China’s Baffling Misstep On “Zero Covid” Gives America a Glimmer Of Hope
April 13, 2022 (2mo ago)

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China was supposed to be smarter than this.

For two weeks, China has had its largest, richest, and most Western-style mainland city on lockdown. Coronavirus has been spreading through the city at a rate of 25,000 new cases per day. This outbreak is China’s largest since Covid-19 first appeared in Wuhan 28 months ago. Yet despite having two years of mistakes from the rest of the world to learn from, China is making the same catastrophic blunders that the U.S. and others did, and in the process jeopardizing all the economic and political gains it has accrued over the past two years. 

The lockdown opened ominously enough, with robot dogs roaming the streets warning residents to stay inside.

The public obeyed, and by the start of April Shanghai was a ghost town — or rather, a vast prison holding 25 million people.

Just like in America, locals stripped store shelves bare before going into lockdown, adding to a feeling of panic and crisis.

Also just like America, health theater quickly expanded, so that even in areas with a 100% vaccination rate and no meaningful illness, life resembled a particularly dystopian episode of Black Mirror. China is even exceeding the insanity of blue state America, as bad as it was.

Phone videos, uploaded first to Chinese websites before trickling onto Twitter, show bizarre scenes of drones warning people not to open their windows, and children forced to walk in modified hazmat suits.

In one particularly ghoulish display, health authorities beat dogs and cats to death and killed them by the literal bagful, reportedly because their owners tested positive for Covid (or were merely in close proximity to those who did).

As the lockdowns have continued without end, China’s much-vaunted social harmony is starting to show signs of breakdown.

In the West, lockdowns were often oppressive, yet at the same time fundamentally fake. Even New York City, at the peak of lockdown frenzy, didn’t actually trap people in their homes. New Yorkers were allowed outside for exercise (just be sure to social distance!), and the list of “essential businesses” allowed to remain open included not only grocery stores and pharmacies, but also banks, hardware stores, and even liquor stores.

In 2022 Shanghai, this attitude won’t fly. Authorities have placed entire districts of the city on true, absolute lockdown. Nobody is allowed outside for any reason. Some starving residents have banded together to order group food deliveries via apps. Even billionaires are struggling to buy milk and bread.

So, what to make of all this? Since the early days of Covid, some have theorized that China “faked out” the West; publicly treating Covid hyper-seriously early on in order to trick the rest of the world into overreacting and committing economic suicide. This theory was always far-fetched, but now it is definitively debunked. Outside of a few profoundly mentally ill cities like Philadelphia, the world has moved on from Covid, yet China continues to obsess over the virus.

And while Western attention has focused on Shanghai, perhaps most disturbingly, the current frenzy is not limited to that one city. The government has imposed strict Covid restrictions all over China, and a great deal of the most disturbing footage could be coming from anywhere in the country.

In Guangzhou, the central city of the vast Pearl River megalopolis, schools have gone virtual, and residents cannot leave the city without a negative test. In the Manchurian province of Jilin, vast tracts of agricultural land are left untended with workers stuck in their homes.

In early 2020, strict Covid lockdowns were arguably defensible, if incorrect, because of the amount of uncertainty about the virus. No one knew how transmissible it was, and how lethal. But by the fall, there was no doubt that lockdowns are completely indefensible. Revolver ran the numbers and found that, thanks to the impact of increased unemployment and other factors, Covid lockdowns cost nearly twenty years of human life over the long run for every life-year saved by slowing down the spread of the virus.

Now, the exact same calamitous consequences are playing out in China. It is clear that the disease spreading across China is, genuinely, little worse than the flu. While Shanghai now has more than 25,000 cases a day, less than 4 percent of cases are symptomatic. Most symptomatic cases do not even require hospitalization, and most hospitalized patients will still survive. In other words, with even less excuse than America had two years ago, China is bringing life to a crashing halt over a virus that poses no danger to the vast majority of the public. That same public, though, will certainly feel the devastating impact of lockdowns. In fact, two years of “zero Covid” has already caused almost incalculable damage to ordinary Chinese. From the Diplomat (emphasis ours);

