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Stop framing global responses to the pandemic as ‘China vs. the West’

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Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a political discourse has emerged in the U.S. media that has been comparing different government responses to the coronavirus outbreak. The discourse views responses of different governments as revealing of the state systems and structures operating behind the societies touched by the coronavirus.

It’s a compelling analysis, particularly as the coronavirus began most violently in states that have been historically defined in opposition to how the U.S. sees itself, such as China and Iran, and has only more recently arrived at the shores of the U.S. and Western European states.  

In the discourse, states such as China and Iran are authoritarian regimes, with interventionist state systems that the U.S. has historically struggled and defined itself against. In contrast, the U.S. sees itself as having a state that does and should prioritise “respect for individual rights,” like Western Europe. As a result, both those in support of and those who critique China’s response in the U.S. media have essentially fallen into the old framework of Western liberties versus Oriental despotism. This entirely obscures not only global history but also what is actually happening in the global pandemic, replacing constructive dialogue with a damagingly convenient and politically expedient narrative for both sides. 

China and Iran’s responses to the outbreak have alternately been interpreted as a demonstration of the innate advantages and disadvantages of authoritarian regimes. The failure of China to respond early enough to the outbreak despite warnings from several Wuhan doctors has shown for some, such as The New York Times editorial board, that healthy societies rely on robust civil discourse, repressed in the Chinese state model. 

Alternatively in the U.S. media, China has pioneered an aggressive response model particularly enabled by the government’s authoritarian regime. Unlike in states that pride themselves on individualist civil rights, the Chinese government has the power, the will and the precedent to reach into people’s homes and lives. In this way, China has uniquely been able to mobilise its resources and effectively shut down the outbreak. The worry is that while China and other authoritarian states can adopt this model, “Western” countries cannot, because citizens of these non-Western countries are somehow “more willing to accept government orders.” Chinese measures therefore “urgently” need to be “translated” “into something more palatable in Western democracies.”

Thus, from both sides of the conversation, we somehow frustratingly arrive yet again at the Free West versus Oriental Despotism. 

Firstly, this interpretive East/West state split makes absolutely no sense. Many countries in East Asia that have historically deliberately modelled themselves after the U.S. and the states of Western Europe immediately responded to the outbreak of the virus in the same way that China did. For instance, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan all, with variation, responded quickly with mandatory testing and monitoring measures. Outside East Asia, Israel, which has a self-identity of civil discourse and democracy with European roots, has begun tracking people’s movements through their mobile phones and has shut down parliament. In Australia, which also happily sees itself as part of the vague grouping of the “West,” the government is refusing funding to private schools who go against the recent government decision to remain in operation; a confusing combination of a non-interventionist approach and the exact opposite of the prioritisation of individualist freedom of choice and action symbolised by the private school system. Half of these Western democratic state models just listed are in East Asia, and none of the responses of those mentioned have been determined by some innate state structural prioritisation of civil liberty. It is impossible to fit the global pandemic response into China vs. the West.

Furthermore, responses of specifically the U.S. and Western European authorities have not exactly been characterised by transparency. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Donald Trump have both flip-flopped between action and inaction, while not addressing the imminent problems caused by common health funding cuts in both countries over the past 10 years. Trump explicitly stated last week that as U.S. President, he doesn’t “take responsibility” for responses to the outbreak, despite having dissolved the White House’s National Security Council directorate for global health security and biodefense in 2018.  Look to Stanford for an example of apparently fundamentally Western public discourse: Even now the administration is riding the same public line that the Chinese government did in coming up with appropriate responses while not itself publicly reporting the increasing number of confirmed cases on campus. 

Even more so, China itself does not entirely fit into this authoritarian/civil liberty virus response either. In China, there has been a reliance on individual action and grassroots community support, which has been interpreted by the U.S. media as mobilisation of “Mao-style mass crusades” rather than a form of civil society. In fact, China has experienced increased public civil discourse since the beginning of the virus. On the day that the silenced doctor to first issue warnings on the coronavirus died, people screamed, shouted and blew whistles on the streets of the city.

If the above examples were confusing to follow, then the confusion simply demonstrates how difficult and unhelpful it is to try to fit global responses into a divisive conceptualisation of exceptionalist “Western” states of civil liberties. Moreover, this conceptual divide is damaging. The Chinese government is currently using the narrative of a “blundering West” as public vindication to crack down on dissidents who are apparently damaging the efficiency of the “China model” by critiquing the current regime. Even more fundamentally, for us as readers, it obscures a real understanding of the effects of the virus, the societies that the virus is touching, and the current global system.

Instead, a much clearer approach to understanding the pandemic as a window into state and governance systems is that the virus, as any crisis that touches all the way through society, brings to the fore and aggravates extant social tensions. Rather than splitting the world into two different state systems, the virus is a uniquely effective and salient glance into the complex local problems of each society at which it arrives. So, in China, it is not contradictory that the virus has sparked an unleashing of state power and grassroots community responses, as well as a wave of a civic pressure against press censorship. In the U.S., the virus is bringing to the mainstream debate on the welfare state. In Europe, the virus is becoming enmeshed with tensions against the EU’s foundation of free movement of goods and people. France, Germany and the Czech Republic have banned exports of medical resources in defiance of the EU Council’s plan for a shared pool of resources. Germany explicitly cited frustrations with the effectiveness of the EU’s distribution system. In Saudi Arabia, Shi’ite communities are being targeted as virus carriers because of their perceived ties to Shi’ite Iran. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has seized the opportunity to shut down Parliament to prevent the continuation of Netanyahu’s court cases and the beginning of the incoming opposition party’s term. And so on and so forth: In each state, the virus exposes, highlights and plays into the social dynamics and underlying problems that have developed and changed over the past several years.

In the end, we will learn from this crisis what we want to learn. One of these lessons could be a suddenly clearer picture of the problems and the present state of the current global system after the confusing and dramatic shifts that have happened in the past several years. We can use it to move forwards in reconstructing our societies and not fall back into old political patterns. As is being demonstrated by the Chinese government, the political narratives we build now will be translated into reality by becoming the foundations for how we rebuild and respond going forwards. Let us not use this strange moment to continue perpetuating the same misleading, unhelpful and blinding stereotypes that see a fundamental split between East and West. In Wuhan as well as in Italy, people have been singing songs from apartment windows at night.

Contact Hagar Gal at hagargal ‘at’ stanford.edu.