Decision 2020 Report: COVID-19 And The Battle Between Free Societies And Authoritarianism

Thursday, April 23, 2020
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

The twelfth edition of the Decision 2020 Report explores how the COVID-19 outbreak has brought to the surface old frictions and stark differences in the behaviors of free societies and authoritarian governments.

Hoover fellows also discuss the actions of the People’s Republic of China to contain the outbreak, its efforts to deflect global criticism following a nationwide coverup, and attempts to reshape the international system in its image through influence operations.

Preserving Democracy during COVID-19

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In an article for the American Interest, Senior Fellow Larry Diamond outlined a strategy to reinforce the efficacy of America’s institutions and mitigate the strains social distancing guidelines are putting on a democracy’s traditional foundations of assembly, debate, and elections.

He called on both the Republican and Democratic parties to adopt new communications technologies to help facilitate the work of their respective organizations and the US Congress. These measures include holding virtual party conventions, changing House and Senate rules so members can deliberate and cast votes remotely, and planning for the November election to be held as scheduled, supported by secure systems that allow voters nationwide to cast ballots.

Promoting Liberty and Free Societies

Diamond was featured in a Policy Briefs episode for Hoover’s PolicyEd, in which he argued that ideas originating in free societies have an intrinsic advantage against those held by authoritarian regimes, as the former are grounded in seeking the truth whereas the latter are based upon preserving power by any means necessary.

Resisting the Authoritarian Temptation

Also in the American Interest, Visiting Fellow Josef Joffe warned readers against the impulse to trade their freedoms for police-state security amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

He said that the free world need not replicate the authoritarian measures at prevention and containment taken by the Chinese Communist Party, which closely monitors its people via high-tech surveillance and government agents.

“It could happen here, too—which is all the more reason to resist the authoritarian temptation,” Joffe said. “The logic is all too familiar. Posit a supreme evil, and all other values must be betrayed: freedom of expression and movement, property rights, judicial review, individual autonomy, political competition, due process. Rule of Law? Not when the enemy is at the gate, and certainly not when he is already roaming the land.”

Coronavirus Will Not Lead to Freedom and Transparency in China

In a recent episode of Uncommon Knowledge, Senior Fellow Stephen Kotkin told host Peter Robinson that China’s experience with the coronavirus and its subsequent political crisis will not lead to transparency, nor will it reduce the heavy-handedness of its Communist Party system.

Kotkin said that Communism is “an all or nothing proposition”—its very existence depends on monopolizing every facet of its society. He explained that China’s adoption of market-based policies should only be seen as a means to attain economic growth and not as an embrace of limited government.

“The party indulges, it allows markets to expand and then it clamps down on the market,” Kotkin said. “When the market grows, it becomes a threat to the Chinese Communist Party. Because people have their own wealth, their own sources of power, their own sense of independence, and they begin to talk about politics as if they have the right to do so.”

China Undermining Taiwan as Model of Transparency

In a webinar produced by the Hoover Institution’s Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific project on Thursday, April 9, Taipei-based policy analyst J. Michael Cole argued that China is making an all-out influence effort to minimize the attention Taiwan has received for effectively and transparently containing the COVID-19 outbreak.

He explained that China has touted its own authoritarian governance as the model for the world to follow and has delegated the communication of this propaganda to leading officials at international bodies such as the World Health Organization.

Cole said that China has also used its resources and influence to exclude Taiwan from important forums where their voice would be crucial in dealing with this global public health issue.

China Must Be Held Accountable

Payson J. Treat Research Fellow Michael Auslin argued in the National Review that China has greatly undermined the international political system through its communication of misleading information about the origins, spread, and their containment efforts of COVID-19.

In addition, Auslin said, China, while claiming to be an altruistic provider of medicine and equipment around the world, has reaped profits from its largesse and will likely require the affected countries to reciprocate with favors that politically benefit the Xi government.

He maintained that China needs to be held accountable for these corrupt actions to encourage greater transparency should the world have to manage a future pandemic.

“If Beijing escapes blame for its failure to curb the coronavirus pandemic, its lies, and its attempts to cover up the pathogen’s seriousness—or, worse yet, if it actually earns global plaudits for its actions—then no country will feel the need to be honest with the world when another epidemic breaks out, and the same deadly fiasco will repeat itself,” Auslin concluded.

Defending Freedom by Exercising Power through the State

In American Greatness, Senior Fellow Russell Berman wrote that the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis quashes fantasies about the erasure of national borders and pre-eminence of a global political and economic order.

He maintained that states are the only political entities that can effectively defend and be compelled by its citizens to protect against external threats and provide public safety.

“We defend our freedom by exercising power through the state, not through global illusions or cozy provincialism,” Berman said. “One prominent feature of the response to the pandemic is the recognition that sooner or, sometimes tragically later, the state must respond to enemies.”