The coronavirus pandemic has elicited some strange jealousy for China’s authoritarianism. “In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” declared a Feb. 28 World Health Organization report. The argument is that the unchecked power of the Chinese government is a main reason the country has successfully slowed—and perhaps even stopped—domestic transmission of the virus. Some commentators even claim that China will emerge from the crisis a stronger global power, and that the U.S. will need its help to recover.
These claims are misleading. More to the point, neither China nor its style of authoritarian government will help America overcome the crisis, restore economic growth, and protect citizens from infectious diseases.
The first case of the new coronavirus in China can be traced to Nov. 17, according to government data seen by the South China Morning Post. New cases were reported by health authorities each day thereafter in November. Rather than share this information with the world, Chinese Communist Party officials suppressed discoveries and even punished the doctors who first reported them.
Li Wenliang warned fellow doctors in late December of a new disease that resembled SARS. He was reprimanded by Chinese police, accused of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order,” and made to admit to “illegal behavior.” Li then contracted the coronavirus and died on Feb. 7 at 33.
China’s coverup had global consequences. It wasted precious time during which governments could have isolated people at risk of spreading the disease from its epicenter in Wuhan, developed testing and treatment capacities, and prepared citizens to take precautions to protect themselves. China compromised the world’s ability to respond to the deadly virus. The result has been the most dangerous global pandemic in a century.
This crisis has also laid bare gaps in American policy. The U.S. needs to reevaluate its reliance on basic medical necessities made overseas. Biodefense is a key component of national security; the U.S. needs to put more technology—including real-time mapping and artificial intelligence—to work tracking diseases before the next big outbreak. U.S. officials also need to continue to speak the truth about who is going to help the world overcome this crisis. Spoiler: it isn’t the Chinese Communist Party.
As scientists around the world—including from China—are working at breakneck speed to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, the Chinese Communist Party continues to sow the seeds of division and misinformation world-wide. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, whose Twitter account is an absurd repository of propaganda, accused the U.S. military earlier this month of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan.
Last week China announced it was banishing most reporters from the Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post, many of whom conducted heroic front-line reporting on the coronavirus. These are not the actions of a global leader.
It will likely be the free nations of the world, with their superior capacities for scientific innovation, that develop treatments, a vaccine and new means of stopping the epidemic. And we can trust that they will share those innovations quickly with the world. It will also be the free economies, with their capacities for renewal and growth, that will bring back prosperity after the crisis abates. We can expect the free nations, led by the U.S., to emerge much stronger than China.
My Hudson Institute colleague John Lee has chronicled in two recent reports how the Chinese economy was slowing even before this global downturn because of chronic, politically directed overinvestment. This still threatens the solvency of China’s overleveraged local governments. Remember, too, why China steals intellectual property: because it can’t produce innovation on the scale that the U.S. economy does.
Free, transparent and dynamic economic and political systems are needed to win the fight against the coronavirus and drive the recovery. This is why the U.S. will remain the most important global leader. Don’t expect Communist China to offer meaningful help any time soon.
Read in the Wall Street Journal.