Already in the still-young coronavirus pandemic crisis, a narrative is beginning to emerge about virtuous and wanting styles of leadership among countries. In simple form, it goes like this: Authoritarian regimes are capable of enforcing draconian limitations on their populations, and by so doing have shown themselves able to deflect the infection curve downward, while democratic regimes have shown themselves either unwilling or unable to do the same. Conclusion: When it really counts, authoritarian government is superior to democratic government.
If this sounds a bit similar to the “Asian values” discussion of the early 1990s, when certain voices in neo-authoritarian, or paternalistic, regimes in Asia claimed that their way of doing things was generically superior for purposes of political stability and economic growth than Western ways, that’s because it is similar—at least in inspiration. And now as then, the argument is so highly oversimplified as to be essentially wrong.
This conclusion should be of much interest to Arabs, whose politics are generally roiled these days and could head in any number of directions. Arabs should not put stock in self-protective propaganda that turns them away from efforts to achieve those liberal-democratic reforms as may be possible.
What matters most in crises like the current one are three things: whether most people believe their government actually cares about them; whether people trust their governments to have been thoughtful, provident, and competent in preparation for public health emergencies; and whether the people themselves are united as a community, regardless of how they feel about current government leaders. Put a little differently, what matters are the quality of a society’s political compact, the sagacity and administrative competence of its political class over time, and the level of social trust within the society itself.
These three variables do not break down in any simple or predictable way along regime type designations. The intersection of political culture and current circumstances corresponds to no binary ideological categorization scheme. Authoritarian regimes and democratic regimes alike can score high or low on all three measures. Other factors having little or nothing to do with ideology and regime type matter a lot, for examples: the size of the polity, media culture, and the sheer personal quality of leadership itself.
Let’s look briefly at three countries to illustrate the interplay of the three ideological/regime type variables and the three circumstantial variables just noted: China, the United States, and Singapore.
Do most Chinese citizens think their government really cares about them? By and large, yes. The CCP’s 70-year record gives its current leadership the right to expect trust: on the things that have mattered most to most people, which for historio-cultural reasons does not rank individual political agency high on the priority list, the Party has delivered the goods: a positive bending arc of material prosperity; basic order and security; and restored national dignity.
Do most Chinese think the government has planned and resourced well for public health emergencies? Hard to say, but from the outside it looks like a good deal of effort has been devoted to the issue within the limits of China’s development stage.
Do Han people in China, at least, enjoy high levels of social trust? Yes, and that level of social trust, based on a very old-fashioned form of ethnic nationalism, forgives a lot of sins by way of petty corruption, high elite self-dealing, and the financial system’s inefficient allocation of capital.
Now the United States. Do most Americans think the Federal government cares about them at times like these? Not really. A thick blanket of cynicism pervades American society in recent decades. Typical Americans think the system is rigged, and Congress is held in very low esteem. Most people laugh when politicians claim that they put service to the public interest before their own. Oddly, most voters do tend to trust and like their own congressman even as they disparage nearly all others. Many are easily fooled, or deluded into denying buyer’s remorse. Nor are the relevant bureaucracies trusted. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) ranks fairly high, but not HHS (Health & Human Services), DHS (Department of Homeland Security), the FDA (Food & Drug Administration), or the VA (Veterans Administration), to say the least.
Do most Americans think the government has planned and resourced wisely? Many had assumed so, since relevant past performance was not so bad. But the current crisis has revealed the new truth for all to see: Neither the Federal government nor most state governments, nor relevant private sector companies either, has planned and resourced properly.
When Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifying before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 11, said that “it is a failing” of the system that not enough tests for COVID-19 exist he added that: “The system is not really geared to what we need right now—what you are asking for.” It should be, he said, but it isn’t. Alas, he did not say why it was not so geared, and no one asked him, for an obvious reason: Everyone knows that successive White Houses have not asked for and successive Congresses have not appropriated sufficient funds for proper preparations. Some politicians, notably Senator Susan Collins (R; Maine), have habitually stripped public health emergency preparation funds out of every budget that has come before them.
The Trump Administration has gone even further, “reorganizing” the National Security Council in such a way as to eliminate an infectious diseases cell that had been established during the Obama Administration. Alas, the list of proposals for beefed up medical preparedness offered over the years by experts and even a few former politicians, like Dr. Bill Frist, that never won significant support is long and depressing to read.
