Josef Joffe: On Coronavirus, Beware the Totalitarian Temptation

  • Date: 18/03/20
  • Josef Joffe, The American Interest

State control of information is a bridge to oppression democracies must never cross. Freedom of expression is among the holiest of holies in a liberal polity.

Totalitarianism is Stalin and Hitler, the NKVD and the Gestapo, the Gulag and the death camp. Correct, but take another look. It is also an eternal temptation that has infected Western minds great and small—from Martin “Sieg Heil!” Heidegger to Jean-Paul Sartre, who pitched for Communism until the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.

Among the lesser minds, Charles Lindbergh cozied up to Hitler, and Joseph Davies, the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, penned a ringing apologia for Stalin’s Great Terror in Mission to Moscow. The book was turned into an even more awful movie. Add a herd of Western devotees and camp followers who cheered Mussolini, Mao, Castro, Che, and, lately, Hugo Chávez—this Stalinist caudillo attracted effusive praise from the actor Sean Penn.

Which takes us to China’s President Xi Jinping and an up-to-date example of cheerleading for the almighty state. While in Beijing, the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom extolled China as a model in the war against SARS-CoV-2, better known as “coronavirus.” According to China’s state media, he gushed that “China’s speed . . . and efficiency . . . is the advantage of China’s system.” The country deserved “praise” and “admiration” for its methods in routing the silent enemy that has spread the COVID-19 epidemic from Wuhan to Milan, from Alberta to Auckland.

Such an éloge needs to be tempered. First of all, the world owes the most recent iteration of the coronavirus to China, more precisely to Wuhan and its “wet markets” whence it sprang forth from bats, a delicacy of the local cuisine. That calamity may be ascribed to Chinese culture. But what followed was owed to the very system cheered by the WHO boss. 

By the end of December, health workers warned that something was afoot. Yet totalitarians hate bad news, that’s in their DNA. Suppressing the reports, they blamed the messengers and detained them. There was “speed,” but the wrong kind. Instead of locking up the doctors, the regime might have closed down Wuhan Airport, which serves 32 cities around the world, including Paris, London, Rome, Seoul, Tokyo, and Sidney. With flights operating into February, the virus forged ahead while precious time was lost. In mid-March, the regime tried fake news, a classic agitprop tool, with the foreign ministry insinuating that the “U.S. army had brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” 

So, why would the WHO director (and plenty of others) applaud the Communist emperor Xi? Because of political expediency, for one. You don’t bite the hand you need to feed in order to contain the Wuhan Virus. But China seems to be making up for its sins. Apparently, new cases have plummeted from 2,400 during the last week in February to single digits in mid-March. So, three cheers for the superiority of a totalitarian system?

But South Korea is the world’s number one when it comes to testing, which is critical for controlling the virus. Taiwan has slowed its spread. In Iran, though, a harsh theocracy whose tentacles reach deeply into society, new infections are on a steep rise. So totalitarian systems aren’t necessarily super-efficient, while supposedly chaotic democracies are hardly doomed.
The price of what Xi calls a “people’s war” is horrendous. To boot, Beijing’s strategy can be pursued only by a totalitarian state, but not by a democracy. Essentially, the state has locked up half a billion people, most harshly in and around Wuhan. It dispatched armies of enforcers to guard the access to residential compounds and to restrict movement within. 

The regime deployed digital surveillance systems no liberal polity would or could countenance, and rightly so. The government tapped into data from state-run mobile companies as well as from payment apps that record “who, when, and where,” so that fugitives can be traced and collared. Regime minions intrude on what is known in the West as “my home is my castle” to record body temperatures, presumably hauling suspects off to detention facilities—for their own good, of course. Tech companies have developed apps with a kind of traffic light. “Green” is good, “yellow” is a warning, “red” is bad. Guards use the color coding to block movement at railroad stations and traffic nodes.

