The past, they tell us, is often prologue. That old chestnut certainly applied in the dying days of 2019, when China was struck by its second coronavirus outbreak of the 21st century.
The first one had appeared in November of 2002, in the Southern Inner Chinese city of Foshan. Doctors there sent urgent warnings to the local and national government, about an “atypical pneumonia” that was spreading among the population. Worse than merely being ignored, they were also ordered to keep their mouths shut, lest they spread panic among the populace and cast a pall over the upcoming coronation of Hu Jintao as the country’s latest supreme leader. (The superstitions of imperial times have never entirely died in Communist China, and the arrival of a new plague at this juncture must raise inevitable questions about the gods’ pleasure with Hu and his claim to the Mandate of Heaven.) Not until the following February did the Communist Party acknowledge the existence of the disease known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Even then, it downplayed the danger it posed, claiming there had been just 310 cases to date, only five of them fatal — the real numbers were at least an order of magnitude larger — and stymieing the efforts of the World Health Organization to study it.
It took a single brave Chinese doctor to break the logjam. On April 8, 2003, a highly respected epidemiologist named Jiang Yanyong wrote an open letter to Western media outlets. “A failure to disclose accurate statistics about the illness will only lead to more deaths,” he said. Hu Jintao and his lieutenants stood at a crossroads. Did they condemn and punish Jiang and continue to hold fast to the increasingly untenable position that SARS really was just an “atypical pneumonia” that was already “under effective control,” or did they use his letter as an opportunity to change their stance? Fortunately for the good doctor and for the world, they chose the latter course. On April 13, Hu revised his messaging dramatically, pronouncing SARS a “grave” danger. Scapegoats in the Ministry of Health and the provincial administration were found and sacked, Jiang Yanyong was elevated to the status of national hero, and “never again” became the Party’s new byword.
It was in many ways a fairly typical authoritarian approach to damage control after coverups and denials had failed to defuse a crisis, but many outside observers nevertheless chose to take this rare admission by the Communist Party that it could on occasion be less than infallible as a hopeful sign. Meanwhile, although it could be extremely dangerous to those it infected, SARS proved not to be especially good at spreading itself, as viruses go. The commonsense precautions recommended by the World Health Organization, implemented at last with the willing assistance of the Chinese government, limited its confirmed worldwide death toll to less than 1000 people. Today the World Health Organization considers SARS to be more or less eradicated, with no verified new cases since 2004. China and the world dodged a bullet there. Alas, they wouldn’t be so lucky the next time around.
For the Party’s definition of “never again” proved sadly less eternal than those words are generally believed to indicate. When reports began cropping up in December of 2019 of another strange new disease with pneumonia-like symptoms, this time from the sprawling metropolis of Wuhan, the mood of China’s government was different: prouder, more nationalistic, more combative in all of its dealings with the outside world, more eager to burrow deep into the private lives and beliefs of its own citizens. One thing, however, remained unchanged, that being its instinct to deny the presence of problems rather than leap to the task of solving them — a natural instinct for a ruling party that had made its ability to prevent emergencies of any stripe, and the social chaos they bred, the source of its legitimacy in the absence of such niceties as free elections. “It can be astonishing,” writes China watcher James Griffiths, “how much the initial outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 mirrors that which came before.”
On December 18, 2019, a previously healthy deliveryman who worked for the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a huge bazaar in the heart of the city, presented at the Wuhan Central Hospital with what appeared to be a severe case of pneumonia. Six days later, baffled by the nature of illnesses like this one that were cropping up all over the city, doctors there sent a sample of fluid from his lungs to a laboratory for analysis. They soon learned that the culprit was a new coronavirus, much more infectious than the SARS virus but otherwise very similar to it, so much so that it was given the aforementioned name of SARS-CoV-2. (I’ll refer to it as the COVID-19 virus from now on, after the name of the disease it causes, itself an abbreviation for “coronavirus disease 2019.”) Recognizing a new illness whose combination of severity and infectiousness made it potentially more dangerous than any since the deadly Spanish flu of 1918, the doctors rushed to sound the alarm — only to be ordered by representatives of the Communist Party to keep silent, on pain of losing their jobs or worse. So, while the Party refused to admit that the plague existed, COVID-19 was allowed to cut a swath through the populace of Wuhan and then beyond, carrying away with it humanity’s one opportunity to stop a global pandemic before it got started.
