Democracy, Autocracy, And Emergency Threats: Lessons For .

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Downloaded from IP address:, on 05 Jun 2021 at 14:20:52, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, available at rg/10.1017/S0020818320000338Democracy, Autocracy, and EmergencyThreats: Lessons for COVID-19 Fromthe Last Thousand YearsDavid StasavageAbstractOur experience with COVID-19 has yet to show that either democraciesor autocracies are unambiguously better at dealing with this threat. What the pandemichas instead demonstrated is that these two forms of government each have specificstrengths and weaknesses when it comes to dealing with external emergencies. In autocracies centralization of power allows for decisive action, but their ability to maintainsecrecy means that they can also suppress information and ignore a problem. In a democracy greater transparency makes it hard to cover up a threat, but the decentralizationof power that is inherent to a democracy can lead to a slow and potentially ineffectiveresponse. Using both current and historical comparisons between China and westerncountries, I show that these different patterns have deep roots, dating back a thousandyears or more. I then consider three alternative proposals for democracies to be ableto act more decisively: allowing for rule by decree, devolving responsibility to localities,and investing in preventative state capacity. History shows that the latter of these three isthe safest and most effective strategy, but for it to work voters must reward politiciansfor investing in prevention. Unfortunately, this reward cannot be assumed.The COVID-19 pandemic may seem like an unprecedented challenge to both democracies and autocracies. It’s actually an old problem in a new guise. Throughouthistory societies have faced the question of how to respond to emergency threatsfrom abroad. These threats have come in the three categories of war, famine, andpestilence—sometimes known as the last three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.1 As societies encountered these threats, they also faced crucial questionsabout the relative benefits of autocracy versus democracy in dealing with emergencies. In what follows I draw on several of the lessons from my recent book toshow what history has to say about this issue.2Editor’s note: This article is part of an online supplemental issue on COVID-19 and international relations. The authors were invited by IO’s editorial team and guest editor Michael C. Horowitz. The manuscript was reviewed based on written non-anonymous reviewer comments and during an onlineworkshop. The revised manuscript was evaluated by the IO editorial team. We appreciate the support ofPerry World House at the University of Pennsylvania for making this possible.1. This is the interpretation given by the Encyclopedia Britannica based on Revelation 6:1–8, thoughthere are also other interpretations.2. Stasavage 2020. While my investigation here will be an empirical one, I should note that there is alsoan extensive and important literature in political theory that considers the question of how democraciesInternational Organization 74 Supplement, December 2020, pp. E1–E17 The IO Foundation, 2020doi:10.1017/S0020818320000338

Downloaded from IP address:, on 05 Jun 2021 at 14:20:52, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, available at rg/10.1017/S0020818320000338E2International Organization Online SupplementI propose first that we can learn a great deal about the politics of emergency by comparing China and the West, then and now. The comparison will therefore be betweenwestern countries and the prime example of an autocratic regime with high state capacity. Over the last few months many have contrasted the effectiveness of China’sCOVID-19 mitigation efforts with the way that the federal government in theUnited States failed to take decisive action. This makes it feel like a point scoredfor the authoritarians. But there are other ways in which the Chinese CommunistParty’s response to the crisis was clearly ineffective. Suppression of informationallowed the Wuhan outbreak to occur in the first place. In the United States, thoughthe Trump administration chose to ignore the pandemic for a long time, informationabout it circulated widely and freely. This would seem like a strength of democracy.I argue that the differences in COVID-19 responses that we are seeing today are notnew, nor are they attributable to the particular personalities of Donald Trump and XiJinping. They are in fact very deeply rooted in history going back a thousand years ormore. We can see this by looking not only at epidemics but also at historical evidenceon famines—an emergency associated with another of the four horsemen. A thousandyears ago the Chinese state had the ability to respond to famines, but it could alsoignore them. States in medieval Europe, where decision making was collectivewith rulers and representative assemblies, could not suppress information about afamine, but nor could they do much to deal with the problem.The conclusion I draw is that rather than asking whether it is the democracies or theautocracies that do better in handling threats—and there is an abundant internationalrelations literature on this subject—we ought to instead be considering the specificstrengths and weaknesses of each of these two forms of government.3 Autocracieswith high state capacity are capable of swift action, but they can also suppress information about an emergency or resist popular demands for a response. Democraciesare the flipside of this. It is harder for them to suppress information or to ignorepopular demands to do something, but the inherent decentralization of power in ademocracy can lead to a slow response.I next consider how democracies can best take decisive action in response to anemergency. Here history suggests that there are three options. The first is for a democracy to temporarily grant someone emergency powers, and the most famous historical example of this is the practice of dictatorship under the Roman Republic. The riskof doing this is that emergency powers could be abused and made permanent. Thesecond option—and this is the safest one for democracy—is to leave it to statesand localities to deal with emergencies, but as we are seeing with COVID-19,cope with emergencies. See in particular Lazar 2009 and 2006; Honig 2009; and Manin 2008. The earlyfoundational (and controversial) work on emergency powers under democracy was done by Schmitt 1921.3. For a recent contribution on democracies, autocracies, and war with reference to the COVID-19 pandemic see Reiter and Stam 2020. They argue that evidence from a century or more shows that democraciesare more likely to win wars when engaged against autocracies, and the same may hold true in the fightagainst disease. See Bosancianu et al. 2020 as well as Cheibub, Hong, and Przeworski 2020 for recentempirical evidence on state characteristics and COVID-19.

