The China Syndrome
Xi Jinping's quest for zero Covid has turned Shanghai - China's wealthiest city - into a 25,000,000-person prison. No one seems to know exactly why.
Shanghai’s Covid lockdown - now in its third week - has gone bad.
We can’t be sure. Chinese censorship has reached levels woke bluechecks can only dream of. But posts and videos, like this one from last week, have leaked out. They paint a picture of a giant city under extraordinary pressure, its 25 million inhabitants locked in apartments and struggling to keep their refrigerators and pantries stocked.
Along with locking people in their homes, Chinese authorities have essentially closed the roads to almost all civilian vehicles, exempting only a few thousand employees of food delivery companies. The streets are even emptier than Times Square was in April 2020:
Despite the pain it is causing, the lockdown is failing.
Shanghai reported 27,000 new infections today, the equivalent of about 350,000 in the United States. Three weeks ago, it had under 1,000 new cases a day.
Many of those newly infected people are being moved to crowded and dirty quarantine centers. Chinese authorities have not reported the exact number of people they are currently detaining, although it is at least several thousand. They have set up more than 60 quarantine centers in empty office buildings, apartments, and schools. Reuters spoke to a woman in one today:
The woman, who declined to be identified, said there were at least 200 people in the facility, including young children, sharing four toilets. There are no showers and they got just plain bread for breakfast, she said.
The lockdown is inflicting serious financial harm, too. Economists predict it will reduce China’s GDP by 4 percent - billions of dollars each day - for as long as it lasts, and reach outside China too.
Shanghai is the world’s largest port, a crucial part of supply chains worldwide. China is trying to allow the port to operate in an “isolation bubble,” but it is had limited success.
What’s happening in Shanghai is Covid lockdown madness in its purest form, especially since the Chinese are claiming that nearly all the new cases are asymptomatic. And no one has offered any completely convincing explanation why.
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Probably the strongest theory is that Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader, has spent two years claiming that China’s zero Covid “success” proves the value of his centralized rule. Democracies couldn’t control Covid, but the Chinese dictatorship could.
As a result, Chinese authorities from Beijing down are committed to keeping Covid at bay at all costs, even though Omicron’s transmissibility and ability to evade vaccines means that they cannot possibly stop it.
Another theory is that the way Omicron hit Hong Kong last month spooked Xi. Like China, Hong Kong did not do a great job vaccinating its elderly population - a bizarre choice, considering that Covid’s death risk is confined almost exclusively to the elderly and the severely obese.
As a result, Hong Kong saw a huge spike in deaths when Omicron rolled through.
China has almost 200 times Hong Kong’s population, so the death peak Hong Kong saw would translate into over 50,000 Chinese Covid deaths a day.
New infections and deaths in Hong Kong have now plunged, as they nearly always do in countries that did NOT rely exclusively on mRNA or DNA Covid vaccines. But the Chinese leadership might feel a daily figure that high is unacceptable even as an outside risk, and even if it lasted only a week or so.
Another possibility is that Xi and the Chinese leadership in Beijing are using Covid to clamp down on Shanghai, which is more liberal and Western-facing than the Chinese capital. China has carried out purges of Shanghai officials before, including the city’s chief prosecutor in 2018.
Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists argue China must know something about Sars-Cov-2 that Western nations do not, something that would justify its panicked response. But no one has any real evidence of what might be. As always, the simplest explanation - bureaucracy and medical authoritarianism run amok - is likely the truest.
Earlier this week, Shanghai authorities promised to loosen the lockdown, at least slightly. But on Wednesday, Xi repeated that “prevention and control work cannot be relaxed.”
And unlike Uncle Joe, Xi is definitely in charge. Other Chinese cities are locking down with relatively low caseloads now, hoping to get ahead of the exponential rise in infections Shanghai has seen. (Good luck with that!)
So America’s hard lockdown lovers - like Andy Slavitt and Michael Osterholm - may get to see what a state-enforced quarantine paradise looks like for a while longer.
Let’s hope not too many Chinese starve along the way.