The whistleblower this time was rather an inadvertent one, who was destined to suffer a more tragic fate than Jiang Yanyong, the hero of the SARS crisis. On December 30, a young Wuhan ophthalmologist named Li Wenliang posted a message to a private forum on the Chinese social-media network WeChat, warning friends and family to beware the new disease. Having no desire to martyr himself for the cause, he also warned them that the authorities would not treat him kindly if any of them were to “circulate this information outside the group.” But Li hadn’t reckoned with the thoroughness of Xi Jinping’s Internet surveillance regime. On January 3 — two days after the government had sent an order to all of China’s laboratories to “stop testing and destroy all samples” of COVID-19, apparently on the theory that what you don’t know can’t hurt you — Li was called into a police station for “spreading rumors online” and “severely disrupting social order.” He agreed to sign a testimonial, in which he acknowledged his guilt and promised not to commit any more such “unlawful acts,” in return for probation rather than a prison term.
Nine days later, Li himself was hospitalized with COVID-19. As he lay on his sickbed, the virus that didn’t officially exist traveled beyond the country’s borders, leading to dark jokes within an alerted and alarmed World Health Organization that it must “only affect overseas travelers.” Finally, someone — possibly one Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a grand old man of Chinese medicine who had done stellar work against the first SARS virus — convinced Xi Jinping that continuing to suppress the truth about COVID-19 was impractical. On January 20, in an event trumpeted in the Chinese propaganda press much like General MacArthur stepping out of a landing craft in the Philippines, Dr. Zhong personally led a task force to Wuhan to evaluate the situation there and take whatever active measures he deemed necessary. Just as during the SARS crisis, local functionaries took the blame for the national government’s failure to respond more quickly. “Today is your last chance to tell the truth,” the members of Zhong’s task force lectured them.
Three days after Zhong’s arrival — and 34 precious, irretrievable days after that deliveryman had presented at Wuhan Central Hospital — the entire city of Wuhan was put into lockdown at long last. From a minor new bug at worst, of no special consequence, the Party’s propaganda machine transformed COVID-19 overnight into an existential threat that could only be quelled by the sort of unified national effort that is normally associated only with major wars. “Zero-COVID” became the Party’s incontrovertible policy, to be achieved by any and all means necessary.
Sadly, it came too late for Li Wenliang, who died in hospital on February 7, a martyr despite himself. In the aftermath, the Party made good use of him as the tragic hero who had defied the petty local bureaucracy to warn of the danger that COVID-19 posed to the nation, then put his own health on the line to treat its victims — never mind that these were grave distortions of the real facts of his case. For China needed heroes in this time of national crisis, and now it had two of them, in the form of the sharp old Dr. Zhong and the brave young Dr. Li. Or rather three, if one counted — as the Party’s propaganda arm certainly did — the wise and stalwart figure of Xi Jinping, the benevolent leader presiding over it all. “Keep the faith,” he said during a visit to Wuhan. “We will win this battle. Wuhan will win. All of China will win.”
For a brief moment while all of this was unfolding, Western pundits had begun to ponder whether the early days of COVID-19 might go down as Communist China’s “Chernobyl moment,” a reference to the nuclear accident of 1986 that laid bare before the eyes of its own citizenry and the world the Soviet Union’s moral bankruptcy and corrupt haplessness. But, like all predictions of the Chinese Communist Party’s demise to date, this one did not come to pass. In the longer run, the crisis only strengthened the Party’s grip on the country.
During that surreal spring of 2020, while the people of the West struggled and often failed to reconcile the urgent medical need for lockdowns and other checks on personal freedoms with the Enlightenment values on which their societies were founded, while the corpses were piled up in trucks outside the hospitals of Bologna and New York City and protests against the restrictions convulsed capitals from Berlin to Washington, D.C., Xi made the concerted, orderly response of China and its comparatively tiny COVID-19 death toll an advertisement for its fundamental cultural superiority. “We’re a disciplined people. You’re not like us,” said one official to a Western reporter. And it must be said that plenty of Western observers rather felt he had a point. “Today [China’s] economy is roaring and some experts are asking whether the pandemic has tipped the global balance of power toward Beijing,” reported The New York Times at the end of that crazy, confusing, stultifying, heartbreaking year of 2020, easily the most universally tumultuous in world history since the Second World War. If the Communist Party’s tally is to be believed, barely 5000 Chinese died of COVID-19 during all of that year and the next — as compared to, for example, well over 1 million in the United States, a country with less than one quarter of China’s population. Even if we choose to argue that the Chinese numbers sound a bit too good to be true — and the Party has proven itself over and over to be more than capable of lying when it suits its agenda — it is clear from circumstantial evidence alone that the Chinese death toll was still vastly lower than that of most nations.
