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Many think coronavirus is China's 'Chernobyl moment', but the authoritarian regime could prove them wrong


Here's a dangerous idea: what if it turns out that an authoritarian regime is better-equipped to handle the coronavirus emergency than liberal democracies?

What if the Chinese Communist Party teaches us all a lesson?

It isn't supposed to be that way. Labelled secretive and paranoid by the West, China is meant to be panic-stricken about the mystery killer virus spiralling out of control and turning into an existential crisis.

It should be China's Chernobyl moment: harkening back to the nuclear disaster in 1986, that is now widely accepted as the tipping point that helped usher in the end to the Soviet Union.

Is this the crisis that breaks Beijing's back?

Back then, the Kremlin strongmen could not control events; their lies were exposed by something out of their control.

China, too, hides the truth from its people, outlaws free media and locks up dissidents.

Surely, a regime like that, no matter how powerful, cannot endure?

Many would think so.

China-watchers like American political scientist Gordon Chang have been predicting the collapse of China for decades.

Their economy is rigged, they say. Their banks are insolvent. The environment is unliveable. The people will surely rise up.

Chang's book?The Coming Collapse of China?was first published in 2001. It is still in print, and a prediction still unrealised.

Chang has been back in the media in recent weeks, saying the party has lost control and there has been "a breakdown in government".

China has consistently proved the naysayers wrong. But is this the crisis that breaks Beijing's back? Could Gordon Chang finally be proved right?

Imagine us trying to even lock down a suburb

In some ways, it is a perfect storm — the coronavirus has added to China's 2019 annus horribilis.

Think of the past year: months of unrelenting unrest in Hong Kong; Taiwan re-electing a pro-independence government that rejects mainland China's control; the worst economic growth figures in 30 years; and a bruising trade war with the United States.

But if Xi Jinping has swayed, he has not buckled.

Consider how China has managed the coronavirus fallout and then ask if we would be as effective?

The party locked down the epicentre of the virus outbreak: Hubei province. A total of 57 million people grounded. That's two times Australia's population.

The World Health Organisation called it unprecedented. Imagine us trying to lock down even a suburb?

The military controls all airspace in China, which has made it easier to empty the skies. Flights have come to a standstill. Factories across China have shut down. Businesses have closed their doors.

In just a week, an entire hospital was constructed in the city of Wuhan specifically to treat coronavirus sufferers. A week!

Of course, China is not a democracy, so there is no political opposition to contend with — what the Communist Party wants, the Communist Party gets.

There is no freedom of the press, so no pesky reporters to deal with and no accountability. Just an obedient state-run media to push the party line.

The secret to China's success

The crisis is far from over, but the spread of the disease in China seems to have been halted and the number of cases stabilised.

Until yesterday?Australia was still in discussion about lifting or easing the China travel bans.

Beijing would tell you this is the secret of China's success.

The iron grip of the party has allowed it to lift more than half a billion people out of poverty. It has built sparkling new cities as China has transformed from a mostly rural nation to a nation of teeming urban centres.

While Australia has debated and delayed high-speed rail for decades, China has built it. Lightning-fast trains link its biggest cities.

Sydney still does not have a second airport while Beijing has built the largest in the world.

Once derided as the sick man of Asia, a country that could not feed itself, China is today the engine of global economic growth and on track to overtake the United States as the world's biggest economy.

The view from Beijing

Imagine the view from Beijing over the last 20 years.

While pundits have forecast its demise, China has seen the West fight endless wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, watched Western banks collapse and plunge the world into financial crisis, and seen a surge in nationalism and populism that has eroded the social fabric and politically divided Western democracies.

While democracy could be viewed as being in crisis, authoritarian regimes are arguably on the rise, with China at the helm.

More than a decade ago, Historian Azar Gat, writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, identified China's brand of authoritarian capitalism as the greatest challenge for the global liberal order.

As Gat wrote: "As China rapidly narrows the economic gap with the developed world, the possibility looms that it will become a true authoritarian superpower".

The world is now inextricably linked to China.

China's factories supply the world. It makes our smartphones. It eats up our resources.

Australia is especially dependent: as goes China's economy, so goes ours.

The coronavirus crisis has only served to show the perils of our dependence. Just ask our universities, now wondering where the money will come from without Chinese students.

A mismatch of values

China fills our pockets, but it rejects our values.

Under President for life Xi Jinping, the country has taken a dark turn.

Dissidents are locked up in increasing numbers, freedom of expression is restricted and a million Muslim Uyghurs are locked up in what human rights groups have called brainwashing re-education camps.

Xi talks about the "harmonious society", but it is one imposed by force.

The world has never seen this — a country becomes powerful and rich without becoming free.

This past week, appearing on the ABC's Q+A program, I was asked if the coronavirus would be handled better in a liberal democracy.

I would hope so. I answered that, for all of its appearance of strength, China is in fact a fragile superpower.

The Communist Party has a soft underbelly — it fears the truth so it seeks to repress it.

It does not trust its own people. Surely history tells us, just like the Soviet Union, China cannot prevail.

I believe that. Then again, China could prove me wrong.

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