America has Much to Learn from China about Responding to COVID-19

During the depths of the Great Recession, China acted like the bastion of fiscal conservatism. Its currency did not go into free fall (like so many of the world’s major currencies did), its companies did not collapse en masse (like so many Western firms did), and it ended up weathering the storm in relatively good shape. Although it is too early to say whether the same will be true regarding the global economic depression that is in the process of unfolding by COVID-19, what is certainly true is that once Beijing decided to get serious about containing the virus, it did so with gusto and significant positive results.

Beijing should be criticized for its initial slow response, lack of transparency, and punishment of whistleblowers and truth-tellers. Had it responded differently, the world’s nations would have had even more time to anticipate the arrival of the virus and act more expeditiously to attempt to thwart its spread on their shores. But at the same time it should be acknowledged that during a pandemic with profound economic, social, and health impacts, there really is no room for a lot of discussion, worrying about political correctness, or walking on eggshells at the risk of offending individuals or businesses. What is required is swift, bold action. This gave the Chinese government a tremendous advantage in terms of actually implementing a plan of action. So did a willingness and capability to devote vast resources and a draconian approach (when necessary) toward resolving the problem.

Although we still remain at the beginning of the process of addressing COVID-19 in most of the rest of the world, several things are already clear: many governments are poorly prepared to address a pandemic, too few had resources specifically earmarked to be applied to pandemics, many have been too slow to address the virus, and many have performed poorly in mobilizing resources. Although the rest of the world had up to 2 months’ notice that the virus would be coming to their shores, too few of the world’s governments took even rudimentary steps to prepare for its eventuality.

The Chinese government has a real advantage in times of crisis:

  • It can act with force swiftly and effectively.
  • It has the ability to keep track of nearly all of its citizens.
  • As a leader in AI, it can deploy electronic and drone technology to enforce its edicts.
  • It has proven repeatedly that it has the ability to deploy massive human, monetary, and physical resources as no other nation can do.

Too many other nations cannot say any of the above. The Chinese government also has the advantage of having practiced long-term planning for decades, which makes preparedness for natural disasters much easier to achieve.

China’s technology-based approach to stemming the spread of the virus worked very effectively. As Hubei province begins to lift its lockdown and travel restrictions, it appears that the worst is over for the country – at least, for this first wave of infections. Notably, China’s financial markets and the renminbi have demonstrated resilience in recent trading sessions while other global equity markets have gone into meltdown, indicating that the country may be first out of the starting gates economically in relation to its Western peers.

The legacy of the virus, and the Chinese government’s reaction to it, represent a stark clash between the Chinese and American systems of government. As was also the case during the Great Recession, China seemed much better prepared to manage the crisis and weather the storm. By contrast, America’s government appears feeble and inept, underscoring its woeful ongoing unpreparedness for the virus’s onslaught and the enormous challenges it faces in executing its laggard response.

If there is a winner in all this it is Xi Jinping, who sits unimpeachably astride the country’s machinery of state, backed by China’s state-owned enterprises and banking system as core constituents in the country’s fight to recover economically. America can only look on with awe at Xi’s domestic hold on power. As Xi rides a surge in the country’s soft power, confident that his government’s response to the virus successfully stopped its inexorable march across China, Trump maintains his deluded sense of unreality, leading America into an economic, social, and health abyss.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post.