Conspiracy theories swept the world during 2020 at almost the same pace as COVID-19, claiming that the disease didn’t actually exist at all, or had been deliberately manufactured by one shadowy cabal or another, or was much milder than it was claimed to be. Whatever the other details of the conspiracy, COVID-19 was always described as a pretext for governments to impose their will on the citizenry, for purposes which even the conspiracy theorists themselves often seemed none too clear about. Needless to say, this sort of thing was usually nonsense; while the leaders of the free world may in hindsight stand guilty of countless sins of both commission and omission, they were almost to a person earnestly seeking the least bad alternatives amidst an unprecedented global disaster that offered up no particularly good ones. At worst — and this was admittedly plenty bad in some cases — the leaders of the West were driven by their desire to win the next election, not to eliminate elections altogether. In China, however, there really was something to the idea of a government using COVID-19 as a pretext for imposing tyranny.
For it is hard indeed not to see the pandemic as a godsend for a regime so obsessed with social control that it had already created what was arguably the most concerted program of artificial-intelligence research in the world strictly for the purpose of surveilling its own citizens and ferreting out troublemakers. COVID-19 provided the perfect pretext to take its efforts that much further. In the name of contact tracing, it could now demand that its citizens install an app on their smartphones which reported their every movement, demand that they scan their ID cards every time they entered a public building, hailed a taxi, boarded a train, or went shopping at a market. These arrangements were unquestionably vital tools for keeping the disease at bay, but one would have to be either deeply naïve or deeply unfamiliar with China’s recent history — or, more likely, both — to believe that the Party wasn’t ready and eager to use the data it gathered thusly for other purposes as well. Surveillance that had once been covert, in other words, could now become overt, and that much more effective for it.
In May of 2020, Xi Jinping used the pandemic as cover to implement a new set of so-called “national security” laws in Hong Kong that went even further than the ones that the city’s residents had narrowly managed to head off the previous year. Xi made sure nothing similar could happen this time; the new laws were published just hours before they went into force, giving protestors no time to organize, while the army was now ready and waiting to crush any dissent that did arise, using the COVID-19 restrictions as its excuse whenever it needed one. By the end of the year, the “One Country, Two Systems” era was over; Hong Kong was for all intents and purposes just another Chinese city, subject to the same rules as the rest of them.
Mired in crisis as it was, the rest of the world did absolutely nothing as one of its most exciting and vibrant cities became… something else, something few outside of the leaders on the Chinese mainland and their most zealous political sympathizers believed would be better. “Songs about saying goodbye have become some of the city’s most popular tunes,” wrote The Economist in the aftermath of the former British colony becoming an integral part of a police state. Almost 100,000 people, including most of the leaders of the shattered protest movement, fled to more congenial climes, often by taking advantage of the British passports they could still request, a final legacy of colonial times. The rest of the people of Hong Kong responded as people usually do when lofty ideals have failed them, by doing their best to accommodate themselves to the more pragmatic reality on the ground. “They can give you anything, except democracy,” said one former dissident of his city’s new overlords in Beijing. So be it. The people of Hong Kong would just have to make the most of those options that were still available to them.
More than ever before, the Chinese populace as a whole lived in a bubble, where they were fed a steady diet of duty and stigma, generously seasoned with xenophobia. Anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 was sent to one of the concentration-camp-like quarantine facilities, along with everyone they had come into contact with and everyone those people had come into contact with. This created a strong motivation to avoid becoming infected even if one was strong and healthy and thus at low risk of being hospitalized or dying from the disease; nobody wanted the forced internment of dozens of family and friends on their conscience. A system of internal borders and checkpoints sharply restricted domestic travel, even as the latest of China’s metaphorical Great Walls went up to keep the outside world well away. The number of international arrivals in the country dropped to less than 3 percent of the pre-pandemic total.
