A month ago, we were residing in the heart of Western Europe relishing sweet junior spring exchange lives, only to have them cut abruptly short by a sweeping pandemic that obscured the sun shining above outdoor European cafes on a lazy afternoon. In lieu of weekend getaways with budget airlines, we found ourselves scrambling onto a last-minute transatlantic ride back into the United States, lest a potential presidential order soon shuts its borders to us along with hard-fought summer internship plans. Unfortunately, we could not be more right. On the shuttle ride from the Dulles terminal, news feeds flooded us with breaking alerts hours ago on Trump’s decision to close the border for all foreign nationals coming from the Schengen zone. The entire fiasco was all too real—never could we have expected that so soon after the turmoil of our parents’ lives in China, this, too, would upend our lives for months to come with no end in sight.
While China wakes from the nightmare as Wuhan hosts a flamboyant lightshow to hail its lift on ban and provinces everywhere begin to relax lockdown rules, the West struggles to flatten the curve. Though a second wave of COVID-19 outbreak remains a possibility especially with popular tourist sites flooded with travelers craving freedom and fresh air, China has earned a prize it long desires—recognition for its leadership role during a time of crisis. The Western world, on the other hand, is faltering with no clear path ahead. After surpassing China in both total confirmed and death cases in the last week of March, the US continues on a treacherous trajectory not knowing when the peak shall arrive. Fierce tension between state and federal governments and selfish decisions of the White House against its own allies such as Canada are sabotaging US reputation even further. Across the Atlantic, UK prime minister Boris Johnson was only recently discharged from an intensive care unit (ICU), highlighting the inherent danger of the herd immunity strategy he had promoted and now symbolizes. While Western nations are retreating from their previous roles as beacons of hopes delivering public goods during times of crises, China is stepping up its role in global governance, pledging material assistance to countries in need and touting its lockdown strategy. The sharp contrast between China’s success and the West’s failure has led many to question whether the COVID-19 pandemic will prove to be a “Suez Crisis” for the US and possibly the liberal world order.
So what has the West done wrong?
As all initial efforts to contain the virus failed within the first week of local outbreak in Western Europe and the US, clearly serious measures came too late to stop sporadically imported cases from developing into a grave threat to national security. Regardless of whether current policies and guidelines are in fact the most appropriate solution for Western countries given each’s own challenges and distinct goals, the tardiness of systemic responses has indisputably aggravated the crisis. With overwhelming evidence indicating the emergence of a new respiratory virus as early as late 2019 warning against its rapid contagiousness long before social distancing and lockdown measures in place, the confidence and calm Western leaders once evinced are now proof testaments to ignorance, arrogance, and irresponsibility.
Arguments acquitting Western leaders can be and have been made by pointing out their lack of experience dealing with a pandemic as serious as COVID-19, deceptive reassurance from the Chinese authorities, and delay in WHO’s instructions at a global level. Settling for these excuses, however, signals weakness and resignation from the responsibility as global leaders. Although from a path dependence logic, the lack of experience in handling anything more serious than a widespread flu such as 2009 H1N1 pandemic and annual H3N2 influenza can help explain the nonchalant dismissal of COVID-19 as just another flu given similar symptoms, this ill-informed argument cannot and should not justify the ongoing mayhem in the West for not only could it have led the fight, it is also equipped with more means than anywhere else in the world. With more established medical infrastructure such as more hospital beds and the fortune of managing the health crisis not first but second to the outbreak in Asia, havoc in the West could have been assuaged if not averted altogether under rapid and effective policies in place.
Similarly, assigning blame to China and the WHO does Western countries more harm than good. It is no secret that the Chinese government silences dissidents, manipulates statistics, and restricts transparent journalism to protect its legitimacy and defend its rhetoric for audiences everywhere. Feigning astonishment now and blaming heavy casualties on the Chinese government is thus either a testimony of the administration’s incompetence to anticipate imminent risks and allocate appropriate resources to combat the crisis domestically and globally or a foolish (asinine) bet on the goodwill and transparency of Beijing. Neither is good publicity.
