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China’s leaders are acting rather pleased with themselves these days. A year ago, they were under fire for unleashing a deadly virus on the world. Their response to the coronavirus looked panicky and ham-handed. After overlooking the early signs of an outbreak and clamping down on those who warned the disease was getting out of control, they were forced to seal off a whole city, Wuhan, and build instant hospitals to handle a wave of sick people that was overwhelming the health system.

There were signs that the crisis might even shake the foundations of Communist Party rule. Online forums hummed with frustration and anger. Journalists wrote about the government’s blunders. A doctor who sounded the alarm about the mysterious new illness, only to be summoned by police for “illegal behaviour,” became a national hero after he died of COVID-19. Voices in the international media were calling it the most serious challenge yet to the rule of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

Things look very different now. Beijing cracked down hard on the virus after the initial outbreak. While COVID-19 spread around the world, leaping from country to country, the number of cases in China began to fall. By summer, things were so much better that thousands of people packed side by side into a Wuhan water park.

Today, life has returned to something close to normal in most of the country. Shops are open for business, industry churning out goods. China has suffered just 4,600 deaths from the virus, less than a quarter of Canada’s total.

Beijing is exploiting this good news to the hilt.

When the virus began to spread in China, writes The Globe and Mail’s Asia correspondent, Nathan VanderKlippe, “the machinery of the state silenced doctors, arrested journalists for reporting unsanctioned news and scrubbed from the Internet criticism of a government whose delayed response exposed social fissures and threatened the public’s willingness to continue accepting the Party’s authoritarian rule. But in less than a year, the country’s leadership and propagandists have transformed a health crisis to their advantage, making the case that victory over the pandemic illustrates the strengths of the Chinese system.”

But does it? Let’s not forget that it was China’s initial cover-up that helped the virus escape Chinese borders. Now 2.3 million people are dead. If Beijing had alerted the rest of the world earlier rather than try to punish whistle-blowers, other countries could have put in border controls and other measures to limit its spread.

Let’s also remember that China is not the only country to succeed at combatting COVID-19. Robust democracies such as South Korea and New Zealand have fared well, too. Australia has enforced some of the toughest lockdowns in the world. Israel is vaccinating its population at high speed.

A recent study by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, found that “on average, countries with authoritarian models had no prolonged advantage in suppressing the virus. Indeed, despite a difficult start and some notable exceptions, including the United States and the United Kingdom, democracies found marginally more success than other forms of government in their handling of the pandemic over the examined period.”

That might seem counterintuitive. We tend to think of authoritarian regimes as nasty but capable. Without the bother of freely elected legislatures or a free press, they can get things done while democracies only dither.

In fact, many are both nasty and incompetent. Look at the shambles of Cuba, Myanmar or North Korea. Democracies, on other hand, can rouse themselves to high efficiency in a crisis. The United States produced 300,000 warplanes between 1940 and 1945 to help win the Second World War. Nazi Germany, where decisions hung on the whims of one man, fell behind in the race to make bombs and bullets.

By blocking the free flow of information and suppressing dissent, top-down systems like China’s not only abridge the rights of individuals, they block the process of open exchange and debate that lead to sound policy. Without the checks that come from a democratic opposition and independent courts, corruption flourishes and institutions stagnate. In the absence of any transparent system for transferring power from one generation to the next, the whole system is brittle and prone to the sudden, disastrous collapse that has been the fate of so many such regimes.

That China managed to get the virus under control at home is an unquestionable success for the country and a great relief for its people, but hardly a vindication of its system of government.

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