Coronavirus, China And You: Political Systems Put To The Test
WASHINGTON — During the coronavirus pandemonium, the voice of Slavoj Žižek is an essential one. The renowned Slovenian philosopher is there when you need him: decoding a mind-boggling event, explaining a new phenomenon that is shattering global society, connecting the dots, filling in loose ends, shedding light on the unknown. There isn't anybody else on this planet who could instantly transform the coronavirus into social theory. Never expect Žižek to do something banal or obvious. Always provocative, Slovenia's most famous export chose to speak from the Russian platform, RT (Russian Television), which is controlled by Vladimir Putin:
When I suggested that the coronavirus epidemic may give a new boost of life to communism, my claim was, as expected, ridiculed. Although it looks that the strong approach to the crisis by the Chinese state worked – at least it worked much better than what goes on now in Italy, the old authoritarian logic of communists in power also clearly demonstrated its limitations. One of them was that the fear of bringing bad news to those in power (and to the public) outweighs actual results – this was apparently the reason why those who first shared information on a new virus were reportedly arrested, and there are reports that a similar thing is going on now.
As Žižek says, China has done a pretty good job fighting the virus because of the Chinese state's strong approach to the crisis. Meanwhile, the predominantly noncommunist world (Italy excluded) is still awaiting a spike in the epidemic. The critical moment–when the capacity of hospitals, the number of respiratory machines, and the medics will become scarce–is still looming. The pandemic may become too big to be managed by a single country, Žižek says:
The coronavirus epidemic does not signal just the limit of market globalization, it also signals the even more fatal limit of nationalist populism which insists on full state sovereignty: it's over with ‘America (or whoever) first!" since America can be saved only through global coordination and collaboration.
I am not a utopian here, I don't appeal to idealized solidarity between people – on the contrary, the present crisis demonstrates clearly how global solidarity and cooperation is in the interest of the survival of all and each of us, how it is the only rational egotist thing to do. And it's not just coronavirus: China itself suffered the gigantic swine flu months ago, and it is now threatened by the prospect of a locust invasion. Plus, as Owen Jones noted, climate crisis kills many more people around the world than coronavirus, but there is no panic about this.
Let's recapitulate: epidemics like the coronavirus, Sars or Swine Flu are dangerous enough to teach humanity that isolation – sealing off a single country – will not block or eliminate the virus. Only global solidarity and cooperation will enable us to survive. There are only more bad viruses and climate change in our future. These upcoming calamities will not be resolved by a simple teleconference among global leaders. Obviously, something much stronger and binding will be necessary.
Žižek finishes his thought:
From a cynical vitalist standpoint, one would be tempted to see coronavirus as a beneficial infection that allows humanity to get rid of the old, weak and ill, like pulling out the half-rotten weed and thus contribute to global health.
The broad communist approach I am advocating is the only way for us to really leave behind such a primitive vitalist standpoint. Signs of curtailing unconditional solidarity are already discernible in the ongoing debates, as in the following note about the role of the "three wise men" if the epidemics take a more catastrophic turn in the UK: "NHS patients could be denied life-saving care during a severe coronavirus outbreak in Britain if intensive care units are struggling to cope, senior doctors have warned. Under a so-called ‘three wise men" protocol, three senior consultants in each hospital would be forced to make decisions on rationing care such as ventilators and beds, in the event hospitals were overwhelmed with patients."
What criteria will the "three wise men" rely on? Sacrifice the weakest and eldest? And will this situation not just open up space for immense corruption? Do such procedures not indicate that we are getting ready to enact the most brutal logic of the survival of the fittest? So, again, the ultimate choice is this or some kind of reinvented communism.
File Image: Zizek speaks in Liverpool, 2008 — Photo: Andy Miah
So this is it? Some kind of reinvented communism? Why call it communism? Communism as the new world order sounds utopian, Trotsky-esque even. "Reinvented" hints towards a more creative and open model of society instead of the pure, rude communism from the Soviet Union. But does the new model include the methods that China is applying under Xi Jinping? A decade ago, Žižek considered the challenge between authoritarian and democratic regimes to be a priority that the world needed to resolve:
Following this path, the Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.