Social trust? No: American society, much more diverse than China’s to start with, has been hemorrhaging social trust for decades thanks to a host of reasons. There are important regional variations, however: Minnesotans, for example, will hang together to help one another in a blizzard in a way that folks in New Orleans will not even begin help each other in a hurricane. This goes back to deep cultural inheritances and immigration/migration patterns. But the society as a whole? Low social trust in recent decades, no doubt since exacerbated by the side-effects of intense political polarization, which makes most politicians look even worse than they already are to most sensible people.
Now Singapore. Do most Singaporeans believe their government cares about them. Yes, absolutely. Do they trust the technocracy to have planned and budgeted efficiently? Absolutely. And does the society enjoy deep levels of social trust? Tricky question; depends who you ask.
There are objective reasons for a lack of trust among the three main hearth communities, and try as the government may for more than fifty years, social harmony in Singapore is more of the live-and-let-live variety than of the one big happy kampong ideal. But it seems to be good enough for government work. People of all hearth cultures here do expect and they generally do get basic respect from others. There is a sense that a fundamental fairness is owed to all, as expressed in an extremely polite public etiquette. So many people may be faking it, but they’re faking it to make it, and most of them make it most of the time.
Now let’s look at the happenstantial variables, first the size of the polity. It’s as obvious now as it was to Montesquieu centuries ago that city-state scale conduces to efficiency in management and administration. The size of Singapore allows a level of planning, control, and information management that is simply impossible to achieve in huge sprawling places like China and the United States. More important, perhaps, there is a broad expectation that since everything is planned and managed in Singapore, and earned confidence that the government is pretty good at it on balance, public health execution in a crisis will be pretty good, too. The government is thus presumed innocent of major functional faults until proven otherwise. It starts with a buffer of positive presumption.
So far, the government here has not disappointed. Its tone has been perfect, and it hasn’t screwed up. Indeed, Singapore has got to be one of the safest places in the advanced world right now. As of this writing (March 20) there have been zero deaths from the coronavirus. Let me repeat that: zero. And so far the infection vector has been shoved down and has stayed depressed. There could be a future spike; indeed, a lot of people here expect one. But so far, so very good—and the scale of the place goes very far to explain the positive outcomes.
As to media culture, which is obviously less independent of ideology and regime type considerations than the other two happenstantial factors, China’s is highly regulated. People therefore have to depend on government media for basic information about public health crises. This constitutes a double-edged sword.
In a single-party Leninist (but no longer Marxist) state, government has a lot of trouble assembling, sharing, and telling itself the truth. It’s standard operating procedure to shoot the messenger bringing bad news, so messengers often don’t bring it. That ends up blinding senior leadership as to what is really going on most of the time.
This is basically why China got off to a very bad start in dealing with the virus outbreak. The authorities let it get out of the bag in Wuhan, and central leadership did not learn of the seriousness of the matter until late in the day. Local officials were flat out afraid to tell the folks in Beijing. Once told, the Party kept insisting that person-to-person contamination was not possible, until the insistence became completely untenable.
More specifically, the doctor who tried to warn the local Wuhan authorities, Li Wenliang, was muzzled, told to shut up, and in short order ended up dead from, supposedly, the disease. Allow me to express skepticism that the disease alone was responsible for this brave doctor’s death. Younger people surrounded by the best medical care in the country have not typically been dying of this virus. He knew who was responsible for the initial screw-ups, and that may have sealed his fate. A few other young medical professionals have died in the same place, supposedly from the disease. A prominent real estate tycoon and Party member who criticized Xi Jinping’s initial response has disappeared. We may never learn the whole truth about what has happened to these people.
On the other hand, as the world’s most ambitious surveillance state, information control is at least useful in squelching rumor, panic, and conspiracy theories. How will all this balance out? Is Chinese society now more trustful of its government, which has succeeded in flattening the infection curve, or less trustful because of the manifest fumbling in the early going—and because a hastily constructed hospital has ignominiously collapsed? Too soon to say.
American media culture is wide open, full of electronic sewage and other nonsense, and afflicted by a business model that in recent years rewards sensationalism and clickbait over facts and analysis. No sane adult in the United States these days trusts the electronic media to provide reliable and comprehensive news about anything. That sends many off into the self-referential wormholes of social media, which just makes the situation worse. And with attention spans shot to hell because of widespread neurophysiological addiction to screens, especially among younger cohorts, lucky recipients of rare actual news mostly lack the skills, background education, and especially the patience to understand it anyway.
