ang7_NOEL CELISAFP via Getty Images_xi jinping Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

The False Dichotomy of Autocracy and Democracy

Many portray today’s Sino-American rivalry as an epic battle between autocracy and democracy, and conclude that authoritarian rule is superior. But such a verdict is simplistic, and even dangerously misleading, for three reasons.

ANN ARBOR – Unlike the old superpower contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, the incipient cold war between China and the US does not reflect a fundamental conflict of unalterably opposed ideologies. Instead, today’s Sino-American rivalry is popularly portrayed as an epic battle between autocracy and democracy.

Moreover, the facts seem to suggest that autocracy has won while democracy has fallen flat on its face. Whereas the US under President Donald Trump has fumbled disastrously during the COVID-19 pandemic, China has brought the coronavirus under control. In the US, even wearing face masks has been politicized. But in Wuhan, China – the pandemic’s original epicenter – the authorities tested the city’s 11 million residents for the virus within ten days, in an astounding display of capacity and order. For many, the verdict seems clear: authoritarianism is superior to liberal democracy.

But such a conclusion is simplistic and even dangerously misleading, for three reasons. First, just as the US under Trump is not representative of all democracies, China under President Xi Jinping should not be held up as a paragon of autocracy. Other democratic societies, such as South Korea and New Zealand, have handled the pandemic ably, and political freedom did not hobble their governments’ ability to implement virus-containment measures.