Downloaded from IP address:, on 05 Jun 2021 at 14:20:52, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, available at rg/10.1017/S0020818320000338Democracy, Autocracy, and Emergency ThreatsE3local action on its own may not suffice. We will also see one historical example wherea republic failed because it left too much to the localities. The third option is to investin state capacity that can be used for prevention while strictly limiting emergencypowers. The question then becomes whether the electoral process will give politiciansan incentive to make these investments. Unfortunately, existing empirical evidencesuggests that when it comes to elected officials—and the voters who choosewhether to retain them—we may need to stand Benjamin Franklin’s maxim on itshead: an ounce of cure is worth a pound of prevention.How Different Types of Governments Are Dealing with theCOVID-19 PandemicMany recent observers have asked whether a comparison of Chinese and westernresponses to the COVID-19 pandemic provides broader lessons about the ability ofdemocracies—as opposed to authoritarian states—to respond to emergencies. Toconsider this we need to take each group separately before then asking where thesedifferences come from.Autocracies in the Current EmergencyThe initial news about COVID-19 seemed to cast the Chinese system of governmentin a bad light. Early news about the new virus in Wuhan and the surrounding provinceof Hubei was suppressed, and no efforts at containment were made, policies thatallowed the virus to infect many more people than would have otherwise been thecase. Some American observers called this the greatest challenge that the ChineseCommunist Party (CCP) had faced in decades.4 For believers in democracy itseemed to point to the inevitable superiority of their system of government.5 It ishard to deny that if what happened in Wuhan had instead happened first in a largeAmerican city, the news could not have been suppressed. Democracies like the USare very porous.What happened next in China seemed to turn the tables on the idea that a democracy could handle a pandemic better, though some did not initially realize that thiswould be the case. As early as 7 January, the Standing Committee of the Politburoof the CCP adopted the principle of fangkong, or “prevention and control” to dealwith the COVID-19 crisis, and this principle was subsequently made public. AsSheena Chestnut Greitens has recently shown, though the CCP is now using fangkong as a public health term, it has a deeper history of use in reference to securityproblems within an authoritarian state.64. Smith 2020.5. Nelson 2020.6. See Greitens 2020.

Downloaded from IP address:, on 05 Jun 2021 at 14:20:52, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, available at rg/10.1017/S0020818320000338E4International Organization Online SupplementThe principle of fangkong was soon put firmly to work: on 23 January 2020 theChinese government imposed a lockdown on Wuhan and all large cities in Hubeiprovince. It was what one American medical historian called “the mother of all quarantines.” The day after the quarantine was announced some Western observers werecritical, suggesting that it would create distrust among the affected population andthat it would be “likely to drive the pandemic underground.”7 In addition to imposingthe strict quarantine, the Chinese government adopted a policy of extensive testing,isolation of those with the disease, and a strict nationwide policy of social distancing.A World Health Organization (WHO) report released on 28 February lauded theChinese response in limiting the spread of the disease.8 Since that point theCOVID-19 death toll in many Western countries has been larger by an order of magnitude or more when compared to China.The Chinese Communist Party’s response to COVID-19 differed dramaticallyfrom what it did during another emergency some sixty years ago. In 1958 the CCPlaunched the Great Leap Forward, the core of which was a total collectivization ofagricultural production. This turned out to be a failure that resulted in massive shortfalls in agricultural production and a famine in which millions died. In this case theCCP chose to suppress not only the early signals of famine but also all subsequentones, even though they were hotly debated within senior party ranks.9 It is possiblethat sixty years ago it was easier to suppress information in a country where theimmense majority of the population lived in villages with little outside contact.10If the eventual Chinese response to COVID-19 clearly proved effective, the nextquestion is whether this is explained by the fact that China is an autocracy, orwhether it instead derives from some other attribute of Chinese society. Onereason to think that autocracy made the difference is that a very strict quarantinecould be imposed without consideration for potential human rights concerns orcivil liberties. There was no need for the CCP to prove that what it was doing waslegal or that it adhered to some fundamental constitutional precept. There was norisk of a court challenge or of protestors demonstrating against it. Implicit in allthis was the fact that China had the state capacity to implement this response.Evidence from other authoritarian regimes suggests similar conclusions to the onesI have just drawn for China. Authoritarian regimes can be remarkably swift in controlling the spread of the virus, but they can also be very effective in suppressinginformation about it. In cases like Vietnam and Singapore, governments respondedquickly to the COVID-19 threat. In Vietnam’s case this was done through a very7. This view was provided by Lawrence O. Gostin, a university professor of law at Georgetown. Thequote on the “mother of all quarantines” is from a medical historian named Howard Markel; see Bernsteinand Craig 2020.8. Kupferschmidt and Cohen 2020.9. This occurred most notably at a conference held at Lushan in the Summer of 1959. Mao Zedong’sprincipal critic at this conference, Peng Dehuai, was subsequently purged from all positions within theparty; see Jisheng 2012, 355–369.10. See Jisheng 2012, 8.

Downloaded from IP address:, on 05 Jun 2021 at 14:20:52, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, available at rg/10.1017/S0020818320000338Democracy, Autocracy, and Emergency ThreatsE5early effort to close all border links with China, through closure of schools, and byreferring to the fight against the virus in terms of the Spring offensive of 1975against South Vietnam. In the case of Singapore, the virus was controlled throughvery extensive monitoring and contact tracing. But in other