The zero-COVID policy and the mass lockdowns have taken a great toll on the life of regular Chinese citizens. Estimates show that more than 4.5 million small businesses closed in 2020, and the number of closed small businesses was likely higher in 2021. The human costs of the zero-COVID policy are also likely to be greater. China’s mortality rate jumped to 7.18 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants in 2021, the highest level since 2000. This has led to about 160,000 surplus deaths compared to 2020. The high mortality rate and the surplus deaths are probably related to the secondary costs of lockdowns, such as patients with chronic conditions who cannot visit hospitals regularly and acute patients who cannot receive timely treatments. For example, a hospital in Xi’an refused to treat a man with acute angina due to lockdown instructions. The lack of care led to the man’s death.

And just like in the U.S., those 160,000 excess deaths are not the equivalent of a Covid death. If a forty-year-old dies thirty years prematurely from a manageable medical problem that went undetected due to a lockdown, that isn’t the equivalent of an 85-year-old dying a year early from Covid. It is many many times worse.

Many other nations in Asia fought hard, even fanatically, to contain Covid early on. Australia closed its borders for nearly two years. South Korea sent contact tracers to surveil gay bars. But no matter how aggressive the posture, in the long run it was all for naught. In the first months of 2022, Covid ran wild in Korea, Australia, Vietnam, and even Singapore. With the failure of Covid-19 vaccines to halt transmission of the virus (despite initial propaganda stating otherwise), the choice for countries is clear: Either allow the virus to spread and accept the limited harm it will cause, or commit to self-destructive lockdowns indefinitely.

Every other country in the world is making the smart choice, and getting on with life. Only in China is “zero Covid” still the order of the day, two-plus years later.

It’s difficult to describe how stupid and self-destructive China’s decision is. For two years, nearly every trend in the China/U.S. rivalry had been moving in China’s direction. By keeping its economy open in 2020, China enjoyed another year of GDP growth, while almost the entire rest of the planet went into recession. In late 2020, some anticipated China becoming the world’s largest economy by 2028.

Simply by staying out of  the Ukraine mess and throwing Russia an economic lifeline, China is on the brink of making Russia a de facto client state. Meanwhile, by booting Russia off SWIFT and seizing the assets of Russian oligarchs, America has dragged confidence in the U.S. dollar-based global financial system to its lowest point since World War 2. From India to South Africa to the Middle East to South Africa, middle-tier powers have shown little interest in America’s anti-Russia crusade, creating an opening for a more restrained Chinese superpower to step up, and perhaps even make a move on Taiwan. Just weeks ago, 2022 was looking like it might go down in history as the first year of a Chinese century.

Now, it’s all being thrown away. Why? Why is the government that has so often impressed Westerners with its ostensible competence blundering so badly? The fact that we’re so baffled just underscores how little visibility and understanding we all have of China, even after its rise to superpower status. From the beginning, any attempt to understand the country has been filtered through China’s propaganda firewall. Now, there is a Western propaganda firewall to evade as well.

One possibility for China’s failure is that it has actually become entrapped by an empty emphasis on mobilization and “doing something” over results and the general good of the people. The Diplomat explains:

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has mobilized all of society’s forces to enforce the zero-COVID policy. President Xi Jinping repeatedly highlighted the role of “people’s warfare” in combating the pandemic, demonstrating the central role of mobilization in China’s pandemic management. The CCP derives mobilization capability from its Leninist identity and its history. A Leninist party is a political organization that commands hierarchically from top to bottom and penetrates every level of society. Within the CCP, the 4.8 million party cells extend from the central government in Beijing to rural villages. Mobilization played a fundamental role in the CCP’s victory in the Chinese Civil War. During the Yan’an era, Mao Zedong developed the Mass Line and the People’s War to mobilize the population for military struggles. After the CCP’s victory in 1949, Mao repeatedly employed mobilization during the Land Reform and Socialist Transformation, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

Despite this ideological heritage, mobilization under Xi is very different from mobilization under Mao in terms of policy implementation. A Maoist mobilization required adopting a particular model that was uniformly applied throughout the entire country. For example, Mao’s endorsement of large People’s Communes led to the uniform adoption of the People’s Commune model in rural areas during the Great Leap Forward. His praise of backyard furnaces led to universal participation in backyard steelmaking throughout China. In contrast, mobilization under Xi does not require uniformity throughout China; it is task-driven.

