Uncle Xi gets long Covid
Why can't Xi Jinping and China quit the insanity of zero Covid? A few possiblities
The rest of the world is done with Covid. But China keeps on locking down.
Last month, the country imposed 49 separate rolling quarantines that covered almost 300 million people - even though it has not had a reported Covid death since May.
China’s lockdowns are stricter than ever, too.
Uninfected people are kept in their homes for weeks while being required to undergo repeated coronavirus tests. Those who test positive can be forcibly moved to isolation centers. In mid-September, 27 people died when a bus taking them to an isolation center flipped over.
(At least they didn’t die of Covid)
The constant lockdowns have also seriously hurt China’s economy, which is expected to grow under 3 percent this year - its smallest gains in more than 45 years, except for 2020, when Covid crushed growth worldwide.
Even so, China looks set to keep lockdowns - as well as mass testing, travel bans, and digital health passports - for the foreseeable future. In a major speech Sunday, Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader, said China had “protected people’s lives and health” with its zero-Covid strategy and would keep doing so.
Which raises a crucial question:
Considering that Omicron is significantly less dangerous than earlier Sars-Cov-2 variants, why won’t the Chinese just declare victory and let it roll? The United States is hardly the only country that has given up on controlling Covid. Quite the opposite. In fact, China appears to be the only country still pursuing a zero-Covid strategy.
So why? Why can’t China quit Covid?
Several theories exist. One makes more sense than the others.
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Maybe Xi is using Covid to tighten China’s screws over its citizens. The digital health screens, lockdowns, and endless tests are simply a way for the Chinese government to make sure its people know that they serve the state, not the other way around.
The problem with this view is that Xi and the Communist Party don’t need Covid as an excuse to take control. For over a decade, China has used social credit scoring, social media censorship and propaganda, and anti-corruption and anti-terror campaigns to stifle dissent.
If anything, the zero-Covid strategy appears increasingly counterproductive as a control method. Lockdowns have fueled public anti-government sentiment, which is extremely rare in China. Last week, protestors in Beijing unveiled a banner on an overpass in Beijing that said, “Say no to Covid test, yes to food. No to lockdown, yes to freedom.”
(Chinese Lives Matter)
Of course, the lockdown anxieties don’t represent a serious or even minor threat to Xi’s control. But they do make clear that the Chinese government response to Covid isn’t an effort to force broader societal change (unlike the failed efforts by leftists in the United States to use Covid to force through guaranteed basic income and outlaw evictions.)
Another view is that Xi sees China’s ability to avoid Covid as a major propaganda advantage internationally.
The United States has had more than a million deaths from Covid, China has had a only few thousand, almost none since the very beginning of the epidemic. China’s top-down, centralized leadership has again proved how much better it works than messy, floundering American democracy.
This theory may have made sense in 2020 and even well into in 2021. But other countries no longer view China’s path as one worth following, given the economic and societal damage lockdowns cause. Even formerly hardline Asian nations like Japan have given up the last of their restrictions. And China has come under increasingly harsh international criticism.
Ironically, the attacks on China’s policies are in part a backdoor way for elite Western media outlets to ask if lockdowns make sense - a question they still will not raise about the lockdowns at home they supported two years ago. As the New York Times wrote last month in an article about online protests that briefly followed the bus accident that killed 27 people:
It was a moment of collective grief and anger, with a heavy dose of shame, guilt and despair. After nearly three years of constant lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines, people asked how they could give the government the power to deprive them of their dignity, livelihood, mental health and even life…
Gee. I wonder. However could people get so confused?
In any case, though, Xi must know the zero Covid strategy no longer wins points for China globally. Still, he’s chasing it as aggressively as ever.
A third theory, somewhat related to the second, is that China fears being embarrassed when it opens because it used its own inactivated virus vaccines instead of the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.
Now it is stuck and doesn’t want to admit it relied on lesser vaccines.
This theory is the least believable of all. First, although the mRNA jabs appeared more effective in late 2020 and early 2021 than China’s shots, they have spectacularly failed against Omicron. At this point, the inactivated virus vaccines probably can’t perform worse. Even zero efficacy against infection would be better than the negative efficacy the mRNAs have recently shown.
Second, China could easily use the mRNA vaccines if it wanted. Not only do Chinese vaccine companies have mRNAs in clinical trials, China has a supply deal for the Pfizer/BioNTech shot itself. China simply does not seem to want the mRNAs, for reasons no one has properly explained.
So it’s not the vaccines.
Here’s my theory.
Arguably the most crucial fact about Covid is that it is the first disease to emerge in the age of social media. Remember the body-bag videos from Wuhan? Remember the death counts from New York, Spain, and Italy in March and April 2020? Remember how terrified you were?
Now we know that that many of the videos were fake (as the Chinese should know better than anyone) and the deaths were driven by astonishingly bad medicine and the near-abandonment of hundreds of thousands of people in nursing homes, where in some cases they starved to death.
We know the truth these days.
But the Chinese don’t. The panic porn of 2020 was incredibly effective, and it left a deep scar. Until people see Covid firsthand they cannot understand how overhyped it was.
Even in the United States, where by the fall of 2020 Florida provided crucial evidence that lockdowns and masks were useless, the blue states did not truly drop their efforts until mid-2021 - and even then most simply moved to a regime of vaccine mandates.
Zero-Covid countries like Australia and New Zealand were equally afraid, but they thought the mRNAs would save them, so they reopened. By the time they realized the mRNAs were useless against Omicron, it was too late, and they had no choice but to let the world’s smallest hurricane blow through and devastate their ninety-somethings.
But the Chinese haven’t had the chance to see the mouse that roared for themselves. They’ve had the opposite experience. They have heard for two years about nothing but the terrors of Covid, and how lucky they are to have Xi and the Chinese Communist Party protecting them. The fear probably runs all the way to the top.
So China is stuck. At the same time it is powerful and rich enough to close their borders essentially indefinitely, and authoritarian enough that what Xi says goes.
(That face, that face, that Cover Girl face…)
If this theory is right, then what happens next?
So far, the Chinese have managed to beat Omicron back, a truly impressive feat of social engineering and police power. But I suspect the answer is that the virus will write the story sooner than we think.
Omicron will beat the control measures one way or another, and the Chinese will have a Hong Kong-style spike that will last a month or six weeks. Tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of people will die. Then the worst will be over. Covid will come and go in the People’s Republic as it has in the other non-mRNA countries, and Xi will declare another glorious victory.
Long live the Chinese Communist Party! Long live Chairman Xi! And long live Covid!