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Opinions of Thursday, 21 May 2020

Columnist: Terkpertey Andrews Terku

Chinese illiberalism, Coronavirus and the dangers of looking away

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With countries shut down, global development halted, economies crippling and the precious lives that the world exists to protect biting the dust in thousands as the days go by, the world is now broken at its core and weakened at its strongest joints.

The strongest countries have had to rely on federal reserves, and governments of the world's poor have had to depend on soft loans from international bodies. The world is in a messy struggle, gasping for breath, and only just hanging on by the skin of its teeth.

Amidst all these struggles, a few questions keep resounding with strong echoes that strike the walls and the very foundation upon which the world has been built. Subsequently, we will be interrogating the voices that are calling out the moral fabric upon which the world exists today and find out whether we are prepared to continue down that path.

The biggest bodies that check the global order and determine what is globally accepted as moral or not, like the UN, have for some time now embraced western liberal ideals as the socio-political gospel. But even though they desire that all countries are democratic and practice Western liberal ideals, they have come to terms with the fact that some countries will not be democratic and out of their respect for sovereignty, accommodate the governmental models of such states so far as they do not flagrantly abuse the rights of their citizens.

It goes without saying, that governments that do not embrace democracy are authoritarian, like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, and China. These are governments that in order to maintain their hegemony over their people dictate how their people think, act, and react to issues under various circumstances.

This is done not just by giving orders or by law but by controlling what information is made available to the people, at what time, and under what circumstances. This is the way by which they control the populace, maintain order, and prevent chaos because without access to relevant information people are literally powerless.

Unlike democracies where access to information is a right, where the press has the freedom to dig up the truth, where controversies can be created to spark discussions and where the legitimacy of governments is based on their ability to make known to the people what they deserve to know, autocratic governments peddle misinformation, withhold information and discredit the truth in order to maintain power, preserve a good public image and entrench their public support and buy-in.

Despite the fact that the world's biggest moral arbiters have gradually come to terms with the existence of such authoritarian governments so far as they do not actively abuse human rights, to what extent is the global community willing to accommodate the actions these governments deem legitimate and the ways by which they rule their countries?

This question has become one of great relevance after the world experienced the unprecedented spread of the coronavirus which originated from Wuhan, a province in China.

The global community has for some time now been outraged about the fact that the government of China suppressed information and misled the world during the early stages of the viral outbreak and kept the rest of the world in the dark. Which in effect is one of the major reasons for which the virus spread so fast that the world was only alerted after some countries had already been hit.

Notwithstanding the world's outrage about the conduct of the Chinese government in suppressing information and misinforming the public, that is exactly the foundation upon which the Chinese government is built. It is used to the act of determining what information to let out at what given time and under what circumstances.

Because that is one of the fundamental units upon which it's authoritarian regime is built. Amidst the public outrage against the Chinese government, the question remains whether or not the global community is going to hold China accountable for their actions? But then again on what grounds? Would it be on grounds of the same suppression of information and misinformation that even though the world is angry about now, allowed to exist and recognised governments that actively used them as tools to maintain their hegemony as legitimate governments?

The obvious answer is yes, but that undoubtedly indicates that the global community is complicit in the sustenance of such governmental structures and practices that have existed till now. So no matter how the global community is suffering due to the actions and inactions of the Chinese government, the world cannot just turn around within a split-second and pretend to be totally condemning something we have recognised and legitimized for years. Because within the eyes of the Chinese government, they did what they always do (which is to suppress information and misinform the public) and what has always been accepted by the world as their way of governance.

Until the global community and the global moral arbiters take a fixed stance on the existence and legitimacy of authoritarian regimes like China, we cannot choose when to consider vital tools used to sustain their governments legitimate or not. It’s either an outright dismissal of the legitimacy of such governments or a complete and holistic embracement of their actions, practices and the excesses that come with these practices, like the possibility of them suppressing very vital information, like they did with the viral outbreak. Just like we embrace the possibility of citizens making very terrible choices in a democracy.

My focus in this article is not to condemn nor support authoritarianism, but rather to draw our attention to the fact that we cannot take a middle stance on the practices of authoritarian governments and decide to swing to the left or right when it suits us. It is either we accept or reject it completely. And so I think it’s time for the world to re-evaluate its stance on authoritarianism as a legitimate form of governance and consider whether or not we are ready to condone it.

Because until the world takes a fixed stance that completely negates the acceptability and legitimacy of authoritarian governments, which is highly unlikely to happen due to the deep influence of authoritarian states like Russia and China in the UN which is the highest moral arbiter in the world, the global community can do nothing but wish that China was democratic as at the time the virus was discovered because only under those imaginary circumstances will the world have had a chance of escaping this disastrous nightmare. Because the global displeasure, if considered legitimate, is not just against the actions of China but rather a bigger fight against the existence of authoritarian governments and their way of governance.

In my next article, I’ll be doing a comparative analysis to explain what stance will be best for the global community by looking at historical contexts and what the future is likely to look like based on the stance we take.