Authoritarian nationalism is bad for your health
By Scott Sumner
Nicholas Kristof has an excellent article on the coronavirus epidemic in China:
The first known coronavirus infection in the city of Wuhan presented symptoms beginning on Dec. 1, and by late December there was alarm in Wuhan’s medical circles. That would have been the moment for the authorities to act decisively.
People often claim that the authoritarian Chinese government has a great deal of “state capacity” to deal with this sort of crisis. Let’s look at what actually happened:
And act decisively they did — not against the virus, but against whistle-blowers who were trying to call attention to the public health threat. A doctor who told a WeChat group about the virus was disciplined by the Communist Party and forced to admit wrongdoing. The police reported giving “education” and “criticism” to eight front-line doctors for “rumormongering” about the epidemic
Nationalists don’t like bad news about their country, and try to suppress the information. But as long as there is a free press then the government’s attitude shouldn’t be much of a problem. Unfortunately, China does not have a free press:
Partly because the government covered up the epidemic in the early stages, hospitals were not able to gather supplies, and there are now major shortages of testing kits, masks and protective gear. Some doctors were reduced to making goggles out of plastic folders.
One reason for the early cover-up is that Xi’s China has systematically gutted institutions like journalism, social media, nongovernmental organizations, the legal profession and others that might provide accountability. These institutions were never very robust in China, but on and off they were tolerated until Xi came along.
Make no mistake, Xi Jinping has played a role in making this crisis much worse than it had to be.
I conducted a series of experiments on Chinese blogs over the years beginning in 2003 and was sometimes surprised by what I could get away with — but no longer. Xi has dragged China backward in terms of civil society, crushing almost every wisp of freedom and oversight.
For the same reason that Xi’s increasingly authoritarian China bungled the coronavirus outbreak, it also mishandled a swine fever virus that since 2018 has devastated China’s hog industry and killed almost one-quarter of the world’s pigs.
Dictators often make poor decisions because they don’t get accurate information: When you squelch independent voices you end up getting just flattery and optimism from those around you. Senior Chinese officials have told me that they are routinely lied to on trips to meet local officials and must dispatch their drivers and secretaries to assess the truth and gauge the real mood.
You might wonder why I obsess about the global rise of authoritarian nationalism. This is a perfect example. Governments with the most state capacity are generally governments that allow the greatest amount of personal freedom.
Freedom isn’t just good for its own sake; it’s good for your health.
Here’s the spread of the disease as of January 3rd, when Wuhan doctors already understood that it was a serious problem: