will probably forget about news on the early missteps and state secrecy in China, which is now suspected to have allowed the virus to spread farther and faster.
“May the snake who does not touch me lie a thousand years,” says a Turkish saying.
We might think it’s the responsibility of the Chinese society to make the Chinese state accountable for the loss of their loved ones. But we can’t count on the Chinese society, because China is not in the “narrow corridor” of democracy defined by Acemoğlu and Robinson. To be in the corridor you need to have the right balance of power between the state and society, both of which need to be strong. The state has to be strong, according to Acemoğlu. Indeed, a weak state would lack the means to properly deal with a deadly epidemic similar to the one China is seeing. But while the state has to be strong and responsible, it also has to be responsive, says Acemoğlu.
And that requires a strong society.
Yet in China the state is strong, but society is weak.
I immediately recalled the words Acemoğlu uttered during a conference he gave in Istanbul about his book on Dec. 20, 2019, when I read journalist Gwynne Dyer’s Jan. 24 article on the Chinese response to the outbreak of the epidemic.
“In an emergency, the good thing about a dictatorship is that it can respond very fast. The bad thing is that it won’t respond at all until the dictator-in-chief says that it should,” starts Dyer’s article.
He explained in his article how Chinese local health authorities in Wuhan, as well as the national health authorities, have acted fast. Local authorities spotted the virus on Dec. 31, 2019 when only a few dozen cases had come to their attention and they immediately shut down the seafood and wild game market where victims caught the diseases.
China’s national health authorities also acted fast, according to Dyer. “On Jan. 9, they announced that they had a brand new coronavirus on their hands, and just one day later they released its full genetic sequence online so medical researchers worldwide could start working on it,” he wrote, adding that known deaths at that point was only one.
As he underlined, these were medical professionals, doing their duty according to internationally agreed protocols. The medical people did their job, the political people did not, he concluded.
At the time of his writing, he might not have known about how these medical professionals came under political pressure to remain silent. But the story of Dr Li Wenliang, who was one of the first to warn about the virus but summoned by the police and reprimanded for “spreading rumors,” proves his claim that political people did not do their job. Now there is a widespread outcry and anger in China to Dr Li’s death due to the virus. Would this outcry have an impact on Chinese authorities? That remains to be seen.
But if the researchers were to find a vaccine before the death toll went up any higher especially outside China, the public in the Western democracies, who are also geographically far from China, are going to forget about Dr Li’s story. Their governments are going to continue doing business as usual with China. But what the public in the Western liberal democracies fail to see, or refuse to see, is that they can’t remain safe and secure as long as there are undemocratic, authoritarian systems in the rest of the world.
That’s why they should put pressure on their government to address the problem of rising authoritarianism throughout the world.