WANG GUNGWU. The China lesson (East Asia Forum 26.4.20)

Apr 30, 2020
In the months since the Wuhan lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, there is reason to feel sadder if not wiser. How quickly the Beijing government gathered its national resources to help the province of Hubei was impressive.

Having delayed some weeks before the officials responsible began to take the virus seriously, they used all the resources available to make up for earlier mistakes. This included alerting the rest of the world of the emergency measures taken.

Fresh chrysanthemum flowers, a traditional Chinese funeral flower, lie on the banks of the Yangtze River on the eve of the Tomb-sweeping Festival in Wuhan, Hubei province, the epicentre of China's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, 3 April 2020 (Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song).

What was striking was how quickly the anger of the people of Wuhan was replaced by acceptance and even gratitude for the official efforts to remedy the damage. This calls to mind how Chinese people in the past had reacted to official failures when dealing with disasters like epidemics, earthquakes or the massive Yellow and Yangzi river floods. Historical records were kept of everything that was thought to be unnatural and threatening to human lives.

People affected by these disasters protested, which often led to violent revolts. The mandarins and soothsayers would advise that the disasters were signs of Heaven’s disapproval. The emperor would then try to introduce reforms to make the people’s lives more bearable. If he failed to do that in time, he would be replaced or his dynasty would fall.

When the deadly Tangshan earthquake happened in 1976, many Chinese people saw that as an ominous sign of national significance. When Mao Zedong died a few weeks later, it was seen by some as confirmation of divine or cosmic intervention in human affairs.

There is no doubt that some Chinese people did wonder if the coronavirus epidemic was a portent of something major happening in the country’s politics. But when it developed into a global pandemic, they could see that this was different.

The plot had now changed to one that tested the capacity of all governments. Once campaigns to contain the pandemic began to show that the developed countries of the West had done worse than China, the narrative was re-written.

The disease has now been drawn into the war games that preceded the pandemic. Commentators are now arguing over which side in the US–China trade war would benefit more from this global disaster. A blame game has diminished the efforts to establish the kind of international collaboration that such a pandemic needs.

With this new game in the spotlight, it is important to focus on what is being currently done to control the spread of the epidemic. While it is difficult to find a pattern that explains it all, much seems to depend on the health policies already in place and whether national governments were able to implement protective measures in time.

But one story from China’s ancient past keeps coming to mind. In China’s oldest record, the Book of History, there is the story of Yu the hydraulic engineer who tamed the Yellow River and then went on to succeed the ruler who had entrusted him with the job. That was a time when the ideal of rulership was to have each new ruler chosen to succeed the incumbent for his wisdom and moral fibre.

But when time came for Yu to choose his successor, he changed that practice and passed the throne to his son — this was the beginning of the Xia dynasty. China was to remain a dynastic state for the next 3000 years.

This shift in China’s dynastic succession laid the foundations of the authoritarian state, a centralised administration that became more autocratic through the centuries. This was the norm for so long that, provided any ruler in China was competent and did not obviously abuse his power, people accepted the system as the best that could be hoped for.

During the 20th century, when the Chinese people had the chance to restructure the system to allow their participation in the political process, they were slow to decide what they should do. The Communist Party then gained popular support from those who felt safer under a bureaucratic state, however wayward and brutal it turned out to be. Thus was established a modernised version of a strong centralised regime that promised the people security and stability.

Is there a lesson to be learnt here? Should such a state prove to be better at controlling a global disaster like COVID-19, would it impress those who had earlier been sceptical? Would those who think that freedom could lead to less efficiency be more willing to give in to authoritarianism?

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, we saw two imagined versions of a modern technology-based power. Every government today has access to the kinds of technology that would make total control possible. Whether benevolent or malevolent, such systems could be seen as more effective in the short run.

It is unclear what could be done to ensure that, once installed, such a government would become benevolent. The power and reach of the future state can be guessed but the will of those who would prefer to have its power limited and used only in exceptional circumstances is unknown.

Pessimists would probably think that, as had happened in China after the Great Yu calmed the waters, all would depend on how willingly the new masters of the technological universe would allow their power to be restrained. That may be too much to expect. But optimists will believe that the human spirit will overcome such dangers and the majority will always win out. At this stage, one can only hope that the optimists might win this argument.

Wang Gungwu AO CBE is University Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University.

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