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China’s Torment Is a Reminder of What We Have

As Americans grow envious of authoritarian government, Chinese yearn for democracy.
December 1, 2022
China’s Torment Is a Reminder of What We Have
Pro-democracy protesters march on a street as they take part in a demonstration on December 8, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Police and firefighters entered the university that has been occupied by pro-democracy protesters for the past 10 days, to remove hazardous items and restore safety. Demonstrations in Hong Kong stretched into its sixth month as pro-democracy groups won the recent District Council elections, continuing demands for an independent inquiry into police brutality, the retraction of the word "riot" to describe the rallies, and genuine universal suffrage. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

In 2022, the United States conducted its 117th consecutive peaceful election (though the aftermath of the 1860 election was not). The first midterm, in 1790, was held midway through George Washington’s first term. In a pattern that has dominated our history, the faction (there were no formal political parties then) that opposed Washington’s policies picked up a few seats.

The 2022 elections were blissfully uneventful, with almost no claims of fraud (Kari Lake excepted), no stories of poll workers threatened, no mobs threatening to “stop the steal,” and losers conceding gracefully. It was even possible to interpret the defeat of election deniers as a rebuke to democracy foes, the American versions of the antidemocratic forces that have been flexing their muscles around the globe for the past decade. And the results were an obvious thumbs down to our own aspiring strongman, the Mar-a-Lago Nazi entertainer.

To call that a relief is a tremendous understatement, but this is no time to drop our guard. Trust in democracy itself remains weaker than it has traditionally been. A World Values survey, for example, found that fewer than 30 percent of millennials rate living in a democracy as “essential,” compared with 70 percent of their grandparents. When people lose faith in the democratic process, they are capable of electing (once) radicals who threaten this most precious inheritance. Growing numbers are also open to military rule.

Prominent conservatives like Tucker Carlson openly lionize Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and hard-core rightists admire Vladimir Putin. Trump’s fawning over dictators is well known, and his subversion of faith in elections continues to destabilize our society. A few of his election-denying candidates won, and others lost only by small margins. Even mainstream publications can seem to lose sight of what authoritarian rule really means. The New York Times, for example, published a comparison of economic opportunity in China versus the United States under the headline “The American Dream is Alive. In China.”

People in democratic countries often fantasize about “being China for a day” in order to achieve their policy goals. And, if not quite endorsing authoritarianism, they imagine that it is effective. In 2020, for example, a survey of 120,000 people from 53 countries found that 60 percent thought China had handled COVID-19 well, while only about a third thought the same about the United States.

So, at this moment, when thousands of Chinese are protesting throughout the nation, we need to remind ourselves of just how terrible unfreedom is. Did we make mistakes in the way we handled a once-in-a-century pandemic? Of course we did. But we have a free press and disbursed, decentralized power through our federal system and independent courts. Accountability, while imperfect, is built into the system.

In China, by contrast, the ukase is issued by the ruler. Even if he is wise and benevolent (and the kind of people who climb that greasy pole never are), he can make mistakes. We have mechanisms for self-correction. The Chinese system does not. It criminalizes dissent and crushes independent voices. One party. One ruler.

The overflow of frustration and rage we are seeing today throughout China regarding Xi Jinping’s “zero COVID” policy started with an apartment fire in the city of Urumqi. Ten people died and others were injured. Fires happen everywhere of course, but what particularly ignited outrage were the cell phone videos showing fire trucks parked several blocks from the building impotently spraying water that fell short of the target. Why couldn’t the firefighters reach the apartments? Some cite the pandemic barriers in the streets making approach impossible. Others note the cars abandoned by residents who’ve been forbidden to leave their apartments for the past three months. Worst of all, the fire escapes were locked.

People in Europe and North America protested when their local governments required masks or testing or closed schools and businesses for a time, but China’s COVID lockdowns are different in kind, not in degree, and the people’s suffering serves as a reminder of why representative government, free institutions, and accountability are not just bromides, but matters of life and death.

Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the part of China known as an “open-air prison” for Muslims (and also the site of the concentration camps that Trump praised for Xi for erecting), but the lockdowns are happening throughout the country on a rolling basis. Our use of the term “lockdown” was always exaggerated. In China, they literally locked the doors of apartment buildings. Videos from the spring and summer showed people screaming from their apartments in Shanghai. Some cried “We’re starving.” In other cities, people imprisoned in their apartments (some not even permitted to crack a window) have posted heart-breaking videos. A distraught father said his children had not eaten in three days. In Xi’an, a heavily pregnant woman was denied entry to a hospital because she hadn’t been tested recently enough. She went into labor on the street. Her 8-month-old fetus was stillborn. Children, including babies, who test positive can be removed from their parents’ care and confined to quarantine centers. In China, if you are even in the same apartment complex as someone who tests positive, you can be forcibly quarantined.

Don’t complain. Not in China. It’s unpatriotic to question the wisdom of the party. A 24-year-old woman who posted something about the Urumqi fire online was arrested and charged with “spreading untrue information.” That’s SOP in China. Ask the residents of formerly-free Hong Kong what happens to those who speak up. Nor is the regime embarrassed by its repression. As the residents of Shanghai cried out in anguish from their apartment prisons, they were greeted by drones broadcasting a message: “Please comply with COVID restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing.” You will learn to love Big Brother.

When critics would tally the human rights abuses, lies, tortures, and deaths at the hands of the Soviet communists, the regime would reply that “In order to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.” But then, as now, people ask: Where’s the omelet?

In the first year, it seemed that China’s harsh lockdowns along with testing and tracing kept the total number of COVID deaths down. But China went all in on “zero COVID.” While most nations waited impatiently for vaccines to be available and then vaccinated as rapidly as they could manage, China declined to purchase the U.S./German mRNA shots. They insisted on using a domestically-produced Sinovac vaccine, which is significantly less effective. Large numbers of China’s elderly population (numbers are hard to come by) are unvaccinated, which leaves them vulnerable as new, more contagious variants of COVID are spreading.

Whereas most of the world is emerging from the COVID pandemic, China’s bad decisions have left it still in the throes. Infection rates are climbing, the economy is slowing, and after three years of cruel measures, the people are fed up.

Xi is in a bind now. If he relaxes the harsh lockdown measures, many Chinese, lacking either natural immunity or vaccination, will die. If he imports the mRNA shots, he will be admitting that reliance on Sinovac was a failure. If he relents in the face of widespread protests, he will empower the protesters. If he doesn’t bend, the frustration and anger will only grow.

The protests have become about more than COVID restrictions. People are chanting, “We want freedom!” in cities throughout the country. Online forums are hailing what they hope will be China’s version of a “color revolution” such as those in the former Soviet states. They hold aloft white sheets of paper to symbolize the regime’s scrubbing of truth. They chant, “Step down Xi Jinping. Step down Communist Party.” At universities, students speak hopefully of “freedom of expression, democracy, and the rule of law.” They even echo a declaration from America’s revolution: “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

The future is veiled in shadow. We remember the glorious demonstrations of 1989, the similar slogans, and the inspiring hope for democratic reform. And we remember well the vicious massacre that followed. We can’t know how this latest eruption of protest will end. But we can remind ourselves that China, and authoritarianism more broadly, is not the answer to anything.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].