Learning the Wrong China & COVID Lessons

Andrew Macdonald Powney
3 min readDec 26, 2020

The precautionary principle is one we now apply to everything except the state. Ironically, climate crisis, which invoked the principle, has taught us to think of the state as a friend.

We were keen to learn that lesson anyway. The state has been overseeing our ‘welfare’ with increasingly minute ‘care’ for two centuries and we are a long way from the 1834 Poor Law, when the workhouse could be called ‘a bastille’.

We should take every precaution, so the ‘principle’ ran, whenever the possible disaster is total. Risk assessment means balance of gravity of risk against likelihood of risk; therefore, total disaster does not need to be very likely, for precautions to be thought wise.

For forty years we have been distracted by debate about whether the risk is man-made or natural. Who should care? The risk is a risk. Grave risk of total disaster is grave risk of total disaster whatever its family tree. And in this period of distraction, prevarication and delay, a more immediate risk has emerged.

Now, as we know, every daily risk far short of total disaster requires a catastrophist’s response. Small, infrequent risks also demand their codes of practice and their mandatory procedures. The word ‘safeguarding’ is being used today as a synonym for ‘taking care’. There is no longer a firm border between normal and extraordinary, catastrophe and misfortune, speaking and listening.

We all know this: but have we taken it in? Just what is the risk — and how total is the disaster — of totalitarianism? Not much, in the West, so we have learned to believe, in decades when freedoms have expanded; while we have fought for them; when we have not given them away. But are we in such times now?

Totalitarianism would be a total disaster for us and for all that we prize. Yet the creeping power of the state is something we actually welcome. We have invited it into our homes. It is something we are merrily bringing upon ourselves. We justify it to ourselves by pointing to our forms of democracy and claiming that the state acts ‘for the people’ yet we do this even as we also question majorities after the fact when referendums are called. It is classic double-think. Climate disaster is not even the strongest pretext for it. In a recent interview, ‘a scientist’ says that China has shown during COVID what governments can get away with!

China has coupled health lockdown with arrests of journalists who report on it; it was arresting them anyway. It subjugated Hong Kong, because US foreign policy scared China into acting faster than probably it had planned to do. It is suppressing Mongolians and Uyghurs because it fears conflicts over resources in its regions as its economy slows, and it is pursuing a lockdown strategy to retrench in the pandemic. It had been building gold reserves even during low inflation so that it could come out of whatever disaster inevitably came by relatively stronger than democracies. It has used COVID crackdown to justify crackdown.

And from this, what lesson do democracies draw? They draw lessons about what governments can get away with! Not, the relative and absolute insustainability of low-productivity economies. Not, the danger of othering a community in the interest of propaganda or the risk of the strong-man-leader myth. Not, the dangers of China’s long game. No: lessons in what the state can get away with.

And what lesson does the Western consumer-debtor-voter draw? She feels that we need to trust the state as a precaution against everything but the state.

Doh! as Homer Simpson would say.

Liberal democracy was the way to befriend the state while restricting the state at the same time. Mass democracy, however, strained its limits. Much larger numbers of increasingly various people cannot always reach compromises, and often that means gridlock. Once democracies expand beyond a ‘liberal’ elite, which liberal elites must make them do, they become inefficient and tense. But is gridlock, US-style, really the worst that can happen? Actually, no: it is not. The worst that can happen is that we become another democracy so decadent that it gave its own freedom away.