China’s Ongoing COVID Disaster Exposes the Failure of Authoritarianism

China has only one tool, coercion, but that won’t solve their COVID problem

Lockdown. Empty thoroughfares in Shanghai on April 4, 2022. Image Credit: Jackal Pan/Getty Images

With the death toll from COVID recently passing 1 million, it is clear that we in the U.S. have largely botched our response to the pandemic. We botched it because our politics usually gives us only a very small number of tools—basically, tribalistic partisanship and culture war posturing—and insists on applying them to everything. That’s why some people took excessive precautions such as extended school shutdowns, which they found difficult to reverse because these had become markers for partisan affiliation. Others—to more devastating effect in terms of lives lost—refused to take even the most basic precautions because that might have given the other side a win in the culture war.

China, however, is now botching its COVID response to an even greater extent because if we have only a few political tools, they have just one: lock people up. That is the essence of their fanatical “Zero COVID” strategy, which has recently locked down Shanghai for months, with Beijing likely to follow. It is a timely warning of the failure of an authoritarian system in which state control is the only solution to any problem.

Authoritarian Blindness

China has been failing in its response to COVID since the very beginning. The disease’s spread in its first few months is a classic tale of “authoritarian blindness.” The Chinese regime is obsessed with surveillance of its citizens, not so it can find information, but so it can suppress it. This is exactly what they did in the early days of the pandemic, when doctors warning about a new virus were punished for spreading “rumors.”

The regime’s next failure has been its inability to develop an effective vaccine—and its unwillingness to borrow one that does work. An authoritarian system prizes obedience over original thinking, and the result is that China rarely creates new technology. So it was left to Europe and America to develop the mRNA technology that made it possible to produce highly effective COVID vaccines with unprecedented speed. By contrast, China’s biggest entry in the vaccine race, CoronaVac, has proven far less effective. It is perhaps 60% effective at preventing severe disease, as opposed to 90% for the Moderna vaccine, but it offers less protection, as low as 30%, for the elderly—who are precisely the ones who need it most. Its protection also wanes more rapidly.

Yet as famous as China is for its knockoffs, it hasn’t even been willing to copy our vaccines. An authoritarian regime is obsessed with prestige and with appeals to a fragile national pride, which it uses as a substitute for democratic legitimacy. So instead of using the Western vaccines, which would be an implicit recognition of the achievements of liberal social systems, China launched a disinformation campaign against them. But this had the side effect of making people distrustful of all vaccines, including China’s. So China now has both a less effective vaccine and low compliance rates.

The Law of the Instrument

Having failed at all other pandemic measures, what does China have left? Something that comes naturally to a regime that also runs vast prison complexes and concentration camps: locking people up. It’s the Law of the Instrument: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like it needs to be pounded down.

The essence of China’s “Zero COVID” policy has been to lock down whole neighborhoods and even whole cities upon detection of the first case. This strategy had a certain blunt effectiveness in the early stages of the pandemic. But the highly contagious omicron variant spreads too easily and rapidly and has made it necessary to impose larger and longer lockdowns, with ever more devastating effects. The result is the massive effort over the past two months to put most of the population of Shanghai, a city of 26 million, under house arrest.

Shutting down all activity in one of China’s economic powerhouses is likely to cause an economic contraction for the whole country, just at the point when most of the world’s other economies have come roaring back from the pandemic. But the economic impact is just part of a massive human toll. The stories coming out of Shanghai indicate a lockdown so draconian that people were trapped in their homes without food or medicine. As The New York Times reported:

In some neighborhoods, government handouts have been inconsistent and sparse. Even the wealthiest residents scrambled for groceries. Many older residents who don’t use smartphones or online shopping apps have suddenly found themselves cut off from daily life — and sources of food.

Others protested the restrictions that prevented them from working even as they had to continue paying rent in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The Times analyzed and verified the location of another protest video, originally posted to Weibo, in which residents of Luoyang Sancun, a middle-class community in southwestern Shanghai, gathered outside and chanted in unison: “We want to eat. We want to work. We want the right to information!”

In the cruelest part of the crackdown, young children were forcibly separated from their parents. To complete the dystopian feel of it all, residents shouting from their windows to protest the lack of food were answered by a government drone broadcasting a message telling them to “control your soul’s desire for freedom.”

The Last Generation

All of this threatens the implicit social contract of the Communist regime in China: that the government will deliver capitalist prosperity and the good life in exchange for political quiescence. That was especially true in Shanghai, a vast cosmopolitan city where for many the good life has been very good.

Now the slogan emerging from Shanghai is the response given by a couple to an official who warned them that if they didn’t comply with lockdown rules, their punishment would last for three generations: “We’re the last generation.” This has become a rallying cry of protest, with one Chinese social media comment explaining what it means. As China Digital Times reported:

This phrase, redolent of tragedy, is an expression of the deepest form of despair. The speaker declared a decision of a biological nature: We will not reproduce. The decision is underpinned by a psychological and existential judgment: A future worth striving for has been taken from us. That phrase is, perhaps, the strongest indictment a young person can make of the era to which they belong.

The regime’s draconian policy is not even working. According to an article in Foreign Affairs, lockdowns intended to keep COVID cases from overwhelming health care systems have themselves overwhelmed the system, and mass testing efforts undermined the forced isolation.

During much of the Shanghai lockdown, residents in areas under full measures were prohibited from going outdoors except when they were corralled to receive PCR tests; the mass testing events only spread the virus further. Meanwhile, since most health-care workers had been mobilized to provide PCR tests and treat asymptotic or mild cases, very few were available to provide routine or emergency health care.

While the lockdowns are easing in Shanghai, at least for now, they are already beginning to spread to Beijing.

Who Benefits?

All of this was done to achieve low official numbers of COVID cases and COVID deaths. Yet these figures are ridiculously, unbelievably low. A country of more than a billion people, where COVID originated, has had fewer than 5,000 deaths from two and a half years of a pandemic? The true number, extrapolated from excess mortality—the number of people who have died since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to normal annual mortality rates—indicates the official COVID count is a tiny fraction of the real number.

This reminds me of how the remaining devotees of Marxism will point to statistics about infant mortality or literacy in Cuba—in other words, the only numbers that make the Cuban regime look good. This is an old trick of dictatorships: Select a few showcase statistics that you use for propaganda purposes, then game the hell out of those statistics, doing whatever you need to do to make them look good—regardless of the underlying reality behind the statistics. That is what China has done with COVID.

The Shanghai shutdown and the general collapse of Zero COVID before the onslaught of the omicron variant has led many to point out the weakness of China’s authoritarian approach. Paul Krugman has written an excellent column—and I did not think I would ever say those words—describing the lack of mental “flexibility” in an authoritarian regime, which makes its leaders unable to take in new information and change course. More deeply, a regime built on force has the ability to restrain and to destroy, but it does not have the ability to create or to innovate. They can’t come up with solutions like vaccines and instead only use the bluntest of blunt instruments.

What the Shanghai lockdown reveals, though, is the deepest indictment of an authoritarian system: the question of who benefits from it. The goal of an illiberal system is not the well-being of individual citizens but the security of the rulers, which is achieved by controlling the narrative in the media rather than producing good results on the ground.

That is what the Chinese people should learn from this tragedy. In an age when liberalism is on the defensive, it should also be a lesson to anyone else who is tempted by the false claims of authoritarianism.

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