One of the strangest monuments to Communist oppression was a luxury hotel built almost right next door to Moscow’s Red Square during the height of Joseph Stalin’s terror. The Hotel Moskva was notable, maybe even notorious, for having two different facades on the two wings of its main building. One wing had lavish windows and an ornate facade, while the other wing was much simpler in its design with much smaller windows.
Russian architect Alexei Shchusev was in charge of designing what would become the Soviet Union’s swankiest hotel. Completed in 1938, the Moskva featured mosaics from the country’s best artists, access to the Moscow metro subway, and nearly 200 luxury rooms. Before construction began, Shchusev had proposed two different designs for the facade, expecting Stalin to sign off on his preference. So Shchusev drew up a single plan, which showed each wing featuring a different facade for Stalin to choose from.
Irish-born British foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn describes what happened next:
When Shchusev received the blueprint back he discovered Stalin had simply signed authorising the design in the middle of the page, apparently not realising he was offered a choice. Shchusev, reflecting on the possibly terminal consequences for himself if he did not follow Stalin’s instructions literally, built the Moskva with two different wings.
It looked ridiculous, like a suit plaid on one side and pinstriped on the other. But Stalin wasn’t going to admit that he’d signed his name to such an important building without having examined it, and Shchusev wasn’t about to risk his own life — quite literally — by asking Stalin if he’d really meant to approve both designs. So the Moskva stood as an eyesore for 70 years, a tribute to the decision-making paralysis that was the inevitable result of Stalin’s brutal one-man rule. Stalin had wanted a hotel to impress foreigners with Soviet taste and wealth. What he got was a silly-looking monument to fear of Stalin.
ASIDE: Whether out of cheek, a respect for history, or a worry about a return to Stalinism under Vladimir Putin (I kid — I think), when Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts replaced the old Hotel Moskva with a modern structure in 2014, they rebuilt the facade exactly as it was. Or to be more precise, they rebuilt both facades exactly as they’d been.
Let’s flash-forward from the years of Stalin’s terror to the start of this century’s second decade. Appearing on CBS’s “Meet the Press” in 2010, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put his “authoritarian envy” on full display. Speaking of our own dysfunctional-seeming Congress, Friedman said:
I’m worried about this, it’s why I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but that what if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment. I don’t want to be China for a second, OK, I want my democracy to work with the same authority, focus and stick-to-itiveness. But right now we have a system that can only produce suboptimal solutions.
Like a luxury hotel you could name after a Batman villain, Tom?
Now it is true that authoritarian states don’t have to worry about pesky things like individual rights or property rights when they want to do something big like annex the Sudetenland or starve a few million pesky kulaks out of existence. But as we learned with the Hotel Moskva and as we’re learning right now with Beijing’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, authoritarian regimes are anything but efficient when the Big Man’s ego is at risk.
Christopher Whalen wrote late last week that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “iron fist” hasn’t led to efficient action to combat the disease, but instead “delayed for weeks” necessary measures. Xu Zhangrun, a professor at China’s Tsinghua University, described Xi’s gridlock like so:
It began with the imposition of stern bans on the reporting of factual information that served to embolden deception at every level of government, although it only struck its true stride when bureaucrats throughout the system shrugged off responsibility for the unfolding situation while continuing to seek the approbation of their superiors. They all blithely stood by as the crucial window of opportunity to deal with the outbreak of the infection snapped shut in their faces.
Albert Goldson warned earlier this month that “this crisis has indelibly changed the Chinese citizens’ opinion on the government’s ability to protect them.” Nevertheless, he concludes, the Communist regime “will not change its approach to handling this or any other future crisis and will continue to operate within the same rigid political protocol framework.” Or as Xu warned, “tyranny ultimately corrupts governance as a whole and undermines the technocratic system that has taken decades to build. There has been a system-wide collapse of professional ethics and commitment.”
Foreign Policy published a piece on Saturday headlined “How China’s Incompetence Endangered the World.” In it, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Laurie Garrett wrote that “China now faces international vilification and potential domestic unrest as it blunders through continued cover-ups, lies, and repression that have already failed to stop the virus and may well be fanning the flames of its spread.” She also notes that Beijing’s hamfisted and delayed reaction has created “global concern about the reliability of epidemic data released by the Chinese government, the usefulness of Chinese guidance regarding how the virus is spread and who is at risk for death, and the measures best taken to protect health care workers from falling victim to the disease they are trying to treat.”
Beijing went through the usual steps in reaction to coronavirus:
• Pretend there’s no problem.
• Admit there’s a problem, but not a very bad one, and we’re dealing with it fine.
• Finally, the truth leaks out that the problem is much bigger than they admitted, and that their response is huge yet ineffective.
That’s not to say that coronavirus is going to a big step towards bringing down the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) like Chernobyl was for the Soviet Union. Rory Truex commented for The Atlantic on Monday that “claims about the ‘brittle nature’ of the Communist Party’s rule reflect a certain amount of wishful thinking” in the West.
For much of its history, the overarching question in elite circles of the Chinese Communist Party is not whether democracy or authoritarianism is more attractive, but about which version of authoritarianism is best. As documented in research by Jonathan Stromseth, Edmund Malesky, and Dimitar Gueorguiev, there have always been two schools of thought: a more coercive model, and one based more on openness to and participation by citizens and elites alike. Xi Jinping is firmly in the coercive camp, but the coronavirus outbreak has become a tragic case study of what’s wrong with his method of governance.
As Whalen noted in the piece I linked above, “Since rising to power in 2013, Xi Jinping has viciously attacked his political rivals and discarded China’s collective leadership.” Or as I wrote last week:
From the death of Mao until Xi himself, the CCP leadership functioned largely on consensus between the top men. Nobody wanted to see a return to one-man totalitarianism, when Mao was free to murder on a whim while the country barely subsisted. But the CCP was hardly willing to surrender any power, either. Consensus was a way to show the CCP as a whole enjoyed the Mandate: The economy began its long and unprecedented boom, guided by a ruling clique that agreed on all the big details. When trouble erupted, a head or two might roll, but the consensus continued unchanged except for a new head or two to replace the rollers.
Xi was ruthless in establishing his one-man rule, but coronavirus has proven that he isn’t up to the role he created for himself. No one person is, for reasons Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek were writing about 80 years ago. The Big Man’s knowledge is never perfect, but he’s so powerful that those under him who might know better, are too fearful to speak up.
The important thing, you see, is that the Big Man maintains his dual facade of wisdom and authoritarian efficiency. But coronavirus has allowed us to see behind the facade. Instead of “authorizing the right solutions” as Tom Friedman might say, Xi’s regime was paralyzed like a Soviet architect given approval for two plans for one building.
Coronavirus isn’t just a barely controlled outbreak of an infectious disease; it’s a monument to paralyzing fear of Xi Jinping.