Is COVID-19 China’s ‘Chernobyl Moment’?

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Is COVID-19 China’s ‘Chernobyl Moment’?

There are plenty of differences between Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and Xi’s China. But there are enough similarities that Xi should be worried.

Is COVID-19 China’s ‘Chernobyl Moment’?

A member of a Chinese honor guard wears a face mask as he stands guard on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Feb. 4, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

“The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl” – wrote former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the nuclear disaster – “even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the main cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse five years later.” He went on to write that “the Chernobyl catastrophe was a historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed.”

While the outcome from the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic is still unclear for both China and the rest of the world, there is no doubt that already the magnitude of the impact from the virus represents a Chernobyl-like historic turning point for the Chinese leadership and its ability to command political legitimacy. Undoubtedly, in the 21st-century history of Chinese authoritarianism, there will be an “era before the disaster” and a “very different era that has followed.” But how far can we go with the Chernobyl historical analogy?

Historical analogies are useful devices for shoring up human’s limited cognitive capacity to bring together a large amount of information and process complex relationships. Historical analogies tell stories in which the audience is expected to recognize conditions and patterns of behavior with similar characteristics to well-known historical events and use them as a guiding point to other, oftentimes still unfolding, events with unclear outcomes. Yet, if taken too lightly or too far, historical analogies could also be dangerous and misleading, especially if the comparisons are made too literally. That is why Henry Kissinger once famously remarked, “[H]istory teaches by analogy, shedding light on the likely consequences of comparable situations. But each generation must determine for itself which circumstances are in fact comparable.”

From a structural point of view, the Chernobyl analogy, at least at a first glance, may be tempting but is not an intuitive one. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was a dying empire with an economy held on steroids at an enormous cost for its citizens, and a political system in which no one really believed anymore, not even the party leadership and its nomenklatura. In the months before the nuclear disaster, the oil and gas prices sharply collapsed (for comparison, in 1980 oil was $120 a barrel, but in March 1986 it plunged to $24 a barrel), quickly emptying the coffers of the Soviet Union of much-needed hard currency, while GDP growth was estimated to be less than 1 percent. Maintaining the legitimacy of the regime increasingly required higher levels of coercion and violence of proportions equal to the post-Bolshevik revolution, or from the time of Stalin’s consolidation of power in the mid-1930s — otherwise the system risked a sudden collapse. Instead, Gorbachev opted out for liberalizing and democratizing a system that was already in sharp decline, led by the naive belief that it could be saved.

His glasnost and perestroika didn’t save the regime but certainly prevented mass bloodshed during the decay of the Soviet empire. In hindsight, the outcome of the Cold War and the end of the communist ideology was already displayed in plain view even before the Chernobyl accident, although the contemporary observers and analysts remained blind to it. In that sense, the significance of the Chernobyl disaster was perhaps similar to the tragic assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand, which started World War I – a spark in a room already full of gas that caused a chain explosion. The conditions were present well beforehand, and the catalyst could have come in any form with a roughly similar outcome at the end.

By contrast, China in 2020 could not be more different than the Soviet Union in 1986. According to the World Bank’s data, China’s GDP growth in 2018 – the latest available year in its database – was 6.6 percent, clearly a far cry from the 14.2 percent only a decade earlier, but still hugely impressive considering the enormous size of its economy. Even after the crippling effect U.S. tariffs had on the Chinese economy, it is estimated that in 2019 the GDP growth had fallen only to 6.1 percent. More importantly, unlike the Soviet Union, which suffered the full blow of rapid economic globalization and tried to battle it – rather unsuccessfully – to keep up with its planned economy, China had sought to ride the globalization wave in every aspect, making itself the greatest proponent and defender of the trend. Unlike the Soviet-era primitive technology production, China is today competing for the top tech positions, pushing, for example, Huawei as the forefront global leader of affordable 5G technology. Unlike Soviet trains in the 1980s, which were largely unchanged from the World War II era, China in 2020 has some of the fastest bullet trains and the largest railroad infrastructure in the world.

Chinese economic prosperity has built up a legitimacy that does not rely on coercion as much as would be expected for an authoritarian regime, but is akin to the liberal-democratic model staked on delivering greater ontological security, economic prosperity, and overall quality of life for its citizens. Not surprisingly, then, the political legitimacy of the Chinese system has been actively advocated and promoted by serious political researchers as a viable alternative model to liberal democracy, resting on economic prosperity and political maturity of an epistocratic process of selecting and grooming a “philosopher king”-like ruling elite that seeks to avoid the randomness of chance irretrievably embedded in the Western liberal democratic model. If anything, given the country’s sheer scope of population and its cultural diversity, it is rather surprising that the Chinese authoritarian leadership had not had to rely more on violence and coercion to achieve and maintain legitimacy, despite the criticism voiced in the West for its human rights record. It was a Faustian deal that marked the new social contract in China: the government provides material uplifting and economic prosperity to its citizens unparalleled in scale and scope, and the citizens accept the curbing of some of their civil and political rights. So far it has worked rather well for both parties of the deal.

Now, however, the outbreak of COVID-19 has exposed how fragile and unsustainable this Faustian deal is.

