China, at least its despotic regime, has essentially become sinister Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life. You’ll recall that Potter was the miserly, misanthropic rich banker who sought to pull Bedford Falls into his sinister grip. He had no friends in town, just collaborators, employees, and pawns. He was a slumlord who resented the opportunity for homeownership offered by George Bailey’s community-minded savings and loan association. Potter sought to buy out Bailey, and upon rebuff, sought to destroy him.
Bedford Falls, thanks partly to Bailey, is a warm and family-friendly small city. In his despondency, Bailey is shown by his guardian angel what this community would be under Potter: grim, seedy, inhumane, materialistic.
China, like Potter, is rich, grasping, paranoid, and inhumane. Its regime doesn’t trust its own people, whom it often brutalizes and to whom it routinely lies. Even in its wealth, the Chinese Communist Party has been unwilling to share power or permit increased freedom. Instead, it is refining its sinister weapons of control and surveillance through the latest technologies. Its crackdown on religion, including the destruction of churches and the brutal incarceration of Uighur Muslims, evinces its totalitarian aspiration to extinguish alternative spiritual narratives.
For some in the world, who fear lawful liberty and romanticize dictatorship, China is an appealing alternative to Western democracy because reputedly it is a wealth engine that is orderly and controlled. Yet China’s aversion to candor and challenge was evinced tragically by its gross mishandling of coronavirus in Wuhan.
Shadi Hamid writes in The Atlantic of China’s role in the global Coronavirus pandemic:
The evidence of China’s deliberate cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is a matter of public record. In suppressing information about the virus, doing little to contain it, and allowing it to spread unchecked in the crucial early days and weeks, the regime imperiled not only its own country and its own citizens but also the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks. More perniciously, the Chinese government censored and detained those brave doctors and whistleblowers who attempted to sound the alarm and warn their fellow citizens when they understood the gravity of what was to come.
As Hamid notes, China’s police state dictatorship, always fearful of critique, was not effective in responding to bad news. Instead, as dictatorships tend to do, it attempted to suppress the bad news rather than grapple with the impending crisis. Now, predictably, China’s propaganda machine is claiming America generated coronavirus. Few will believe this falsehood, but some will. Mr. Potter would admire the audacity of the lie.
Hamid rightly believes that democracies, with their bent toward transparency, debate, and challenge, are better equipped to handle crises like coronavirus than are dictatorships, which can’t handle the truth. He doubts China will ever be a responsible global actor. Dictatorships, no matter how outwardly seemingly stable, are always churning within from suppressed fury that can be explosive, or pandemic, with international consequences.
In his final gambit to destroy George Bailey, Mr. Potter hides a bank deposit whose loss leaves Bailey looking fraudulent. He tells Bailey he expects to see him in jail. Dictators always wish this for their opponents. Unanticipated by Potter was Bailey’s own spiritual resilience and the many friends who come to his rescue with the missing cash. If the situation had been reversed, would anyone in Bedford Falls have rescued Mr. Potter? The bankers’ only influence was his power through money and fear. He commanded no trust, moral authority, affection, or friendship. Ultimately, he was a failure. The city never became his dark dream of Pottersville.
Of course, Mr. Potter didn’t go away. There will always be Potters in every community and on the global stage who threaten, bully, and prevaricate. They believe they are the final word and that their money can buy acquiescence, but they are unfailingly shortsighted.
The George Baileys of the world are often misunderstood by the world’s Potters to be naive, feckless, and on the losing side. The energy, creativity, debates, and candor of democracies will never be appreciated by dictatorships, which seek power and victory from friendless darkness. May America always aspire to be George Bailey, working for fair play and humane justice, countering cynical Mr. Potters, in China or elsewhere. And may America’s ultimate triumph over coronavirus showcase to the world how free people, in contrast to fearful dictatorships, handle challenges.