We argue that ideological considerations rather than pragmatic calculations explain Western democracies’ failure to issue and implement timely responses to the COVID-19 Crisis. Though fear of economic recession and lengthy democratic procedures in formulating a response surely contributes to Western administrations’ reluctance to lockdown economies, indiscriminate aversion of China’s “draconian” authoritarianism plays a more important role in postponing stay-at-home guidelines and issuing lockdown orders as last resorts. When China issued a sudden lockdown on Wuhan and later the entire country, Western media and leaders rushed to condemn such containment policies as extreme measures with no respect for basic human rights. Lockdown has hence become a symbol of authoritarianism and a taboo for the Western world based on principles of liberty and democracy.
This was made clear to us as early as February right after news of an outbreak in Italy. There had been cases already, though few, in the Catalonian region where we were at the time. In our Spanish Politics class, the professor led a discussion about the contagion and asked for reactions. The class was conducted in English for exchange students mostly from other countries in Europe. Students from different European countries and the US all voiced their opinions, mostly in denial of any possibility that may end the fun of weekend travels and dismissive of the lockdown as an unreasonable restriction to personal freedoms followed by “right, I know China did that, but I mean, it’s China...” A student from the UK distinctly mentioned the low death rate and its nonfatal effect on young and healthy immune systems. The only dissenting opinion came from a girl from Taiwan, who lamented on the then already lacking supply of face masks from all pharmacies before most Spanish people had even learned the name of the virus. Drumbeats and trumpets celebrating Day of Sant Medir still resounded on the streets of Barcelona as late as early March, with cheers from small children led by grandparents. Similarly in the US, without timely restrictions from each state, students celebrated the premature end to their semester with COVID-19 parties that were directly responsible for more infections. Racist sentiments in the West, on the other hand, caught on much more quickly than preventative measures to preserve their own health.
Unfortunately, as the centers of the outbreak shifted from Wuhan to Italy and then New York, Western leaders were compelled to contradict their previous stances and issue lockdown orders, halting national economies to an unexpected standstill despite reluctance. As extraordinary measures such as social distancing, shutting down of non-essential businesses, and stay-at-home orders became inevitable and necessary, Western countries have shot themselves in the foot one by one and handed the victory to Beijing. Not only was Europe and the US “following” China’s lead on implementing unprecedented restrictive orders to minimize exposure, they have also fallen steps behind due to their initial obstinate dismissal. Now, as China resumes its economic activities after almost a month of “zero increase” and aggressively pursues “mask diplomacy” as death tolls continue to increase at alarming rates worldwide, few can deny that China is becoming the safest place in the world. While China’s extreme measures are recognized and praised by the WHO as “a new standard of outbreak control,” Western leaders, especially President Trump, are experiencing confidence crises from domestic constituents.
Because COVID-19 can travel in aerosol from infected patients who demonstrate no symptoms, preventing human contact offers the best hope of stopping the spread. Since putting human activities to a stop completely is not an option, restrictive measures such as stay-at-home will slow it, per logic of nature. Determination to avoid “authoritarian measures” serves only political motives at the cost of thousands and even millions. Western policymakers failed to distinguish the concept of lockdown and China’s implementation of it. During unprecedented times of crises, extraordinary measures and stronger state power have been evoked by Western countries without compensating its democratic values, so why was it not the case now? Scientific measures such as social distancing and lockdown should not carry political color, even when China’s execution violates many basic principles of a just government. When Beijing ordered travel restrictions and mandatory stay-at-home orders, it ignored the wellbeing of small business and vulnerable individuals, stranding thousands in foreign cities without assistance. The lack of planning and coordination caused multiple scandals during the lockdown: price of daily necessities and protective gear skyrocketed in many cities; the Hubei provincial Red Cross hoarded medical supplies donated to local hospitals, and high-level officials were exposed expropriating masks from neighborhood pharmacies and Red Cross warehouses.
