The world has been living (and dying) with COVID-19 for the past two years, but it feels like an eternity. Yet despite the uncertainties ahead, the contrasting ways China and the United States have handled their respective challenges are a tale of two governing systems－one successful and the other struggling.
Their differences notwithstanding, it’s now critical that the two countries work together where their respective national interests overlap bilaterally and through the rules-based international order. Our lives and our very existence depend upon it.
When I think about this tale of two systems, I am drawn to the memorable opening of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” Which perfectly encapsulates the contrasting models.
Of course, there have been missteps on both sides as is inevitable in a mega-pandemic situation. However, one side quickly activated its whole of government approach to address and contain the crisis . The other side, with then US president Donald Trump in command, went in a totally different direction: denial and obfuscation. One leader put his people first, the other put himself first.
Trump’s mantra was and remains “America first”. Thanks to him, when it comes to COVID-19, the US was, and is, first in the number of infections and deaths.
According to worldometers.info, the US has recorded more than 65 million cases and nearly 900,000 deaths, while China, with four times the population of the US, has an accumulated 135,000 cases and about 5,700 deaths.
Notably, the next country in number of cases to the US is China’s neighbor, India, with its population similar to China’s but with 270 times the number of cases and 85 times the number of deaths. India, like the US, seems to value politics over human lives.
Why such a disparity? The night and day difference arises from divergent governance models. Those who have no experience of China may be skeptical of China’s whole-process democracy but my observation－as one living in China－is that the statistics speak for themselves.
The results are not accidental. In China, leaders are carefully promoted, according to their performance and achievements, to increasing levels of responsibility. Starting from the smallest village, cadres who cannot cut it, don’t advance. The Peter principle of being promoted beyond competence doesn’t exist in the Communist Party of China’s model. Instead, at every stage, advancement is based on results.
By contrast, the US political system is broken. Trump may have been the last straw that broke the camel’s back but the system has long been flawed. When I was in government more than four decades ago, the divisions were there and growing, but leaders from both parties worked together for the good of the country. Now, this rarely happens.
The United States today is split right down the middle and most of the two parties’ energy is wasted on neutralizing the other side. Trump supporters storming the Capitol was the inevitable result.
With this legacy, an effective COVID-19 response still eludes the US despite President Joe Biden’s best efforts. He faces continued opposition to mandates and scientifically-dictated measures such as requiring vaccinations or workplace testing.
It appears from the oral arguments before the US Supreme Court on Jan 7 that Biden’s initiatives will be thwarted－and COVID-19 fatalities, many preventable, could cross 1 million.
Science in US has been politicized
Science in the US has become politicized and weaponized. The mantra “follow the science” has been replaced by “follow the money”. More and more, the American model serves the top 1 percent, which is the polar opposite of China’s development philosophy of “common prosperity”.
Many see China’s zero-tolerance infection policy as draconian, but the results speak for themselves. In public policy, there are rarely right answers, only least bad ones. Most countries faced with killing their economies or killing their people opted for the former at the expense of the latter. China was the exception.
But China found the elusive sweet spot with a small number of deaths but an annual real GDP growth of 2.3 percent in 2020, compared with the US which saw many more deaths and registered a yearly growth of-3.5 percent.
As such, there is no need for China to quickly change its policy, First, had China relaxed its measures and the infections reached the global average level, the country would have more than 47 million people infected and 950,000 dead, according to China’s top epidemiologist Wu Zunyou.
Second, China is on track to develop new vaccines, which can better protect against the novel coronavirus and new variants.
Third, pathogens do not observe national borders and until most of the people in the world are vaccinated, mutant strains, some even more lethal, will keep emerging and infecting more and more people.
In fact, some scientists say the novel coronavirus is mild compared with what could come next. For example, the Nipah virus that recently broke out in India, although not nearly as transmissible, has a 50-75 percent mortality rate and no cure. There is a need therefore to look beyond COVID-19 and national borders to prevent future pandemics.
The World Health Organization is the global coordinator for public health but it is vastly underfunded.
There is a hope-raising precedent for cooperation, though. Smallpox, which killed more than 300 million people in the 20th century alone, was eradicated at the height of the Cold War because of US-Soviet Union cooperation.
I can’t for the life of me figure out why the US and China don’t do the same to contain COVID-19, especially because they are capable of providing the leadership to pull this off, saving lives, rescuing economies and building mutual confidence again.
Recent developments have made me pessimistic, but I am optimistic that such necessary cooperation would be possible if only one side shows the courage to take the first step.