Harsh V Pant

The failure of Beijing’s authoritarian approach to covid is a moment to emphasize why democracies meet aspirations better.

There has been growing anger in China over a lack of receptivity to concerns being expressed by ordinary citizens about President Xi Jinping’s strict ‘zero covid’ policy. But after ten people were killed when a block of flats in the north-western city of Urumqi in Xinjiang province caught fire last week, this anger has come out into the open with protests in major Chinese cities from Shanghai and Beijing to Xinjiang and Tibet. What is quite remarkable about these protests is there is open criticism of the Chinese president, with calls being heard asking Xi to resign. Millions of Chinese have been facing widespread restrictions for months, but eventually their anxiety seems to be boiling over into public outrage.

Xi Jinping, basking in glory after the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party where he secured an unprecedented third term as China’s top leader, has been busy trying to burnish his global credentials by visiting foreign shores. But back at home, he seems to be blissfully unaware of the distress and anger his policies have been generating. Last month’s Congress saw him underlining the “success” of his strict covid policy as well as a reiteration of his commitment to continue with it. There seems to have been an underestimation of the discontent brewing as a result of strict lockdowns in areas where a covid outbreak has been detected. Such lockdowns are typically accompanied by mass testing, quarantines and the closure of businesses.

A tired Chinese populace with no ability to make its point so far, and faced with an unwillingness in China’s political hierarchy to listen, is now pushing back, posing what could turn out to be a truly formidable challenge to Xi’s overt centralization of power. With a lack of adequately effective vaccines and a low vaccination rate in the country, the challenges for the Communist Party are only likely to grow as covid cases continue to surge. For a system that is known to brook little dissent and a leader who seems convinced of his own infallibility, the costs can be incredibly high.

While the rest of the world seems to have moved on, recognizing the challenges posed by continuous lockdowns, Xi’s agenda seems to be driven more by a need to prove his policies right just because they have his imprint. Nothing illustrates the dangers of the country’s authoritarian model of governance than what is happening in China today, where a closed system is struggling to respond to the plight of ordinary Chinese, thereby endangering the position of the Chinese Communist Party that has delicately tried all these decades to maintain its political supremacy.

Away from the Chinese mainland, discontent was expressed in another way via the ballot box in Taiwan, where President Tsai Ing-wen, who had won by a landslide in the 2020 national elections, has ended up resigning as head of the governing Democratic Progressive Party after its poor performance in local elections. While these elections are largely focused on domestic socio-economic issues, President Tsai had tried to frame the electoral battle around growing tensions with China and as a message to the Chinese Communist Party about democracy. But the voters had other ideas and the message to Tsai was clear. She has gracefully accepted the mandate, and, bowing to the message delivered by Taiwanese voters, has decided to give up her party’s leadership.

The juxtaposition of what is happening in Taiwan and China should alert us not only to the dangers of authoritarianism but also why the importance of standing up for Taiwan cannot be overestimated. In more ways than one, it lies at the heart of contemporary global order. For a long time, the Chinese Communist Party had lulled a large part of the world into believing that its model of governance was a better one, as it was seen to be delivering economic growth and political stability. Awkwardly, many people in the democratic world have also been willing to buy that narrative. Democracies, by definition, can never be perfect. As they seek multi-stakeholder engagement in consensus creation around a national project, conflicts are inevitable. But the democratic world, in its attempt to find utopian perfection, became more focused on finding its own faults than on challenging authoritarian actors. A never-ending cycle of self-flagellation in the democratic world ended up strengthening the fallacy of the ‘China model of governance’. If democracies of the world won’t stand up for their own values, why would the rest view them as exemplars?

China’s aggression and its own internal vulnerabilities have now created greater space today for the democratic world to underscore the fact that with all its weaknesses, the Chinese model never was and never will be able to match the ability of democracies to respond to the aspirations of ordinary people in their millions.

There have been protests in China in the past as well, and it is likely that the ruthlessness of the Chinese Communist Party machinery will subdue the latest outburst of discontent as well. Xi is unlikely to relent just because some people on the streets are asking him to go. But what these relentless policy missteps by China on its domestic and foreign policy fronts underscore is that the much vaunted Chinese model of governance is coming apart—slowly but surely.

This article was first published in Mint as The Chinese model of governance has just been exposed as hollow on Nov 29, 2022.

About the author

Harsh-V.-Pant

Harsh V PantProfessor of International Relations at King’s College London and Director of Research at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.

Read other articles by the author at Insights IMPRI.