Similar to the Chernobyl disaster, the virus outbreak was an unpredictable crisis. But the situation in China resembles that of the mid-1980s Soviet Union in other aspects, too. As a starter, the economic race with the United States has already taken a serious toll on the agility of the country’s economy and continues to reverberate in all levels of society. Back in the 1980s, it was the arms race, with its culmination in President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars defense program, that had forced the Soviet Union to reallocate enormous and scarce economic resources to the military domain to keep the USSR in the race. It is estimated that Soviet military spending at that time was between 17 percent and 20 percent of GDP. In a similar fashion, today China’s economy was hard hit by President Donald Trump’s trade war, slowing growth down to its lowest level since 1992.

Furthermore, by the middle of the 1980s the legitimacy of the Soviet regime had lost most of its post-WWII appeal and was already severely undermined by the harsh crushing of demands for partial liberation in its satellite states. Then, the invasion of Afghanistan and the inability of consecutive Soviet leaderships to bring the subsequent debacle there to a successful end delivered a further blow to the Soviet international legitimacy. Similarly, China’s contemporary treatment of ethnic minorities and the internment of a large number of them in essentially labor concentration camps had eroded much of the economic legitimacy of the regime outside the country, while the unapologetic stonewalling of the Hong Kong protests, which started in the early summer of 2019, and their continuation despite the attempts to stifle them have raised questions about the real moral outlook of the new Chinese authoritarianism.

Finally, like the Chernobyl’s disaster mishandling, the Chinese leadership’s missteps during the initial outbreak of COVID-19, the lack of transparency, the constant lying not just to the world but to its own people (thus tacitly allowing for the proliferation of myriads of conspiracy theories inside the country), the silencing of early whistleblowers, and then the use of unprecedented and quite drastic measures to seal off millions of people, barring them into their homes (sometimes literally) – all these not only drove a stake through the very notion of Confucian authoritarianism as well as the ability of the Chinese leadership to govern effectively in times of crises, but also generated a serious crisis of faith in the system that will haunt policymakers for years and decades to come. Many of them, no doubt, will also be publicly sacrificed on the political stage as scapegoats – much like the events in the Soviet Union after Chernobyl.

The measures to handle a public health crisis of such epic proportions require political, economic, and personal sacrifices that Xi Jinping’s administration has proven incapable to make and live up to. The questions that will inevitably engulf the public square once the crisis is contained — questions about the way decisions were made directly impacting the lives and destinies of thousands if not millions of people — will haunt all involved in the handling of the disaster. They will sow doubts and fears in the minds of the ordinary citizens about whether their government may one day sacrifice them in a hecatomb as well for the “greater good” of the rest of the country. The economic prosperity on which the Chinese regime prides itself will quickly dissipate, as already seems to be happening. This was brilliantly illustrated by a video posted on Twitter by a Wuhan citizen, locked in his apartment and making paper planes that peppered the empty streets below his balcony from money bills stacked next to him.

When the Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in Japan in March 2011, the then prime minister, Naoto Kan, flew in a helicopter to the power plant on the very next day to assert his authority and reassure the people in the proximity. A picture of George W. Bush hugging a firefighter amid the ruins of the World Trade Center appeared shortly after the 9/11 attacks. But just like in 1986, when Gorbachev visibly distanced himself from the Chernobyl disaster, Xi Jinping was also absent for almost a month from the public eye, and to this day is yet to visit the Wuhan region. Even more, similar to Gorbachev’s fulminating against the West for defaming the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, the Global Times, an English language news outlet very close to the leadership in Beijing, published editorial after editorial lambasting the “West’s arrogance” and praising “China’s strength.” In both cases — the USSR in the mid-1980s and China in 2020 — the myths of military and economic might and intellectual superiority were suddenly shattered by the sheer incompetence of handling the initial phases of the two disasters and their subsequent fallouts.

COVID-19 seems to be first and foremost an act of random chance, just like the Chernobyl disaster, or like the Fukushima accident for that matter. But the mishandling of the initial moments of crisis and the consequent acts of incompetence are not. The Chinese model of authoritarian regime seems now clearly less well-equipped to handle the unintended consequences from such a disaster. Even more importantly, what the coronavirus revealed in the case of China is that Xi’s control of the state apparatus is much shakier than expected, something already suspected in light of his recent unprecedented consolidation of power.

There was clearly a “before and after” for the Soviet leadership in the aftermath of Chernobyl; there was “before and after” for the U.S. government following the terrorist attacks on 9/11; there was “before and after” for Japan from the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima accident. No doubt, there will be “before and after” for the Chinese government regarding COVID-19, too. The historic parallels are there, and so are the differences. Democracies seem to be better equipped to handle such disasters because the nature of the regime allows for and requires greater openness and transparency. As such, even if the government turns out not to be sufficiently honest with its citizens, the legitimacy of the regime itself remains unscratched. In authoritarian systems, on the other hand, at every step of the way in handling such a crisis, the very question of the legitimacy of the regime remains at stake. That is why authoritarian regimes’ first instinct is to lie and to hide in order to protect their survival before that of their citizens. This strategy, however, proved fatal for the Soviet model. We are yet to see what the consequences for the China model will be, but it may turn out that the COVID-19 debacle will indeed go down in history as “the Chernobyl moment” for Xi Jinping and his regime, too.

Liubomir K. Topaloff, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Political Science and Economics, Meiji University.