Wait a Minute – Is China Really the Winner?

A response to Jürgen Gerhards and Michael Zürn

The systemic competition between China and liberal democracies has reached a new level. In addition to economic growth and development, managing the COVID-19 crisis has become a new benchmark for comparing the performance of alternative scripts. Jürgen Gerhards and Michael Zürn have called out China as the winner in containing the pandemic and mastering its economic and social consequences. They do not attribute China’s success to its autocratic system and to state capitalism. Pointing to the exceptional performance of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, Gerhards and Zürn argue that it is the shared approach of “testing, tracking, and isolating,” which explains the East Asian success.

China, Taiwan, and South Korea have used digital technologies in ways that heavily interfere with people’s privacy. Yet, in order to catch up with China, Western democracies do not have to turn their back to the liberal script. All they need to do is to correct their one-sided approach to the dangers of digitizing data. Before we accept a possibly even greater inference in individual privacy rights, a critical look at the evidence is warranted, as we argue in the following paragraphs.

Autocracies are notoriously secretive about their data; as a result of which, China’s numbers on cumulative and active cases are likely to be underreported. Even if we take China’s reporting of cases at face value, China’s case-to-fatality ratio is still higher than it is among liberal democracies including the East Asian ones. When it comes to testing and vaccination rates, China looks far less impressive and is outperformed by Israel, the UK, the US, and even Germany.[1] The latter also holds true for Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, all of which have not even started vaccinations yet.

In other words, the data tell two different stories: On the one hand, China and East Asia have reportedly had fewer COVID-19 cases (both cumulative and active) than liberal democracies in Europe and North America. On the other hand, when it comes to fighting actual COVID-19 cases and preventing future outbreaks through vaccinations, China and East Asia in general have performed worse than Western liberal democracies, and that even includes the US.

Gerhards and Zürn explain the victory of East Asia with faster progress in data digitization and greater intrusions in people’s privacy. While the two factors may explain the more effective containment of the pandemic, they do not account for the differences in fatality and vaccination rates.

More importantly, there are important alternative explanations that have little to do with digitization and intrusions on privacy. To begin with, COVID-19 is not the first pandemic that hit East Asia. The SARS virus in 2002 affected East Asia heavily; as a result of which, East Asians have experience in dealing with pandemics. Mask-wearing is no big deal for most people, even when infected with an ordinary flu, as anybody who visited Tokyo, Taipei, or Beijing before the pandemic can testify.

Second, cultural norms matter. A most recent study published in The Lancet Planetary Health argues that the more citizens feel bound by a strong logic of appropriateness, the lower COVID-19 infections and mortality rates in the respective country. China, Japan, and South Korea score rather high on what the authors call “cultural tightness.” A WZB study comes to similar conclusions with regard to social trust.[2]

Third, the same WZB study identifies government legitimacy as an important cause for effectiveness in fighting COVID-19 mortality. Again, if the data can be trusted, government legitimacy is comparatively higher in China than in Western liberal democracies (with other East Asian countries somewhere in the middle). And here comes the catch: In the case of China, government legitimacy remains precarious, since it is performance-based (“output legitimacy,” as Fritz Scharpf put it). No wonder that the Chinese government jump-started the economy immediately after the first COVID-19 crisis was over. Here, Gerhards and Zürn got it backwards: The Chinese economy must grow at all cost to keep Xi Jinping in power—not because China has a superior political or economic system. The need for (autocratic) regime survival explains economic growth, and not the other way round.


[1] The case–fatality ratio of China (4.6%) is twice as high as the one of Germany (2.4%). Testing in Israel and the UK is ten times higher than it is in China. China’s vaccination rate (1%) is lower than any of the major liberal democracies (Israel with 41.8%, the UK with 10.1%, the US with 6.2%, Germany with 1.8%). Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea have not started vaccinating yet (cf. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations#source-information-country-by-country, last accessed 24.01.2021; https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html, last accessed 24.01.2021).

[2] Bosancianu et al. (2020) “Political and Social Correlates of Covid-19 Mortality” (pdf).

This text was first published on the SCRIPTS blog. It is a response to “And the winner is… China” by Jürgen Gerhards and Michael Zürn.


Written by and

Tanja Börzel is Professor of Political Science. She holds the Chair for European Integration and is the director of the Center for European Integration at the Otto-Suhr-Institute for Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin.
Website at the Freie Universität

Thomas Risse is Professor of International Relations and the director of the Center for Transnational Relations, Foreign and Security Policy at the Otto-Suhr-Institute of Political Science at the Freie Universität Berlin.
Website at the Freie Universität

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