The fact that the pandemic lent itself in so many ways to Xi Jinping’s control-freak tendencies, combined with the fact that it had originated in China, gave birth to another strand of conspiracy theorizing in the world beyond the Great Wall. The most extreme of these theories, the claim that the Chinese government had deliberately engineered and unleashed the virus to serve its own nefarious purposes, fell apart as soon as the sober-minded listener began to think about it seriously. But even the more responsible journalists — even the ones who cringed every time President Donald Trump referred to COVID-19 as “the China virus” or the “Kung Flu,” even the ones who condemned the acts of violence committed against Americans of Asian descent by some of the same president’s more zealous supporters — were brought up short by an eyebrow-raising coincidence.
The city where COVID-19 first infected humans happened to be the home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the most important research facility of its type in China and one of the most important in the world, with a “Biosafety Level 4” rating — the highest such designation, indicating that it could and did store and study some of the most deadly pathogens known to humanity. Among its infectious treasures was the world’s biggest collection of coronaviruses, many of them collected from bats, a virulent incubator of this strand of virus. (SARS is believed to have originated in bats.) One didn’t have to join the more wild-eyed conspiracy theorists in believing that COVID-19 had been deliberately engineered as a biological weapon to look upon this institute with suspicion. If the tiniest trace of a natural or even human-engineered coronavirus that was being studied for entirely innocent purposes, with the aim of saving lives rather than taking them, had managed to sneak out on the person of some careless or unlucky researcher, that could have led to the pandemic. And if this was indeed the case, it would make China directly culpable for killing millions of people all over the world and bringing the life of the globe to a standstill in a way that resembled nothing previously seen in human history. To call the lab-leak theory explosive would be the understatement of the century — for this would be the story of the century if it turned out to be the correct one, condemning the nation of China to a well-nigh eternal international infamy.
In light of this, it was perhaps understandable that the Communist Party reacted to speculations of this kind with an almost unhinged fury, of the sort it usually indulged in only when the discussion turned to the question of Taiwan’s status. After all, what innocent wouldn’t react similarly, if accused of even accidentally instigating a disaster of such a magnitude? And yet it must also be said that the Party’s behavior didn’t always seem like that of an innocent wrongfully accused. It was consistently evasive when entities like the World Health Organization tried to investigate the origins of the virus. This in itself was a notable shift; after its initial attempt to wish SARS away had failed, the Communist Party had been admirably transparent with researchers endeavoring to understand that virus. Now, though, it shut China’s doors in the face of international science just as it did international tourism, and took to peddling absurd conspiracy theories of its own in the national media, claiming that COVID-19 may have been an American bio-weapon, or that it had come to China with a shipment of frozen food from Europe. It struck many that the Party simply must have something big — possibly something gigantic — to hide.
But most of the more experienced China watchers were left unconvinced by this line of reasoning. More so than evidence of culpability, they saw such behavior as indicative of one of the weaknesses of Xi Jinping’s China, the ease with which it could be triggered into words and deeds that did it no favors in the international court of public opinion.
And the scientific establishment has mostly come to agree with them. Despite the uncanny chain of coincidences surrounding the Wuhan Institute of Virology, most research scientists in the field today believe an entirely natural origin of COVID-19 to be far more likely than any laboratory leak. They point almost universally to the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the very place that employed that deliveryman who became the disease’s Patient Zero. There was a craze in China at the time for “wild tastes,” meaning exotic meats of all descriptions, born of an age-old belief that ingesting a given creature will impart to the eater some of its qualities — the rarer the creature, the stronger the effect. In addition to selling more plebeian fish, meat, and produce, the Wuhan Market catered to this fad. There one could buy all sorts of exotic animals for the purpose of eating them — some still living, some dead, some already butchered, from civets to raccoon dogs, bamboo rats to Malayan porcupines, Amur hedgehogs to monocled cobras. Unfortunately for the world, the more unusual a repast of which one partakes, the more likely it is to contain an equally unusual pathogen. Such a route, the people who ought to know tell us, is the most probable one taken by COVID-19 into the human population. Recent research has identified a number of other naturally occurring coronaviruses in animals that are even more similar to the one that causes COVID-19 than is the SARS virus, strengthening this theory further. While scientists are always careful not to rule anything out absent overwhelming evidence, most virologists if pressed will pronounce themselves at least 95 percent confident in the Wuhan Market rather than the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology as the pandemic’s Ground Zero.