There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future? What if the combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market proves economically more efficient than liberal capitalism? What if democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle to it?
The image Žižek puts forward paints China as the most efficient regime when it comes to dealing with the emergencies the world is facing at the moment. It's been a week since we were flooded with reports on how successful China was in dealing with the latest plague.
These reports were sustained in a big way by an interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, who led the W.H.O. team that visited China to assess the country's response to the coronavirus outbreak. Dr. Aylward's praises for China are endless. But if you do not want to read through all of them, you can watch the video in which a journalist from the New York Times who interviewed him shoots out a concentrated version of the Chinese model that sounds like a fairy tale. In addition to the widespread reporting on China's success, images of the dismantling of the hospital that was built to cope with the pandemic in Wuhan and a video of Chinese workers taking off their face masks are circulating throughout the internet. However, the propaganda peaks with footage of the plane loaded with Chinese experts and medicine landing in Rome a few days ago. It is supposed to show that China is now back on its feet and ready to save the world.
But let us not forget that the coronavirus sprung from the wet markets of Wuhan in China and that the Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping ordered containment— of both the virus and information about it— on January 7. Only on January 20 did the Chinese government allow any public disclosure about the deadly outbreak, losing vital weeks in which the world might have done more to prevent a pandemic if both the scientific genome sequencing and the dangers had been shared.
As Dispatch.com reports:
Xi's prime concern was not lives at risk, or containment of the virus, but rather the nation's and his reputation, place in the global supply chain and his grip on power. In this, Xi is much like every other dictator who prioritizes everything above the well-being of his own people, let alone others'.
Iran and Russia have also joined in as regimes that have mismanaged the virus for political purposes. As much as it might be hard to believe, Donald Trump joined the elite of dictatorial regimes. There is no difference between the way Xi and Trump forced their members of government into obedience, making them publicly praise their wisdom and success in leading their nations.
As Dispatch puts it, there is not much difference between the two regimes:
When we consider the United States' failings on this front, it's fair to argue that Donald Trump has been more Xi and less Abraham Lincoln than desirable. (See, in particular, his insistent tweets that the virus was "contained" in the United States and his reluctance to let in the passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship because it would hurt the "numbers.") The president and the CDC were initially slow to face up to the challenge.
But even in this instance, the nature of the American democratic state has served to defuse Trump's selfish impulses, with institutions stepping up to fill the void. And as we will likely see, the U.S. will belatedly come to speed, with lower fatality rates that reflect the democracy/dictatorship divide.
It will only be after the pandemic ends that we can start to face what lies beyond.
Even though China's leadership finally managed to mobilize the country against the virus, how can we trust these people? The Chinese authorities put themselves at the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus, but only after they screwed it up and allowed the virus to travel from Wuhan across China and then out into the world. Trump did the identical thing when he hushed data on the potential pandemic, blocking efficient measures that would contain the virus. Was all this done to let the financial markets remain high, to get reelected?
Turning back to the always inspiring Žižek, we can ask if Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and a dozen similar dictators, can reinvent communism ... or reinvent anything. Why did Xi Jinping not close the wild animal markets when he knew that the coronavirus could easily jump from animals to humans in these places, creating a pandemic? Why did Donald Trump abolish the protection plan that the U.S. administration created in the case of a pandemic breakout years ago? Why today, when China is claiming to have resolved the crisis, can we not read more reports about the real state of things there?
It will only be after the pandemic ends and the regimes pass by that we can start to face what lies beyond the immediate emergency. The coronavirus will definitely change our future behavior and our way of life. Take social distancing, working from home, spending more time reading and in nature: how can we go back from this? There is no doubt that even a few weeks of a lockdown will improve climate change. What will we learn from it? There's no doubt that we will have to reinvent many of the things that we took for granted in the past.
For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. Our network of multilingual journalists are busy finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to provide as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world. To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.