What is the most salient fact about China's response to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic? Is it the cover-up at the outset that delayed an effective response for as long as six weeks, and thus accelerated its spread across the globe? Or is it the astonishing marshaling of political, logistical, and industrial capacities in the aftermath that limited the death toll in China to a fraction of the per capita figures in the United States and Western Europe (even if the true number is two, three, four times greater than the 4,600 or so deaths currently reported)?
Behind this question lies a struggle for global prestige. Ever since US President Donald Trump singled out China as the United States' public enemy No. 1 in the 2016 campaign, the world's two great superpowers have seemed to be locked in a zero-sum contest for supremacy. Convinced that China is stealing US jobs and profits through unfair trade practices, the president has provoked a trade war that has harmed the economies of both countries.
But it's not just Trump and the anti-globalist crowd that looks at China in Cold War terms: when Sen. Bernie Sanders was foolhardy enough to praise the Chinese for reducing poverty in in his debate with Joe Biden in mid-March, the former vice president jumped down his throat. "China is an authoritarian dictatorship," he cried. Biden insisted that whatever increase in prosperity the regime had fostered was "marginal," though he must have known perfectly well that China has lifted more people out of poverty over the past four decades than any other nation in human history.
The pandemic has inflamed this competition. Trump persisted in calling it the "Wuhan virus" or the "Chinese virus" in order to make Americans feel that they are the innocent victim of Chinese failure, if not of a sinister plot. But the rhetoric seems vaguely pitiful in the face of the rising death toll and the self-evident dysfunction in the United States at a time when China has reopened for business and ostentatiously donated protective equipment to nations in desperate need. China's victory lap galls; but it may be earned.
The pandemic has raised the stakes of the competition from a struggle for economic dominance to a contest between rival models. Whose system is better designed to adapt to the global crises, whether of public health or the climate, that lie in our future? The United States fostered the liberal world order after World War II and has sustained it ever since. That order has persisted not only because of US military and economic predominance, but because it has promoted the interests of its leading members (including China). Is that era now drawing to a close? Does the arrow of the future point towards liberal democracy or free-market authoritarianism?
I have just finished Has China Won?, by Kishore Mahbubani, the Singaporean diplomat and author who has made a career explicating "Asian values" to Western readers. Mahbubani (whom I have known for 30 years and consider a friend) does not doubt the answer. He notes that the United Nations has 193 members and asks, "Which country is swimming in the same direction as the other 191?" While he warns China against underestimating a nation as resilient as the United States, he notes that "many thoughtful leaders and observers in strategically sensitive countries around the world have begun making preparations for a world where China may become number one."
Mahbubani is hardly the first to make this claim. In Destined For War, the Harvard political scientist Graham Allison described China as the quintessential rising power. Mahbubani charts the graph both of China's rise and the United States' decline. History, he argues, has "turned a corner" from the epoch of Western hegemony—and the United States, like the Qing dynasty that oversaw China's 19th-century collapse, has remained trapped by an anachronistic sense of superiority. If one asks, as the philosopher John Rawls did, what kind of society you would wish to be born into if you did not know what advantages you would have, the rational choice would now be China rather than the United States. In fact, he notes, the chances of a child born into the bottom fifth of income distribution rising to the top fifth are significantly greater in China than in the United States. Eat that, Biden.
Though Mahbubani criticizes China for needlessly alienating the US business elite, and not just the Trumpian nationalists, through unfair trade practices and bellicose rhetoric on the South China Sea, he looks around the world and sees China's model on the ascendant, and the US one in eclipse. "The biggest fact of the last thirty years," he writes, sounding very much like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the propagandist of illiberalism, "is that many societies of the world that have tried Western liberal democratic systems have come to realize that it does not fit them."