Then, too, one need not be a scientist to be skeptical of even an authoritarian government’s ability to conceal a secret of the magnitude of a COVID-19 lab leak. Recall that China’s attempts to hide the existence of both SARS and COVID-19 were ended by members of its own scientific establishment who had been steeped in the ethos of science as a quest for the truth, and felt the public had a right to know said truth. If some variation of the lab-leak theory is true, why hasn’t even the ghost of a rumor of its veracity reached us from China itself?
Still, you may be asking yourself, if the Chinese government had nothing to hide in this respect, why did it behave — why does it still behave — as though it did? I believe the answer has everything to do with China’s still-intense sense of insecurity in its new role of global superpower. The country’s elites are intensely aware of how barbaric that Wuhan “wet” market, swimming in blood and offal and forlorn caged animals that were sometimes on international endangered-species lists, must look to cosmopolitan outsiders. This is not the image of a modern, dynamic China which the Communist Party wishes to project to the world. And then there remains as well the Party’s guilty consciousness of that initial coverup, absent which the virus might — just might, mind you — have been contained in time to prevent the global pandemic. To blame China too heartily for that tragedy is unfair — there is no reason to believe a Western democracy would have done any better, even if its failure may have had different wellsprings than the authoritarian instinct to conceal and deny problems — but that hasn’t prevented many people, not least among them Donald Trump, from doing exactly that. The Communist Party is naturally aggrieved by such rhetoric as his, and has no desire to add fuel to the fire by opening itself to outside scrutiny. Better to keep itself to itself. The generalized suspicion and even hostility with which Xi Jinping’s China views the world outside of its orbit — which, as we have seen, predates the pandemic by a number of years — only makes that course of action all the more tempting.
At any rate, the international perception that Xi had actually seen his agenda forwarded by the pandemic began to fade as 2020 turned into 2021 and then 2022, and the rest of the world found ways to live with a new disease that looks set to be our less than boon companion for a long time to come, like everyday influenza and the common cold. Broadly speaking, this easing of the global crisis was made possible by two developments. One was a degree of herd immunity in populations, thanks both to reasonably effective vaccines — especially those of the cutting-edge mRNA type, produced by the pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna — and the degree of natural protection afforded by catching and surviving COVID-19 once or more. The other was a new dominant strain of the virus, the “Omicron” variant, a product of natural mutation and natural selection that was even better at spreading itself but considerably less dangerous to its hosts once it got inside their respiratory systems.
China, however, was unable — or, perhaps better said, unwilling — to benefit from these developments to anything like the same extent as most of the world. Starting in early 2021, the point that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were first produced in quantity, Xi Jinping was repeatedly offered them, but his pride didn’t allow him to accept them; instead he insisted on employing only China’s own, homegrown but far less effective vaccine. Meanwhile the very zero-COVID policies that kept China’s death toll so low prevented its population from building up a resistance to the virus by natural means. So, while most of the rest of the world was returning to something approaching normality by the beginning of 2022, China was still testing and tracking its citizens relentlessly, and still keeping its borders closed to virtually all foreign visitors. The British journalist David Rennie, the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist, was forced to remain in the country for years, because if he left he would under no circumstances be allowed back in again. In late 2021, he described the paranoia that was still the dominant note of life inside China almost two years into the pandemic.
Fear of COVID is partly medical, for official media have played up the dangers of the virus. But shame plays a large role, too.
A Beijinger with COVID faces social stigma. A single infected individual is enough to see entire housing compounds locked down for fourteen days and workplaces quarantined, triggering the loathing of neighbours and colleagues. The children of the sick are schoolyard pariahs. If that weren’t pressure enough, local officials in provincial cities including Chengdu, Harbin, Wuxi and Shangrao have entered the homes of quarantined residents and killed their pet cats and dogs, citing the risk that animals might transmit the disease.
