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Condoleezza Rice criticizes Chinese authoritarianism, praises US resilience in Hoover policy webinar

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Former U.S. Secretary of State and incoming Hoover Institution director Condoleezza Rice criticized the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, but rejected the idea of formal sanctions, in a Zoom webinar sponsored by the Hoover Institution on Tuesday. Rice also discussed the virus’ harm to internationalism and globalism, and she accepted audience questions about topics such as online education and the effect of the pandemic on the future balance of security and liberty.

Rice drew comparisons between her experience with the SARS outbreak in 2003 and SARS-CoV-2 today to describe and criticize an opaqueness in the China’s communist government’s sharing of information with the media and foreign governments.

“It is in the nature of the Chinese system, and authoritarianism, that control of information is power,” Rice said. “Control of the narrative is power. So we shouldn’t be surprised that when this outbreak happened in Wuhan, they silenced the young physicians and medical students who were trying to sound the alarm.”

Rice argued that such a cover-up would be impossible in a country like the United States or Germany with a free press and democratic institutions, and she said China’s leadership may face consequences from the Chinese people as well as international governments. 

Governments going forward, Rice said, should publicly investigate and debunk Chinese narratives about the virus and privately negotiate with China to ensure safety and risk prevention going forward. She described this method as “calling names and sending a message that what they [China] did was unacceptable.” 

However, she rejected the idea of formal sanctions that could inflame a trade war and worsen global economic collapse.

“[The virus] really cuts against the grain of how we thought about globalization, and we can talk more about this in a place like Europe — where for decades worked to create a borderless territory in Europe where there’s one passport, where people move easily from country to country,” Rice said. “And now we see that when it starts in Italy it spreads quite quickly in Europe and you see individual countries trying to plan now.”

She contrasted this response with the cooperation and intelligence-sharing that emerged after 9/11, saying that she believes future phases of pandemic response could reincorporate international, economic and political cooperation. Particularly, she said, the G-20 — an international forum for the governments of 19 countries and the European Union — should act as it did in the 2008 Recession to standardize an economic response and particularly minimize harm to developing countries. 

Rice also said that America should leverage its existing international aid systems.

“We have a huge network built up because of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) starting with President Bush, continued by President Obama, going through President Trump where we help developing countries build whole healthcare systems and distribution networks to be able to distribute antiretrovirals even way out in the countryside,” she said.

A 2018 essay by Anthony Fauci — director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has emerged as the face of America’s pandemic response — in the New England Journal of Medicine said that PEPFAR “had an unprecedented impact on the pandemic of HIV and AIDS” and had saved millions of lives in sub-Saharan Africa since its inception under the Bush administration.

Q&A topics included questions about the post-virus global order, long-term changes in the balance between security and liberty, rises in global authoritarianism and emergency powers, and lasting changes to supply chains and sectors such as education and defense.

The talk was part of the Hoover Institution Virtual Policy Briefing Series, described by moderator and outgoing Hoover director Thomas Gilligan as “an opportunity for you to hear directly from some of our nation’s top scholars on the pressing issues facing the world during this difficult time.” 

The Hoover Institution has recently drawn intense criticism for contrarian opinion pieces on COVID-19 by humanities-oriented Hoover Fellows. Influential conservative legal scholar Richard Epstein wrote an article for the Hoover Institution that downplayed the virus in March by questioning geometric models of infection, and Hoover military historian Victor Davis Hanson hypothesized recently that California may have herd immunity to SARS-CoV-2 due to undetected exposure in 2019. 

Epstein’s article reportedly influenced White House decision-making, and he has since apologized.

Rice’s talk steered away from media controversy, focusing instead on the questions of sovereignty, liberty, cooperation and American international leadership that she has spent her career discussing. 

Asked about the United States’ lack of leadership on the international stage, Rice said that the country is focused on “trying to save New York”: “It’s not as if we’ve done nothing,” she said, pointing to $274 million in international aid committed to 64 countries and the United Nations.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump said that he would halt funding to the World Health Organization while a review examining the organization’s “role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus” is conducted.

Speaking on the country’s response more generally, Rice said, “There’s an old saying that the United States finally gets it right after it’s tried everything else.” 

“There’s been a lot of times where we started slowly: World War II, we started slowly,” she said. “But pretty soon the great capacity of this country to turn out war materiel, to put women to work where the men had gone to war — the ability of individuals, of the private sector to really step up and mobilize, was what made us able to ultimately defeat the German war machine.”

Rice concluded with a message about American resilience.

“We have so many sources of resilience, whether it’s individuals who have taken on responsibility for making sure that the person next door who might be elderly is getting their groceries without risk, whether it’s those people who are making masks and selling them on the Internet, whether it’s the people who are healthcare workers and first responders who are taking their own lives into their hands to go and serve, those volunteers in health systems around the country who went to New York to help under the circumstance,” she said.

She noted that these activities are all voluntary and free.

“The government can’t order that,” she said. “That’s a resiliency that comes from within.”

Contact Cooper Veit at cveit ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Cooper Veit '22 is an opinions writer and amateur Steinbeck scholar from San Francisco. Talk to him about the work and life of John Steinbeck.