Mahbubani will lose some of his readers with his hyperbolic kiss-off to democracy, and even more with his apologies for Chinese President Xi Jinping's autocratic rule. He attributes the mass demonstrations in Hong Kong wholly to poor housing and gets around to mentioning the treatment of the Uighurs only in the very last pages—and then in order to insist that a nation that targets Muslims for assassination by drone has no standing to criticize China for terrorizing and incarcerating an entire population. One has the unmistakable impression that the author does not want to spoil his welcome in Beijing.
There is a more serious shortcoming here. It is one thing to say that China has won, and something else again to say that the Chinese model has won. What is most central to that model, in Mahbubani's telling, is rational, long-term decision-making, a commitment to good government, pragmatism, and suppleness in the face of a turbulent world and a realist restraint in international affairs. But of course that model also includes the unquestioned dominance of the party in all affairs, and the equally unquestioned dominance of the party by Xi. (Mahbubani argues that Xi suspended constitutional provisions limiting the leader to two terms not out of personal ambition but a legitimate concern for China's future.)
And this brings us back to the coronavirus. It was not technocratic failure but an authoritarian culture that led to the lapse between the identification of the first case in Wuhan on Dec. 8 and the lockdown on Jan. 23. The defining moment of the sequence came Jan. 1, when eight doctors at a Wuhan hospital were reprimanded by local party authorities for seeking to inform national medical officials of the outbreak, as the country's early-warning system required them to do. The virus' genome was sequenced Jan. 11. By Jan. 14, the head of China's National Health Commission had reported on the virus in grim detail. Still, nothing happened; the public health structure had to give way before the political order. Five million people were allowed to leave Wuhan during the Lunar New Year before the city was locked down, hastening the spread of the virus around the world.
What's more, Chinese officials have undermined their own narrative by promoting an inane conspiracy theory blaming the coronavirus on the US Army and by insisting on mortality figures at home widely considered implausibly low. The country's charm offensive was also damaged when many of the ventilators and other products it shipped abroad had to be recalled owing to defects.
While Chinese authorities were desperately hiding the truth, officials in Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong—and Singapore soon after—began screening at their borders and quarantining the sick, and then swiftly ramped up the production of protective gear and testing kits. The first two are vibrant democracies that feature open elections, independent judiciaries, and untrammeled free enterprise. (Singapore's model is closest to China's, though an independent civil service largely directs affairs of state.) Together, they have shown what is possible when citizens and the state respect rather than fear one another. Hong Kong has had four coronavirus deaths, Taiwan six, Singapore 12, and South Korea 240.
If some model has emerged as the winner of this dreadful sweepstakes, it is not China's authoritarian one but rather that of the democracies that share China's "Asian values" of collective discipline, deference to authority, and faith in the state. (Mahbubani has pointed to the success of those states in a recent piece in the Economist.) What's more, the relative success of Germany and the quite remarkable success of Australia and New Zealand in driving down mortality rates show that classically liberal democracies can rise to the occasion if leaders defer to science and to public health officials and explain clearly and calmly to citizens the rationale for painful measures.
South Korean and Taiwanese citizens accept intrusions on their privacy that Western liberals might not. The French, for example, have declined to adopt the Korean system of digital monitoring that compels those who fall sick to install an app that lets public health officials keep track of their whereabouts. That may be a battle that the West will, in fact, find itself losing. I have suggested elsewhere that we are entering an era in which our own private decisions, whether driving gas guzzlers or walking around without a mask, so plainly impinge on the well-being of others that we will have to constrain some of our personal liberty in the name of public good. The Asian democracies show us that citizens can surrender some of that freedom without sacrificing fundamental political rights.
So yes, China has already "won" in the sense that Washington continues to dispute; soon it will be absurd to question its economic and technocratic supremacy. But it has not won in the sense that matters most, as a model for other nations. Germany has something to teach its European neighbors. Australia has something to teach the United States, its cultural near-twin. South Korea and Taiwan have something to teach China about the application of "Asian values." It would be a fine thing if this global catastrophe could force nations to learn from their own failures. Even the United States. Even China.
James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.