Beijing and especially Wuhan, should not be criticized because they resorted to lockdown as a way to control coronavirus outbreak but because they disregarded the life and wellbeing of their own citizens. China successfully implemented restrictive orders through command rather than compromises and consensus, which it should have done. As current situations demonstrate, the West could have adopted similar travel restriction orders much earlier without putting the welfare of millions in jeopardy—what true leadership should have been like, instead of playing an opportunistic game of petty politics. Measures to aid the economy and individuals, including state-funded job retention schemes and appeals to big banks to stop stock buybacks to bail out clients, accompanied lockdown orders in Western administrations’ policy considerations but were not implemented in China. Voices calling attention to the collapse and disappearance of small and medium-sized businesses were later censored on Chinese social media platforms for “breaking rules and regulations”, further attesting to the woes of an authoritarian regime. Actions as such make it “authoritarian”, not the lockdown itself.
Though East Asian democracies such as South Korea and Taiwan have demonstrated alternative and more efficient paths of outbreak control, completely ignoring and rejecting the merit of China’s efforts is a dangerous sign of hubris and ignorance especially when neither Taiwanese nor the South Korean strategy proved feasible for the West in the short term. When the West squandered the opportunity to “know its enemy” by learning from China’s success and failure, it effectively conceded victory to China, at least for now.
For the first time, a major setback of Western democracies was not brought by natural causes—the COVID-19 virus—or external enemy—China—but by the very fear and insecurity the West itself has failed to recognize and act upon. Though strong rhetoric condemning China’s atrocious human rights records and clandestine political maneuvers exudes confidence as the West chants aloud the slogan of freedom and justice, insecurity about China’s increasing economic prowess, political clout, and military capabilities alert Western countries as the rise of populism shifts policy focus from global prestige and leadership to domestic wellbeing and prosperity. Facing a rising competitor who aspires to command greater influence and become a rule maker for the international order, the West has resorted more to coward condemnations than confident example-setting actions. Given that China’s initial response revealed critical weaknesses of the authoritarian regime, the COVID-19 crisis could have been a showcase opportunity for the West, especially the US, to consolidate its leadership status by demonstrating best practices of outbreak control and providing public goods for countries in desperate need. Instead, retreat from global responsibilities and fear of mimicking an authoritarian-style “draconian” lockdown made China the hero that saved the day and the West the disheartened losers who could barely protect itself, not to mention the rest of the world. As more countries push back against China’s attempt to retell the story of the COVID-19 outbreak and its successful response, the West still has a chance to redress its mistake, though the window of opportunity will not stay open for long.
As competitions between China and the West elevates to a value-clash between efficient authoritarianism and free democracy, the West has repeatedly emphasized the value of personal freedom and autonomy. After Italy implemented lockdown measures in northern regions, protests erupted challenging such order. Similarly, in the US, many still viewed the indisputably dangerous virus as an exaggeration despite its gravity utterly manifested through the statewide ban detrimental to the economy during an election year. The zealous quest for personal freedom has held back a nobler pursuit—justice. Caring for the vulnerable and upholding a fair and just system is what made the West leaders of the world decades ago, and so should its priority be today. Freedom should serve as a building block to that system, never its stumbling rock.
Huaan (Amber) Liao, from Xi'an, China, studies Global Business with a European Studies Certificate at Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service. She spent a semester abroad at Esade Business School in Barcelona, Spain. She was an intern at The Brookings Institution's China Center, and now researches for Georgetown University's Initiative on Innovation, Development & Evaluation.
Ziyu (Harry) He studies Regional Studies focusing on Asia with a minor in Political Science at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and is currently on an exchange program at the University of Oxford. He is a research assistant at in the Security Studies Department and has previously worked as an editor for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs.
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