The coronavirus pandemic broke out in Wuhan at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. Although the situation was mishandled in the early stages, China’s counter-pandemic efforts eventually got on the right track. The outbreak subsequently came under effective control, and economic and social activity has returned to normal, by and large.
In order to control Covid-19, China adopted some mandatory restrictive measures, such as compulsory quarantines at home for a certain period, restrictions on public gatherings and movements across different regions, as well as the requirement to produce one’s health code to access certain places (such as hospitals, schools and government offices).
Although the largely government-driven counter-pandemic measures and their results have won the approval of the vast majority of the Chinese people, they have also been criticised, mainly by certain Western countries, especially the US. To these critics, success was achieved at the expense of human rights, and therefore not very commendable. It seems that the decriers share a similar spirit exhibited by the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi when he declared: “If the world could be gained by performing even just one act of unrighteousness or killing even just one innocent person, the benevolent would not do it” (In the chapter “The True King and the Hegemon” in Xunzi). Mencius, incidentally, had a similar kind of thinking.
While it is true that criticism is essential for the world to become a better place, it does not follow that all criticisms are reasonable. In reality, the Western countries’ censure of China’s counter-pandemic efforts is an ideological accusation — that is to say, it embodies a kind of prejudice. That is: “As long as X is what Y does, X is wrong”. Criticism is necessary, but ideological criticism should be avoided.
China has been remarkably successful in its coronavirus response, yet it remains rather passive in swaying international opinion. It is therefore necessary to present a theoretical analysis of the country’s counter-pandemic efforts and to establish the legitimacy of its measures.
...all dealings and acts of cooperation are constraints on freedom to some extent.
The fallacy of absolute freedom
So, were the Chinese counter-pandemic measures justified at the end of the day? The key lies in how we interpret the relevant constraints put on the populace.
If a total lack of constraints — that is to say, a state of absolute freedom — is taken to be the standard of perfection with regard to the matter of freedom, then any constraint imposed counts as an infringement of one’s freedom and rights. However, absolute freedom is an impossibility. Even if natural factors are disregarded, as long as there are at least two persons in this world and they have dealings with one another, their absolute freedoms would necessarily be in mutual conflict. If all members of society were to pursue absolute freedom, there would only be endless violence among them. No one hopes for a society like that.
In fact, all dealings and acts of cooperation are constraints on freedom to some extent. The example of romantic love can help us understand this. When two persons in love agree to watch a certain movie at a certain place and time, it means that each party may no longer arbitrarily choose a different time, place and movie as he or she alone desires. If one or the other party fails to honour the agreement and a new agreement has to be made, both parties must still come under restrictions after that new agreement is made. If one or the other party breaches the contract, it would be impossible for the romantic relationship to continue.
Mutual constraints certainly limit absolute freedom, but the benefits of working together are usually greater than the disadvantages of being bound.
Contract theory: surrendering rights for greater benefit
Even between a master and his slave, the former has to compromise in some way for the latter and be subjected to certain constraints. For example, the master has to bear the cost of feeding his slaves, and of allowing them to rest and reproduce. The basic principle applies all the more when we consider the fact that we are not even slaves. None of us will submit to others without any limits. In all our dealings with one another, we must accept constraints. Mutual constraints certainly limit absolute freedom, but the benefits of working together are usually greater than the disadvantages of being bound. Such is the ultimate basis for human dealings and also for contract theory.
As contract theory sees it, what all parties of any dealings do is to surrender part of their own rights, and form a public covenant in which all parties are subjected to certain restrictions and also gain certain benefits from doing so. The benefits usually outweigh the cost of the constraints. Contract theory can explain not only the formation of a state, but also social dealings. In addition, it can be the guiding principle for such interactions.
Based on this, we can see that the mandatory measures for China’s fight against Covid-19 are simply a case of the citizens surrendering their rights to establish a social contract.
For that matter, all dealings, acts of cooperation and contracts are ultimately constraints. Based on this, we can see that the mandatory measures for China’s fight against Covid-19 are simply a case of the citizens surrendering their rights to establish a social contract. The following points may be noted with regard to these measures.
The populace consented to being constrained
Firstly, as far as scientific common sense goes, a quarantine is a basic measure used in the prevention and control of contagious diseases. Thus, the mandatory measures stipulated by the Chinese government which included quarantines were implemented very much in line with science.
Secondly, as far as public sentiment goes, the vast majority of the Chinese populace agreed to be subjected to the constraints, and the minority went with the wishes of the majority. Theoretically speaking, constraints that everyone agrees to subject themselves to, do not count as being coercive. Rather, they are constraints that are adopted freely. In any case, in large-scale dealings with people, there is almost never any single set of rules (contract) that everyone can agree to. Thus, in order to prevent any breaking of the rules, the rules have to be made mandatory. The social contract with the state is also mandatory in nature. The rules are only thought coercive by those who are unwilling to follow them. For the rest, the rules are not coercive, but only a kind of directive for action.
When we look at the Chinese counter-pandemic efforts in the light of this theory, it can be seen that the vast majority of the populace consented to being constrained to a large extent. I hereby offer some anecdotal evidence.
1: I was back in my old family home in the countryside just before the Chinese New Year season of 2020. After information about Wuhan’s outbreak was made public and before the government promulgated its mandatory measures, I observed that some villagers had already conscientiously taken the initiative to put on a face mask. In addition, the masks in the local shops were sold out during that interval.
