China vs COVID… and its collateral damage
Chinese leaders have a story to tell. The Communist Party, they say, rules the nation on behalf of the Chinese people, and it does so far more effectively than American and European leaders rule their own countries. Western so-called democracies are plagued by greed, arrogance and dysfunction. Americans, who cannot even agree on the legitimacy of their current president, want to tell us what is best for our people. The Europeans, who built their prosperity on the enslavement of their former colonies, want to lecture us on human rights.
According to its leaders, there is no better current example of the clear superiority of China’s political system than the vital benefits of its “Zero COVID” policy. According to its official statistics, COVID has killed less than 5,000 Chinese citizens in a country of 1.4 billion people. Yes, the Zero COVID policy imposed forced lockdowns and testing on tens of millions of people, but are those people now less “free” than the nearly one million Americans COVID has killed? American and European leaders, they say, protect the privacy of their citizens, while Chinese leaders protect the lives of their people.
Western officials will point out that China’s limits on freedom of expression and information allow Chinese officials to hide the true extent of their country’s problems, in part to escape responsibility for their own mistakes. They will also remind the world that COVID first emerged in China’s Hunan Province, and when Chinese doctors began to publicly discuss the risks it posed, China’s public security service summoned Dr Li Wenliang in his office and accused him of “making false comments”. and disturbing the “social order”. The Chinese authorities’ decision to hide the truth about the coronavirus and the dangers it posed ensured its spread around the world. After Dr. Li’s death sparked a storm in Chinese social media, the state declared him a hero.
This political context is key to understanding the political stakes – and the potential Chinese and global economic repercussions – in China’s current battle against COVID-19. The magnitude of this battle has no historical precedent. The cities of Jilin (3.6 million inhabitants), Tangshan (7.7 million), Changchun (nine million), Xuzhou (nine million) are currently closed. But it is the near-total shutdown of Shanghai, China’s financial capital and largest city with a population of more than 25 million, that is attracting the most international attention. The number of Chinese citizens now infected with the Omicron variant is increasing. Because so few Chinese have been infected, few have developed antibodies to protect them. And China has yet to develop vaccines with the high success rates of innovative mRNA vaccines used in the United States and Europe. In response, the Chinese government has confined more than 50 million people to their homes without an effective plan to provide them with food and medical care for other problems. Shanghai’s lockdown has already lasted longer than the state originally promised.
China has relaxed its Zero COVID policy slightly, but it could do much more. For example, it could allow Chinese state media to inform the public that the Omicron variant is less dangerous than previous COVID variants and less likely to hospitalize infected people. It could accept more infections, and even more deaths, in order to mitigate the damage to public health and the economic damage inflicted by the confinement of a much larger number of people. But to do these things would be to recognize that government needs to change course and allow citizens to question the infallibility of the judgment of their leaders.
This dilemma comes at a politically sensitive time. Later this year, the Chinese Communist Party is expected to break with past practice by granting Xi Jinping a third term as the nation’s supreme leader. China’s economy has been slowing for years as rising wages have undermined the low-wage manufacturing model that created the conditions for China’s historic rise from poverty to the world’s largest middle class. COVID damage elsewhere has also slowed the global economy that has fueled China’s rise. Russia’s war in Ukraine has created even more economic uncertainty. Today, China’s Zero COVID policy has led to lockdowns that will further depress growth – and the impact will be felt around the world.
This is a reminder that arguments about the relative merits of Chinese and Western political systems ignore a common problem: economic fallout and potential political unrest, like COVID-19, don’t care much about borders.
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Ian Bremmer is chairman of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.