Nearly 40 years ago, I was in Beijing when China discovered its first case of Aids. As soon as the authorities realised that the victim, an Argentinian-American man, was suffering from this new disease, they locked him in his hotel room.
Food was left outside his door. The used dishes and cutlery were immediately destroyed. When he left, all the furnishings, carpets, curtains, everything was taken away and burned.
The Chinese do not do things by halves.
Quarantine, for example, means quarantine. A friend returning to Shanghai with his wife and infant recently took the risk that if they or their child contracted Covid during their three weeks’ quarantine, they would be parted from the one-year-old for the duration. Fortunately, none of them fell ill.
Lockdown means lockdown. Recently, the city of Xi’an, with a population of 13 million, was incarcerated for a month after Covid infections soared. Officials arranged food drop-offs, not always adequately. A pregnant woman lost her baby because she did not have a Covid pass and was refused entry to hospital.
And testing means testing. When one visitor to Shanghai’s Disneyland tested positive, all the other 34,000 visitors that day were held and tested.
Lockdown means lockdown. Recently, the city of Xi’an, with a population of 13 million, was incarcerated for a month after Covid infections soared
‘Zero tolerance’ is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) DNA, whether that is towards dissent, divergence or disease. This is because ‘the Party leads everything’, as General Secretary and President Xi Jinping likes to say. But just as all good things come from the Party, so, if you are in charge of everything, all bad things are your responsibility, too.
The Party was rattled when a novel coronavirus — later named SARS-CoV-2 — emerged in Wuhan in late 2019 and early 2020.
That December, ophthalmologist Li Wenliang at Central Hospital of Wuhan had, in what he’d intended to be a private message, warned colleagues about a mysterious new infection that resembled severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. He encouraged them to protect themselves.
Days later, he was summoned to the city’s Public Security Bureau in Wuhan to sign a statement accusing him of making false claims that disturbed the public order.
In February, by which time no one in China was in any doubt about the seriousness of the epidemic, 34-year-old Dr Wenliang contracted the infection from a patient and died.
The death of a man who had tried to alert people to Covid triggered outrage in China
The death of a man who had tried to alert people to Covid triggered outrage in China. A potential crisis threatened the authorities’ reputation for competent governance, particularly because its warning and coping systems, set up after a similar virus scare in 2003, did not function properly to head off the new threat.
This really mattered. Here in Britain, we might question ministers’ competence in dealing with Covid. We can even vote them out at the next election. But in China, the CCP cannot be held accountable for failure.
Indeed, its boast of a superior political system — President Xi is forever condemning Western democracy as inferior — means that failure is not an option, since it might lead the people to question the whole model of government.
The Party swung into action to retrieve its bad start. Unhappy and dissenting voices were censored or silenced. Its extensive control and surveillance systems were increased.
High-tech electronic tracing, monitoring apps on mobiles, CCTV and the ‘grid system’ — a network of street-level neighbourhood committees and informers which cuts city areas into small controllable chunks — went into overdrive.
Draconian it may have been — and still remains — but it worked. However massaged Chinese statistics for Covid cases and deaths are, even if they are ten times worse than declared (149,000 cases and 4,638 deaths), given a population 20 times ours, they compare extraordinarily well with UK figures of 21.2 million cases and 165,570 deaths
Draconian it may have been — and still remains — but it worked. However massaged Chinese statistics for Covid cases and deaths are, even if they are ten times worse than declared (149,000 cases and 4,638 deaths), given a population 20 times ours, they compare extraordinarily well with UK figures of 21.2 million cases and 165,570 deaths.
Then there was the propaganda blitz. The Global Times, the Party’s tabloid, talked of doctors who were CCP members ‘volunteering to go to the frontline in the battle against the disease in Wuhan’.
‘The first step those [CCP] members had made gave the rest of us the strength and confidence to follow their steps,’ said the director of a Wuhan intensive care unit.
The global press was agog with the story of how two 1,000-bed hospitals were constructed in ten days — as it happens, that was a day longer than it took us in the UK to set up the first Nightingale hospital, with 4,000 beds. Perhaps we need a central propaganda department.
While this propaganda campaign probably did more than anything to rouse opposition to China in Western countries, it served its purpose well: the CCP’s target was primarily its own people, to convince them of its rightness to rule
This was followed by an overseas propaganda campaign of breathtaking arrogance. With no hint of apology for the gift of Covid to the world — on the contrary, with assertions that the origin of the virus may have been an American laboratory leak and later outbreaks may have come from frozen seafood imports or even virus carried on international mail — the CCP lauded its gifts (often sales) of PPE and vaccines to the foreigners.
Their incompetence in dealing with Covid was contrasted with China’s effectiveness. This underlined the excellent governance system of the CCP compared with Western wallowing.
While this propaganda campaign probably did more than anything to rouse opposition to China in Western countries, it served its purpose well: the CCP’s target was primarily its own people, to convince them of its rightness to rule.