It doesn’t help that we now have a President who assiduously uses new information technology to disintermediate the filters of professional journalism, and who has no qualms about inventing politically useful lies and spreading them near and far whenever he thinks it suits his purposes, which is daily. His mendacity has yet to encounter the slightest scintilla of shame. Anyone who is surprised that the President has tried to blame the pandemic in the United States on Hispanic immigrants, continental Europeans, and Chinese, as he did on the evening of March 12 in his Oval Office broadcast to the nation, just hasn’t been paying attention. And anyone who believes that this will not influence what many millions of less well-educated Americans think and do about the pandemic is bound to be disappointed. What will happen if it turns out that the President, and maybe the Vice-President too—and maybe Messrs. Biden and Sanders, as well—become infected with the coronavirus no one can say.
Singapore’s media culture is somewhere in between China’s and that of the United States. It is docile but not controlled, speckled with diverse opinion on some matters but no free-for-all of extremist no-holds-barred lunacy as in the United States. Mark Twain once said that, “The American people enjoy three great blessings: free speech, a free press, and the good sense not to use either.” The latter part of that statement, alas, is no longer the case.
In China, the lack of any independent media actually doubles back to undermine trust in official media, as well it should. In the United States, the media cacophony makes it hard for real and accurate expert information to overcome the very low signal-to-noise ratio produced by the current media environment. In Singapore, the media tend to amplify the government at times like these but without giving ministers a completely free pass. If and when officials screw up, the attentive public will know about it.
We have here, then, a classical Goldilocks situation. China’s media culture is too cold, America’s is too hot; but Singapore’s, at least in this particular situation, is just right.
Finally the personal quality of leadership. In a situation like the coronavirus pandemic, we need leaders who can communicate resolve, verve, and calm; who can show that the government is working in unison for the public good; and who evince a balance of hopefulness and humility. How have the three main leaders done so far?
Xi Jinping does convey resolve, and calm. But he lacks warmth. He is no Deng Xiaoping, for sure. Donald Trump is a nightmare at a time like this, even more than usual. He cannot keep the facts straight, even when reading a text. He contradicts his own experts in favor of hunches. He clearly is more interested in calming markets for his own political benefit than he is in calming the nation for its own sake, on behalf of which, were he sincere, some subtle retelling of truth could be countenanced. But since the nation’s sake isn’t his motive, his lies and misdirections are not sources of social calm but rather feed the suspicion harbored by most Americans that their government cannot do anything right these days. He’s no Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
And Singapore? Well, the National Development minister who has been put in charge of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis, 47-year old Lawrence Wong, has been flawless. He has taken the bulk of attention and questions so that the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has been able to stay mainly behind the curtain. That is where he should be. Leadership capital is so precious in a crisis like this that it should never be squandered from overuse. When the Prime Minister spoke to the nation, also on the evening of March 12, he was brief, direct, clear, calm, and reassuring. Perfect pitch.
Now, Prime Minister Lee has an advantage and a disadvantage in this, and it’s the same thing: He is the son of Lee Kuan Yew. So on the one hand people tend to assume, especially if they are Chinese, that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: If the father knew how to be a leader, so will the son. On the other hand, such is the outsized reputation of the father among most (not all) Singaporeans that not even the sudden appearance of Vishnu, Buddha, or Jesus could dethrone him.
That said, he came across flawlessly. As an American in Singapore, the comparison between the two presentations on the selfsame evening—Lee’s and Trump’s—left me with a feeling of cloying dismay. Alas, the feeling is not novel.
Autocratic governments can be effective and not, just as democratic governments can be effective and not. Political culture built up over time can incline particular countries toward path dependencies that define regime types. But the diversity of these political cultures within ideologically defined regime types is so great that we may doubt that any sort of causal straightjacket exists to account for variable performance in a public health crisis. Some societies are rule abiding by historical conditioning, and others are less so. This difference does not track with an authoritarian-democratic divide.
After all, the Soviet Union was authoritarian no less than China is today, but it handled Chernobyl very poorly indeed, not just initially but throughout the crisis. One has only to look at how the authoritarian government in Iran has handled the crisis to get the point. The United States was no less democratic two or three generations ago than it still is today, and it handled public health crises just fine in the past.
This has been no comprehensive social science analysis; if it was, you would still be reading this essay hours from now. But a prima facie case is strong for the argument that polity size, the vicissitudes of media culture shaped by a range of factors, and the power of personality account for more of reality than the ideological character of the state. Singapore’s success in dealing with the pandemic, so far at least, is not an argument for paternalistic government or Asian values or relentless technocratic management or any such thing. It’s just an argument for Singapore being Singapore, a feat no other country in the world can match.
 See my “Fighting Ebola,” The American Interest Online, September 8, 2014.
 See my “Pourquoi n’avons-nous pas confiance en grand-chose?” Commentaire, N° 164, Hiver 2018-19, a translation of “In Way Too Little We Trust,” TAI Online, December 13, 2018.