“What if we could just be China for a day,” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman pondered wistfully in 2010. This wasn’t an errant thought. It complemented his columns mourning the U.S. government’s lethargy and competing power centers, and he was not alone in that lament. Even amid a global pandemic unleashed, at the very least, as a result of Beijing’s paranoia and inefficiency, Western elites still insisted the People’s Republic alone got the pandemic right. In 2020, this sentiment was merely parochial. Today, it’s an indictment of its proponents.
If we could be China for a day today, we would be engaged in a criminal assault on the dignity and rights of millions of our fellow citizens. It is a feature of totalitarian societies that they are compelled to shape reality so that it comports with the government’s preferred narratives, and China is no different. In China, you see, Covid is under control. Even when it’s not.
In mid-March, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China convened a meeting to congratulate local officials for observing China’s “zero-Covid approach,” noting that regional “clusters of infections” had been “swiftly brought under control” and keeping a watchful eye out for “imported cases.” At the same time, Beijing was already imposing severe 2020-style lockdowns on whole cities as a new wave of infections surged across the country. Over a month later, millions of Chinese are still suffering under administrative segregation. The situation is getting grim.
In Shanghai, “lockdown” means just that: Residential compounds have been transformed into prisons. Government and private industry are unable to resupply, prepare, or deliver food to residents, and the people are starving. “In the past few days, a hot topic in WeChat groups has been whether sprouted potatoes were safe to eat, a few Shanghai residents told me,” New York Times columnist Li Yuan wrote. “Neighbors resorted to a barter system to exchange, say, a cabbage for a bottle of soy sauce. Coca-Cola is hard currency.” Hoarding is rampant, she writes, and even the moneyed classes have been reduced to foraging to “dig up bamboo shoots for a meal.”
These are the lucky ones. If you’re one of the tens of thousands who test positive, you are transferred to quarantine facilities that more closely resemble overcrowded prisons. The lights never go off. The noise is deafening. There are no shower facilities and too few waste-elimination receptacles. “Some quarantine camps were so poorly prepared that people had to fight for food, water and bedding,” she concluded.
Videos posted to the Internet by social-media users paint a dystopian picture. Residents wail eerily into the night in a cacophony of sorrow—until, that is, a drone hovers past admonishing them to “control your soul’s desire for freedom” and to “not open the window or sing.” Fed-up residents are menacing their Communist tormentors, and household pets are being beaten to death while their infected owners are incarcerated.
These imperious tactics are not limited to Shanghai. Cities across the Mainland are either struggling under some degree of lockdown or preparing for one. Nor is this heavy-handed “zero-Covid” approach new. When this novel coronavirus debuted, China prioritized avoiding “public alarm and political embarrassment” over communicating the scale of the threat with the rest of the world. And when the secret was out, China disappeared whistleblowers, locked (even welded) residents into their homes, erected Potemkin triage centers, and used the cover provided by the pandemic to expand its campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Uighur minority. All the while, the Chinese government was showered with Western praise.
“China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic,” the World Health Organization observed in early 2020. It did not. “They’ve basically contained the virus through technology-powered, authoritarian surveillance,” Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer said. They have not. “The pandemic is going to reinforce that the United States is simply not the highly functional, advanced role model it used to be,” Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Edward Alden insisted. That was false. Public health experts the world over marveled at China’s Covid response and lamented the limited extent to which the world’s Democratic governments were imposing only some of the Communist government’s restrictions on their respective publics. Even Donald Trump got in on the game, insisting throughout February 2020 that Beijing had “everything under control.”
We soon learned that China had deceived international investigators, which came as a shock only to those who suspended their rational disbelief in the information a totalitarian despotism approves for export. China’s statistics were faulty, and the virus was not contained—as the collapse of the global supply chain later confirmed. Still, the People’s Republic was lauded by Westerners whose fear of the virus eclipsed their love of liberty. As late as the fall of 2020, with China’s duplicity in full view of all who were willing to see it, Thomas Friedman just couldn’t help himself. “Covid-19 was supposed to be China’s Chernobyl,” he noted. “It’s ended up looking more like the West’s Waterloo.”
Friedman seems to have been blessedly wrong about that. As the severe lockdown of China’s biggest port enters its fifth week, experts expect the supply-chain breakdowns the world experienced in 2020 and 2021 to return with a vengeance. Those disruptions catalyzed a crash-course investment in and repatriation of industries vital to American national security. It’s reasonable to expect that more disruptions will force the Western world to accelerate its trend toward diversification at Beijing’s expense. The abject failure of China’s homegrown Covid vaccine and its inoculation campaign does suggest that authoritarianism isn’t as efficient as once thought. And the rare sight of civil unrest against Chinese authorities isn’t just an embarrassment for the regime. It is redolent of a sort of liberalism that has not been measurable on the Mainland in over 30 years.
Not only has China’s relentless efforts to stop the spread of Covid failed to stop the spread of Covid, the regime has compromised its structural integrity in the process. Far from reinforcing “the impression that the U.S. has nothing to teach the rest of the world,” as Edward Alden concluded, the free world’s balancing of competing interests, its culture of free scientific inquiry, and its superior commercial capacities strike a favorable contrast with the Chinese model. That doesn’t come as much surprise to anyone with a proper understanding of the congenital deficiencies of authoritarian states. Indeed, the shock of it all seems to be exclusive to the “experts.”