Scholars such as Kevin J. O’Brien describe the Chinese state as responsibility-driven, meaning local officials operate under what is known as the cadre responsibility system. The cadre responsibility system evaluates the performance of local cadres based on their fulfillment of assigned policy goals. During mobilization, the task from the top leadership becomes the priority, outweighing all policy goals in the cadre responsibility system. Under the current zero-COVID policy, the task of preventing a COVID-19 outbreak outweighs the imperative of economic growth, usually the most critical policy goal in the cadre responsible system.

As a mobilization movement, the zero-COVID policy incentivizes officials to double down on extreme measures without regard for the costs. The overwhelming focus on the target creates incentives for local governments to take extreme measures. During mobilization, the evaluation of local cadre performance is reduced to just one metric; their evaluation and career prospects are solely based on completing the task of containing COVID-19. This singular evaluation system incentivizes local officials to sacrifice all other duties to ensure success in pandemic management, because other costs are not measured and do not matter to the cadre’s evaluation. In Jilin province, where the Omicron variant hit the hardest, 16 government officials were punished for not implementing COVID-19 containment effectively. Thus, the mobilization incentivizes cadres to focus solely on enforcing the zero-COVID policy while ignoring other economic and human costs.

Local officials also use extreme measures to portray themselves as hardworking and attract the attention of their superiors. The hardworking image demonstrates that they are fervent supporters of the party line. This helps them satisfy evaluators and gain promotions. In addition, if they fail to meet the target by any chance, they can use extreme measures to shift the blame away. As one Chinese idiom says, “one might not have any achievement, but one worked hard (没有功劳,也有苦劳).” By demonstrating that they have already done everything possible, including extreme measures, at least local cadres can signal to upper-level evaluators that they have worked hard for the target and dutifully followed instructions. The implication is that some unfortunate and unforeseen situations beyond their control doomed the project. In the case of containing COVID-19, local officials can blame irresponsible individuals who hide their symptoms and travel history and shield themselves from punishment.

But this explanation only explains the zeal of local officials. Left unanswered is why Xi Jinping and his innermost circle are inflicting catastrophic harm on the PRC’s largest and most economically important city. Some people suspect that China simply has to be hiding information about a new and deadlier variant.

Others see an attempt to humiliate a rival power center and cement Xi Jinping’s control.

None of these explanations measure up. If lockdowns are just meant to control Shanghai, then it doesn’t make sense for the rest of the country to have lockdowns as well. And if Xi is trying to flex his muscle, he is doing it in a spectacularly counterproductive way. To the extent that the CCP enjoys popular support, it does so because it has made China a rich and respected great power once again after centuries of humiliation. The best way for Xi to mess that up is by screwing up the country’s top financial hub and crashing the economy.

The most boring explanation, then, might be the best one: The CCP wanted to defeat Covid completely, and now it is too stubborn and suffering from too much tunnel vision to change course.

Overall, this is a bad thing: It’s bad for the global economy, and it’s bad for the people of China who must live through this idiocy. But it’s also bad for anyone who loves sound government. On Covid, it appears that not a single society on the planet was both high-functioning and sensible, and that’s worrisome.

Still, in an era that has been toxic and dispiriting for American patriots, there is a small glimmer of light. The modern American regime is corrupt, incompetent, stupid, and proudly mentally ill. The regime must change, or America will collapse, and it will deserve to collapse. But America’s clear and obvious failures do not mean that foreign rivals are immune to the same human failings. Their leaders are also capable of arrogance, delusion, tunnel vision, and commitment to the sunk cost fallacy. Sure, America can learn a lot from how Chinese elites view America. But China is far from an unstoppable juggernaut of competence or good sense.

For everybody who hopes that America can right itself and remain the world’s preeminent power, China’s baffling misstep on “zero Covid” is a reason for hope. Our rivals are not beating us as badly as we feared, and we have more time to fix the system than we previously thought. Still, the system must be fixed. China won’t be shooting itself in the foot forever.

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