-Analysis-

PARIS — In his most recent book, Chine, le Grand Paradoxe (China, the Great Paradox), Jean-Pierre Raffarin reminds us that, "the key to diplomacy is reciprocal respect."

Prime minister at the height of the SARS crisis, in 2003, Raffarin was one of the rare foreign leaders to proceed with a scheduled trip to China. The gesture — and display of personal courage — did not go unnoticed by the Chinese, who rewarded him with both recognition and friendship.

Respect and friendship shouldn't mean complacency, however. With 1.4 billion people's lives at stake — and perhaps many more — this is no time for half-truths or, in the case of the World Health Organization, half-criticisms.

What's really happening in China? Medical uncertainties regarding the development of the virus, along with the nature of the Chinese regime itself, make this a difficult question to answer. The situation is anything but transparent.

What is clear is that there needs to be solidarity with and empathy toward the Chinese people. The "yellow scare" reaction against Asian people who live here is simply scandalous. It's a throwback to the worst moments in our history, an expression of the darkest side of human nature.

This knee-jerk reaction of fear and rejection needs to be challenged head on, especially because in facing this epidemic (let's not go so far as to call it a pandemic), international solidarity is one of the keys to success. How can we expect to save ourselves "alone" by building walls, real or symbolic, and by hiding behind nationalist reflexes when the very protective masks we may need — and that are out of stock in many countries — use components that come from places all over the world, including China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Mexico and Colombia?

The Chinese leadership prioritizes the unity of the country behind the party.

Like nationalism, the pathological taste for secrecy is another obstacle standing in the way of a quick response to the epidemic. In China, precious weeks appear to have been lost because of this insistence on the total control of information. And there's no way now to recover that lost time.

To justify the centralization of power, the Chinese leadership prioritizes the unity of the country behind the party. In their eyes, that requires secrecy, the stifling of a free press, and limits on civil liberties. But do the actions of the Chinese leader always serve their stated interests?

In the name of national unity, China has tightened its control over Hong Kong while pushing Taiwan even further away from the motherland. In the last presidential elections, a majority of Taiwanese showed that they're more concerned about freedoms and the rule of law than they are about ties to mainland China.

The death of the coronavirus "whistleblower," Dr. Li Wenliang, prompted a public outcry in China that forced the normally secluded President Xi Jinping to finally make a public appearance and later remove key authorities in the province of Hubei and city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began.

On Feb. 18 in Jiangsu — Photo: Su Yang/SIPA Asia/ZUMA

But it's clear that initially, China prioritized the party above the safety of its citizens and, by extension, the safety of the world as a whole. What happens now if the virus gains a foothold in a continent with as fragile a public health infrastructure as Africa?

It would probably be an exaggeration to describe this as a "Chinese Chernobyl," or to draw a comparison between Li Wenliang and the Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller who set himself on fire in 2010, which sparked the Arab Spring. Xi Jinping isn't Gorbachev or Ben Ali. China isn't Tunisia. And unless this really does develop into an uncontrollable pandemic, the so-called Celestial Empire won't be in the situation that the USSR faced in the late 1980s.

Authoritarianism contains its own contradictions.

Faced with an event of unknown magnitude, the possible economic, still-to-be-determined political and geopolitical consequences, we need to find the right balance. Between the Bolshevism of democracy and complacency towards the Chinese regime, there is a middle way. As the Asian affairs specialist François Godement writes: "Is Xi, by wanting to be 'president of everything,' therefore responsible for everything?" A democratic regime would have reacted more quickly. But would it necessarily have been more effective?

Still, in the face of an epidemic of this scale, the absence of the rule of law and the inexistence of checks and balances are certainly handicaps, both in terms of rapid response and preserving citizen confidence.

In May 1986, roughly 15 days after the Chernobyl disaster, I found myself in Moscow for professional reasons. I recall being approached numerous times on the street by Moscow residents asking me anxiously: "You're from the West. Tell us, What can we eat and drink? Our leaders lie to us." How could I tell them that in my country, the authorities were assuring us that the so-called "bad air" miraculously stopped at the border with Germany, having the courtesy not to cross the Rhine?

When all is said and done, the monopoly of power in China will no doubt survive this health crisis, even if, in the short term, it will have to show a bit less triumphalism and more modesty. But one fundamental question will remain: Can absolute authoritarianism be a response to "democratic confusion?" Probably not. And that's because authoritarianism contains its own contradictions.

How can a country present itself, alongside the United Nations, as the defender of order and international law, when it has so little respect for the rule of law at home? This is the problem with China. And if the epidemic becomes a pandemic, it will be a problem for us all.


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