Is the coronavirus pandemic encouraging authoritarianism?

Is the coronavirus pandemic encouraging authoritarianism?
Comment: As China uses the Covid-19 pandemic to try to repair its international reputation, other nations look to increase the remit of their state powers, writes David Powell.
6 min read
21 Apr, 2020
It's now clear that Chinese authorities concealed early evidence of coronavirus well into January [AFP]
The initial shock of the coronavirus epidemic and of the domestic confinement of billions of people is beginning to wear off and attention is turning to the long-term impact of this unprecedented attack on our physical and economic health. 

And while academics and politicians try to imagine how the international trading system and balance of global political power may change in the post-coronavirus world, China is already stealing a march on its rivals. Beijing is busy trying to turn the coronavirus outbreak into an opportunity to portray itself not as the source of a global catastrophe, but as the solution to it. 

Despite the World Health Organisation praising China's "transparency" in dealing with the outbreak, it is now clear that the authorities there in fact concealed early evidence of the disease and, crucially, of person-person transmission well into January, when it had already spread outside the country. 

China is now busy sending masks and ventilators to the countries worst affected. And alongside Beijing's medical industry, its propaganda industry has also geared up to rebrand China as the country that will save the world from the pandemic through its technological prowess.

Even the Chinese technology giant Huawei has seen a public relations opportunity to distract attention from questions over the threat posed by its dominance in 5G phone technology by donating facemasks and computers to health workers in Europe. 

The aim behind China's "mask diplomacy" is clearly more than pure altruism. China, like Russia, sees its interest in stoking division and suspicion between its western powers, particularly the US and Europe. And when the European Union (EU) imposed a ban last month on exports of protective equipment to non-member states, to ensure the EU had enough supplies, Serbia - a prospective member of the EU – turned to China for help.

The Serbian president publicly thanked his Chinese counterpart for responding and praised him as a "friend and brother" of Serbia, in contrast to the EU's cold shoulder. 

China is now busy sending masks and ventilators to the countries worst affected

Algeria, the country worst hit by Covid-19 in North Africa, received a 13-member Chinese medical team in March and also subsequently praised Beijing as a "friend", while the dispatch of medical teams from China to Iran and Iraq was comprehensively covered by the country's Arabic TV channel. 

The Middle East is a focus for Chinese medical diplomacy. The country has long sought to deepen its economic links with the region, taking advantage of the perceived US withdrawal. China markets itself as a reliable trade partner that focuses on economic development without interfering in its partner's internal affairs by supporting pro-democracy groups or querying a country's human rights records - a habit of some western governments that irritates autocratic Arab regimes sensitive to internal dissent.

And China uses its commercial power to prevent criticism of its own conduct too. Several Arab countries, desperate not to fall out with this powerful global trading partner or to breach the principle of "national sovereignty," have maintained a deafening silence over China's systematic and brutal oppression of its Muslim Uighurs.

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Some commentators have echoed the narrative that China is a more reliable partner than the US and other western countries in the fight against the pandemic, and is therefore better suited than Washington to be the next global leader. One prominent editor even backed the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman's suggestion that the US military was responsible for spreading the coronavirus, a conspiracy theory of Putinesque proportions, though one Beijing's own ambassador to the US subsequently dismissed. 

But others have pointed out the cynicism behind China's behaviour over the global pandemic. After long using its Security Council veto to back Russia in deflecting international criticism of the Assad regime in Syria, China now backs calls for lifting of sanctions. Such a position is motivated less by concern for the welfare of Syrian civilians than a desire to capitalize on lucrative post-war rebuilding projects in the country. 

Chinese diplomatic pressure was demonstrated earlier this month, when an Iranian health official departed from Tehran's position of lauding China for its solidarity with Iran in the struggle against the epidemic. He called China's coronavirus statistics a "bitter joke" and questioned its claim to have overcome the outbreak in two months. After strong pressure from China, the unfortunate official revised his view, blaming "foreigners" for sowing dissension between Iran and China. 

Read more: Can Beijing's mask diplomacy win hearts and minds in the Arab world?

Even without the example of China, the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a dramatic expansion of the power of the state, in democratic as well as authoritarian countries. Not all have gone as far as Egypt and in targeting foreign journalists who have questioned official statistics. But even in western democracies, there has been a massive shift in power to central government to enforce measures to tackle the pandemic. And some are questioning if this could have a lasting negative effect. 

Far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was granted sweeping emergency powers by parliament to suspend elections and rule by decree, on the pretext of combating the pandemic. And even in other European countries where leaders pride themselves on a jealously guarded democracy, there are signs of trouble. 

The international response to the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a dramatic expansion of the power of the state

When the UK parliament passed emergency legislation to control the spread of the virus that stated that "no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse," this left open the definition of "reasonable".

Government ministers outlined what they thought this should mean, but it was left to the police to decide in individual cases. Some chose to stop people walking in the countryside or sitting on a park bench, or even purchasing items deemed non-essential. While such actions may seem trivial at a time when thousands are dying from a pandemic, retired High Court Judge Jonathan Sumption warns that once police switch from enforcing the law to enforcing the will of ministers, we are on the slippery slope from a free, democratic society to a police state. 

Such fears are perhaps exaggerated, but at a time of widespread public fear many are asking how this catastrophic pandemic will change established political and economic institutions around the world.

China is clearly seeking to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to try to repair its international reputation, severely damaged by its treatment of the Uighurs and other minorities. But if this attempt to use "mask diplomacy" to conceal human rights abuses is to be countered, then other countries must not turn a blind eye to them for the sake of political expediency. And liberal democracies must not allow hard won liberties to be undermined as they battle to contain the disease at home.

David Powell worked for 20 years as a journalist in pan-Arab television news, including BBC Arabic and MBC. He is now an analyst of Middle East affairs specialising in media and Islamist movements.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.