(This is an English version of “O Século Chinês”, published in O Estado de São Paulo, April 10, 2020)
“American Factory”, the documentary produced by Michelle and Barack Obama that won the Oscar for best documentary this year and can be seen on Netflix, tells the tragicomic story of a Chinese millionaire who decides to transform an abandoned General Motors plant in the United States into a modern automobile glass factory, with American workers laboring under Chinese managers. The Chinese strive to understand the individualistic culture and lack of discipline of Americans, take Americans to China to see how a factory should work, and end up replacing most Americans with robots, so that the factory can finally make a profit.
Watching the film, it is easier to understand the success of the Chinese in controlling the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan with a minimum of deaths and preventing it from spreading through its immense population, and the difficulty of Americans and Europeans in doing the same. The explanation often heard is that China is an authoritarian state, with powers to control its population that would be unimaginable in a democracy. There are rumors that they are not telling the whole story, it could be, but the fact is that they managed to stop the bleeding. In addition to brute force, two other factors, strong social cohesion and the intensive and competent use of advanced technologies, seem to have been much more important.
“Social cohesion” refers to the degree to which people feel part of a community and follow the norms of behavior of their groups. Everyone agrees that it is a good thing, but may disagree about how much. In the film, the Americans look astonished as the Chinese workers march synchronously and shout slogans, and how, at a factory party, the children dance with geometric precision in praise of efficiency and productivity, remembering the gigantic, choreographed demonstrations in North Korea in honor of the Great Leader. The Chinese work much more hours a day than the Americans, earn much less, and are much more productive.
Seeing this, it is difficult to distinguish what is social cohesion from what is totalitarianism, but other countries that are also managing to control the epidemic are South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, are democratic regimes with similar cultures. It is social cohesion, more than the political regime, that differentiates them from Western countries.
The third factor that explains the success of these countries is the intensive use of testing technologies, monitoring of population movements by cell phones, protective equipment for doctors and paramedics and extensive use of expensive and complex equipment such as CT scanners to better diagnose patients. These technologies are also available and many of them originated in the West, but Orientals have been more efficient at producing, innovating, and using them on a larger scale than Americans and Europeans. An important question, in a democracy, is the extent to which governments should be allowed to control the movements of its people in such detail, but most of this is already done in our countries for commercial purposes.
From the many speculations that are made about what the post-coronavirus world will be like, for those who survive the immense catastrophe we are witnessing, it seems clear to me that the 21st century will definitely be the Chinese century. This does not mean that we will all be under the dictatorship of Xi Jinping, since China itself may evolve into less autocratic forms of government, and Western countries will certainly recover their economies. But China, which was already occupying an increasingly larger space in the world economy, is likely to come out from this crisis much more strengthened, shifting the pole of the world economy and technological progress to the East.
Of the lessons that we have to learn from China, the one that matters least, and that unfortunately many will preach, is that democracies are not able to face the great epidemiological and environmental challenges that await us, and need to be replaced by the presumptive dictators that arise in these difficult times. Democracy needs to be preserved, but it must be less dysfunctional, with stronger public institutions in the areas of science and technology, firmer social policies, and legal mechanisms capable of quickly dealing with the eventual predatory and demagogical behavior of its leaders. More than weapons for eventual wars, it is essential to have strategic stocks of medical supplies and equipment that do not depend on commercial interests and the uncertainties in the international market, as has been happening. The national health systems needs to be rethought, concentrating resources on preventive health, epidemiological surveillance, and medical care for the needy population. It is not possible, and I do not know if we want, to copy the model of social cohesion of the Eastern countries, but we need to make our societies more educated, cohesive, and supportive We will come out of this tragedy poorer and more suffering, but perhaps a little wiser, in order to survive in the Chinese century.