2: Some of the constraints the masses put on themselves seemed more stringent than the government’s mandatory measures. The government did not ban the people from shopping at the supermarket or moving around in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, some citizens chose to lock themselves in and not leave home at all (except when they had to buy daily necessities). There were also those who adopted unnecessary or excessive measures of prevention and protection, such as wearing multiple masks or spraying alcohol into the air in elevators or other indoor spaces.
3: Local preventive and protective measures in some places were even more over the top than the government’s stipulations. In fact, some of these measures were prohibited or at least not advocated by the government. For example, some rural areas were known to have put up roadblocks and even have their roads dug up, such that even essential movements of people were cut off.
4: In March 2020, after the virus situation had gotten significantly better, the Chinese government encouraged all parts of the country other than Hubei to resume dining and tourism-related activities. And yet, for quite a while, footfall remained very low at restaurants and tourist attractions. This goes to show that the populace agreed to be subjected to the constraints imposed on them earlier.
When the same measures are adopted by everyone, order is maintained in the general pandemic response, the transaction cost is lower, and the result is probably also better.
Thirdly, from the jurisprudential perspective, the Chinese government has the right to formulate certain mandatory measures for dealing with contagious diseases. This right is derived from the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases, as well as the Emergency Response Law of the People's Republic of China.
Here is something that some people may have failed to understand: such measures stipulated by the government are there not merely for the enforcement of compliance, but also to provide to the masses a set of uniform public standards for executing Covid-19 prevention and control. In other words, they avert the scenario in which different measures are adopted in different places or by different parties, which would lead to mutual conflict. When the same measures are adopted by everyone, order is maintained in the general pandemic response, the transaction cost is lower, and the result is probably also better.
The cost of constraints suffered by the masses for combating Covid-19 therefore has had a high rate of return.
Fourthly, as far as actual results go, the mandatory measures proved effective. Even though the constraints imposed had incurred some cost, from around March 2020 onwards — after a period of firm and effective control — all parts of China other than Hubei were able to resume normal production and life one after the other. This restart benefited the vast majority of the populace considerably. Conversely, had the mandatory measures not been in place, the viral outbreak would certainly have spun out of control and caused greater losses for everyone. The cost of constraints suffered by the masses for combating Covid-19 therefore has had a high rate of return.
Fair distribution of constraints is key
There is one more point of particular importance and this has to do with fairness. In China’s campaign against Covid-19, it was largely achieved that everyone was equal before the constraints. In contract theory, fairness is both the fulfilment of a contract and the key to its effective execution. Where execution is concerned, fairness means that all parties strictly fulfil the responsibilities allocated to each by the contract. While rights can be given up, responsibilities cannot be shirked. (Fairness does not entail equal share for everyone though, since the responsibilities borne by different individuals may differ.) If the contract is executed in an unfair manner, its continued execution would be impossible, and the contract itself would consequently fall apart.
As Joseph Raz puts it in The Authority of Law: Essays on Law and Morality: “Conformity to the rule of law is a matter of degree. Complete conformity is impossible … ” Undoubtedly, there were problematic occurrences in China’s counter-pandemic efforts. For example, there were instances of people using “special privileges” to violate the restrictive measures. Such aberrations, nevertheless, have largely been corrected. In terms of the distribution of constraints, China’s mandatory measures for combating Covid-19 have been for the most part fair in their execution. The more fairly a set of largely reasonable rules are executed, the more they garner general approval, and as a result, the more they fall in line with the spirit of the contract and grow in legitimacy.
Contract theory supports the idea that different people should come to different agreements in accordance with varying contexts.
In addition, the mandatory measures adopted by China in its fight against Covid-19 did not breach ethical redlines nor did they jeopardise one’s right to life or to property. Basically, no bodily harm was done. The mandatory measures were mainly centred around short-term restrictions on freedom of movement, as well as the non-selective tracking of location data. Some may think of the latter as an infringement of privacy, but it is done because there is no other way. Compared to those immersed in Western culture, people in the East Asian cultural sphere are happier to comply. Subjectively speaking, the protection of privacy does not matter so much to the people here as it does to Westerners. The Chinese are more willing to accept the collection of their location data.
Contract theory supports the idea that different people should come to different agreements in accordance with varying contexts. The fundamental principle of contract theory is about agreement on the part of the majority. It says nothing about the specific contents of the agreements reached.
As for specific rights, including basic ones seen as inviolable at specific times in history — the right to life, to property, of expression, to freedom of marriage etc. — undergo changes over time. The fact is: in the West, as long as one makes use of a mobile phone or other mobile communication device, data pertaining to one’s whereabouts, electronic transactions and so on are also being tracked and collected. How the misuse of personal information may be prevented is an important issue in both China and the West, but that is a different story that falls outside the concern of this essay.
All in all, the measures adopted in China’s counter-pandemic efforts were generally right and fair. Their results were, by and large, successful. Hence, they should not be subjected to ideological attacks.
Related: Chinese local governments are declaring a 'state of war' to fight the pandemic. Is this necessary? | Stability above all else: Beijing's control measures could stay for rest of year | Why East Asia has performed well in containing Covid-19 | Heritage, CCP traditions & liberalism: Three fundamentals of China's new social contract