The darkest side of the “people’s war” is sheer repression. Ren Zhiqiang, a prominent Beijing tycoon, had been blasting Xi for extinguishing free speech. Too bad for him that he now ran afoul of an all-out Party campaign to quash criticism about the government’s fake- or no-news strategy. Ren accused the state of having accelerated the epidemic that had claimed innumerable lives. He might as well have committed treason. So, Ren has suddenly disappeared, which is a swift way to silence “enemies of the people.”

State control of information is a bridge to oppression democracies must never cross. Freedom of expression is among the holiest of holies in a liberal polity. An indispensable check on arbitrary power, free media also happen to be eminently useful in national emergencies, exposing error, mismanagement, and falsehood. It was the absence of free media in China that enabled the regime to muzzle the whistleblowers of Wuhan at such a murderous price.

How are those bungling democracies doing? Italy has virtually copycatted China’s anti-virus warfare, practically locking down the entire country. Spain has followed, as has France—though with a 15-day limit for the time being. Other EU members will surely go the same route. They are successively dismantling “Schengenland,” the EU’s borderless realm, reasserting national control. Yet such constraints are being imposed without the totalitarian tools of the Chinese. In deploying the powers of the state, Western governments have illuminated a peculiar advantage of democracies. To combat crises, they need not resort to police-state tactics. 
If governments communicate truthfully with the people, the ruled do what needs to be done voluntarily. Look around the democratic world. People self-quarantine at home and stay away from large crowds. They accept curbs on their freedom such as closed bars, restaurants, theaters, and stores except those establishments that sustain life in deadly times: food, drug, and pet stores (animals have to eat, too). They keep social distance and walk alone rather than in pairs.

Competitive sports unfold in empty stadiums whence games are broadcast. Operas and concerts are streamed. Companies shift to home office work and video-conferencing on their own. Schools close according to local determination, and the government provides emergency day care so that parents can continue to work in critical places like hospitals. It isn’t all voluntary, of course. But there is still a difference between Wuhan and Milan. Carabinieri don’t act as prison guards, but ask for cash receipts that prove a trip to the pharmacy. When venturing outside, the choice is still yours; this is the critical difference. You are not manhandled or dragged off to jail. Instead you pay a fine of 200 euros ($224). 

If you feel mistreated, you can appeal to the courts. The rule of law does not yield to unchecked power. It is “gentle persuasion” that comes with incentives. In Munich, for instance, stores that must lock up for a while enjoy the benefits of the welfare state. Rules on short-time work kick in. The social security system makes up for reduced wages.

Beyond such anecdotes, there is a larger point: the irreducible trade-off between freedom and safety. Despots don’t have to deal with such conflicts. For them, the security of the state—and their regime—is über alles. Let the people pay the price. Authoritarians love crises—or regularly manufacture them—because these justify untrammeled power. The logic is all too familiar. Posit a supreme evil, and all other values must be betrayed: freedom of expression and movement, property rights, judicial review, individual autonomy, political competition, due process. Rule of Law? Not when the enemy is at the gate, and certainly not when he is already roaming the land.

Liberal polities, alas, are not immune to the temptation. Listen to the prophets of planetary doom who want an all-powerful state that would do away with constitutional restraints and unfettered politics for the sake of the earth. Don’t quibble when the house is on fire; seek salvation in “eco dictatorship.” On a less cosmic level, there is Benjamin Netanyahu, who was first in the democratic world to impose a draconian regimen in the corona crisis. Why Israel of all places? Unable to cobble together a coalition, the Prime Minister faces a virus of his own: his criminal indictment and looming loss of office. And lo, he invoked the epidemic to demand an emergency government headed by him for six or even 24 months. A scoundrel who thinks evil of it.

It could happen here, too—which is all the more reason to resist the authoritarian temptation. What are the antidotes? All emergency measures must come with a sunset clause. Protect the freedom of the press at all costs. Set new dates for postponed elections now. Keep holding officials accountable. Secure the separation of powers. The rule is to persuade, not to impose. Defy the pied papers who stoke panic and hysteria in order to deconstruct the liberal state. 

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