To be ill in zero-COVID China has become a form of deviancy. Beijing residents who develop a temperature above 37.3°C [99.1°F], for any reason – including as a side-effect of having a COVID vaccination – are supposed to report to a fever clinic to have their blood drawn and screened for antibodies, their chests scanned, and nose and throat swabs taken for nucleic-acid tests. Self-treatment can lead to arrest, if someone with a high temperature is later found to be positive for the virus. Two pharmacies in suburban Beijing lost their licences after selling fever-reducing medicines to a couple without logging their names in a virus-tracking database.
Non-essential travel is an anti-social act. My passport, with its precious pre-pandemic entry stamp, has helped me make reporting trips even during mini-surges in infections. Now, with the Omicron and Delta variants beating at China’s doors, the rules have tightened again. Currently, if I leave Beijing I may return only if I can show a negative nucleic-acid test taken within 48 hours, a green Beijing health code on my smartphone (certifying that I have not been flagged as sick, nor been near a suspected case in the past fourteen days) and a blemish-free travel history.
A police state sees opportunity as well as a challenge in these travel curbs. Since the start of the pandemic, police and local propaganda officials have routinely forced foreign journalists to cut short reporting trips to sensitive areas by threatening to quarantine them on the spot for fourteen days or more. This has happened to me in Hunan, Henan and Jilin provinces. In Xinjiang in western China, an already intense surveillance apparatus has added COVID tests to its arsenal of controls. On my most recent visit to that unhappy region, I had the striking experience of hearing all passengers in a packed train ordered to stay in their seats as we pulled into Urumqi station. Officers in white hazmat suits then marched the length of the train to find the foreign passenger on board, and pull me off for questioning about when I last entered the country – and also, oddly, whether I like China or not.
What with China’s bellicose behavior in so many matters pertaining and not pertaining to COVID-19, fewer and fewer people in the Western world at least seemed prepared to answer that last question in the affirmative. In a rare respite from the government’s closed-border policy, the Winter Olympics were held in Beijing in February of 2022, making it the first city ever to have hosted both the Summer and Winter edition of the games. These ones, however, proved nothing like the triumph that had been the 2008 Summer Olympics. Instead they became perchance the saddest Olympics in history, afflicted by draconian social-distancing rules that forced the athletes to compete in front of empty bleachers and by an American diplomatic boycott, one of the United States’s few coherent responses to China’s recent crackdown in Hong Kong and its ongoing mistreatment of its ethnic minorities. The world greeted the proceedings with a collective shrug, rewarding Beijing’s efforts with by far the lowest television ratings of any Olympics ever. International surveys showed China’s reputation and that of the increasingly autocracy-friendly Olympics themselves to be at a 50-year low.
By now, the same question was on everyone’s lips: just what was China’s pandemic exit strategy? And the answer many were coming up with was that it didn’t have one. Xi Jinping had told his people that China’s response to the pandemic demonstrated its fundamental superiority. Now, he would say only that the end would come when “final victory” was secured, without doing anything to clarify what said victory would look like. Many began to wonder if China would ever relax its restrictions, wondered whether Xi intended to use the pandemic in perpetuity as an excuse for controlling every aspect of his people’s lives, whatever the cost to the country’s economy and international standing.
Then, just as those vaguely pathetic Beijing Winter Olympics were coming to an end, the Great COVID Wall he had built around China cracked, as a major outbreak occurred in Shanghai, the country’s largest city of all. Within weeks, Shanghai had the largest per-capita COVID-19 death rate in the world. The authorities imposed a brutal lockdown, turning the homes of 25 million people into prison cells. The city came to resemble a Hollywood dystopia. “Food became scarce,” says journalist Sue-Lin Wong. “Residents were spending hours on grocery-delivery apps to score something to eat. Guys in hazmat suits beat people in the streets for breaking the rules, as the city packed others into mass-quarantine facilities. Shanghai’s leaders were single-minded: get the case count back to zero, whatever it takes.” Drones buzzed continually overhead, squawking orders to stay indoors: “Suppress your soul’s desire for freedom.” Hungry residents marooned in the city’s apartment towers shouted out of their windows and waved placards, begging for supplies.
Despite all of the authorities’ efforts, the virus escaped from Shanghai. Now all of China was subject to roaming lockdowns of the same stringency, imposed with little or no notice, often for weeks or even months at a time. It was impossible for even Xi’s censorship machine to keep a lid on the people’s growing fear and anger, or to hide from them the reality that only their country among all the nations of the world was still engaged in such an existential struggle against COVID-19. The sense of roiling discontent inside China was becoming palpable.
It was amidst this tempestuous climate that Xi Jinping fulfilled the destiny for which he had laid the groundwork four and a half years before, by getting himself elected to a third term as Communist Party General Secretary and President of China in October of 2022. Six weeks later, Xi announced an abrupt about-face. After almost three years of zero-COVID, of preaching how China’s handling of the pandemic was a living example of its superiority to the decadent West, he was dropping its COVID-19 restrictions. All of them. “Let it rip,” was to be the new guiding policy — rip through a populace where only 40 percent of those over 80 years old had received even the inferior Chinese-made vaccine. “A more accountable government might have acknowledged its errors while laying out the steps needed to leave zero-COVID gradually, when life-saving measures were in place,” noted The Economist, with something approaching horror peeking out from between the lines of its usually staid style of reportage. “But Xi Jinping and the Communist Party are rushing ahead, ready or not. All signs point to not.”
I am writing these words at the end of the last full week of February, 2023. As I do so, the Party has just claimed that only 87,468 Chinese have died since the beginning of the pandemic, and has declared a “decisive victory” over the virus. While there is much that we do not know, we do know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this number is a lie. By extrapolating from what appear to be accurate numbers released by Hong Kong — one of the last remnants of “One Country, Two Systems” — The Economist has calculated a real figure of somewhere between 1.4 and 2.4 million dead, most of them in the last few months. That said, it will probably take quite some time before we know for sure what price the Chinese people have paid for their government’s erratic behavior, just as it took decades for us to learn the truth about other avoidable tragedies like the Great Leap Forward. In the meantime, we can only hope that the statisticians are wrong this time, that Xi Jinping will not join his partial role model Mao Zedong in the annals of Chinese history as a leader who sacrificed millions of lives on the altar of his pride and megalomania. Only time will tell.
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9 Comments for "Chapter 29: The Virus"
Re-reading this sentence, I get the intended meaning, but a couple of liberally-placed commas might make it easier to parse:
“…a natural instinct for a ruling party that had made its ability to prevent emergencies of any stripe and the social chaos they bred the source of its legitimacy in the absence of such niceties as free elections.”
I heard it said that the start of the end of the COVID shutdowns began with the screening of the World Cup and the Chinese audience saw the crowds in the stands being very “non-social distanced” and acting as COVID was in their past.
The zero-COVID facade started to crumble around the same time as the World Cup was being played. One darkly amusing side note is that Chinese television started censoring live coverage of the matches after citizens started questioning on social media how it was that there were stadiums full of maskless people in Qatar at the same time there were harsh restrictions at home:
Most of the side-by-side comparison videos seem to have been DMCA’d into oblivion but I remember it being clear that China was taking the main international video feed and whenever it would show a close/medium shot of spectators, the Chinese feed would instead cut to players on the bench, coaches, etc.
It’s also notable that there were rare, often fairly large public protests in numerous cities across China shortly before COVID restrictions were lifted, though it seems more likely that the fact that the omicron variant was simply too contagious to be stopped even by draconian lockdowns was a larger factor in the end of zero COVID than public discontent.
I do think the protests and general discontent played a big role in the decision. Even a totalitarian state becomes untenable beyond a certain threshold; it depends on most of the people most of the time deciding that they have too much to lose by defying it. If their lives become so intolerable that they know no longer feel that way, all bets are off. And the Chinese Communist Party, which has staked so much of its legitimacy on its ability to deliver ever-increasing prosperity and to maintain social order, is more susceptible than most to these pressures.
But I do think it was very important to Xi to secure a third term at the Party Congress before ending Zero-COVID. It would not have been a good look to effectively anoint him leader for life while COVID-19 was ravaging the country and killing hundreds of thousands if not millions — something that Xi and his colleagues are scientifically literate enough to know was sure to happen. A cold-blooded calculation, but there you are.
“Today [China’s] economy is roaring and and some experts are asking whether the pandemic…”.
A double “and” there Jimmy.
“Conspiracy theories swept the world during 2020 at almost the same pace as COVID-19, claiming that the disease didn’t actually exist it all…”.
exist “at’ all?
“the highest such designation, indicting that it could and did store and study…” – I think that “indicting” should be “indicating”.