So China watched and crowed as Europe and the U.S. suffered during the first year of the pandemic. But how different things look now as the West — with high levels of vaccinated and boosted populations — emerges from the crisis.
Because for all the reputation of the Party for long-term planning, it has not worked out how to deal with the long-term implications of Covid.
New and more infectious variants — notably Omicron — are gaining a hold and, as the country enters the third year of the pandemic, restrictions and lockdowns remain a fact of life
New and more infectious variants — notably Omicron — are gaining a hold and, as the country enters the third year of the pandemic, restrictions and lockdowns remain a fact of life.
Shanghai, China’s most populous city, with 26 million people, is the latest to be locked down again as a two-stage plan to isolate everyone who is infected and start mass testing is implemented.
It is not without cost. China’s economy is already in trouble. A Hong Kong professor has calculated that at a minimum the cost of lockdowns is $46 billion (£35 billion) a month, or 3.1 percent of GDP, in lost economic output, and the impact could double if more cities tighten restrictions.
People are also beginning to get restive after so long under restrictions, with protests spreading rapidly.
It is difficult to see how China can open up its borders in the present circumstances.
What, then, has gone wrong? China’s first mistake was born of sheer arrogance. Despite having secured an agreement with the U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the German biotechnology company BioNTech in early 2020 for testing, approving, and producing their mRNA vaccines in China, the authorities chose to rely on much less effective home-grown vaccines. They hoped to develop their own mRNA vaccine in good time. That hasn’t happened yet.
The second big mistake China made has been its slowness in putting even those less effective vaccines into the arms of the elderly and vulnerable
The second big mistake China made has been its slowness in putting even those less effective vaccines into the arms of the elderly and vulnerable.
According to the National Health Commission, there are 264 million people aged 60 and above. Nearly 20 per cent have not been fully vaccinated. For 80-year-olds — among the most vulnerable groups — that figure rises to 50 per cent, while 80 per cent have not had boosters, so any immunity is waning.
And it is not as though the CCP lacks the ability to coerce when it wants to.
The combined result of less effective vaccines, a poor roll-out and successful lockdowns has been a lack of herd immunity in China. This is an immense hurdle to the nation opening up again.
What has happened in Hong Kong is a worrying portend. Despite its restrictions on movement, it has had 1.16 million cases and 7,945 deaths.
Its vaccination rates, mainly using Chinese vaccines (yet another example of the Hong Kong government kowtowing to Beijing), have been lower than on the mainland — almost 40 per cent of the over-80s have been vaccinated.
Health care is a sensitive issue in any country. As one Chinese commentator has said: ‘China is not prepared for large scale deaths from diseases. We are not psychologically, socially or economically prepared’
Like many Chinese cities, it has many elderly and is densely populated; unlike Chinese cities, its health system is relatively robust, yet still it has had difficulty in coping with reports of hospitals overflowing and body bags piling up.
For mainland China, the epidemiologist who led the initial efforts to contain Covid in Wuhan estimates that 12-15 million people a week could contract Covid if Omicron spreads as it has in other countries. This tsunami would overwhelm a still rudimentary health care system, which is anyway beyond the 600 million Chinese who earn less than £100 a month. China has half the number of intensive care unit beds per capita compared with the UK, and only a tenth of the U.S.
Health care is a sensitive issue in any country. As one Chinese commentator has said: ‘China is not prepared for large scale deaths from diseases. We are not psychologically, socially or economically prepared.’
If the Party cannot help its citizens in sickness, what are ordinary Chinese to conclude about the health of the political system?
The CCP is petrified of protests turning into a Tiananmen type unrest. This is the dilemma for the Party. Social stability is the number one, number two and number three priority. But the current Covid policy is unsustainable. It threatens to magnify an economic malaise, which could lead to significant unemployment. And that, given a lack of a proper social security net, could lead to protest and instability.
For the moment, at least, there is little that will change until after the 20th Party Congress in the autumn, when Xi Jinping is almost certain to be confirmed for a third term in his Party, military and state posts
For the moment, at least, there is little that will change until after the 20th Party Congress in the autumn, when Xi Jinping is almost certain to be confirmed for a third term in his Party, military and state posts.
In the meantime, the challenge will be to hold off the assault of Omicron using current tactics and suppress any unrest rigorously. Behind the scenes, the pressure will be on China’s scientists to produce an effective rMNA vaccine, which will be jabbed into the arms of the vulnerable, with no truck given to anti-vaxxers. That might just allow a gradual opening up — as long as the health service can cope.
And, of course, the propaganda department will be working overtime. Having claimed loudly and frequently, as the Party’s paper, the People’s Daily, did in March, that its response to Covid showed clearly ‘the comparison between rule in China and chaos in the West’, it will have its work cut out explaining how it is that life in democratic countries has returned to normal, while Covid restrictions still stalk China.
Inevitably, the main propaganda message will be that it is all the foreigners’ fault. Recently, the chief expert of China’s Centre for Disease Control claimed that ‘although [Omicron] was discovered in southern Africa, countries such as the U.S. and the UK are the ‘amplifiers’ in spreading the virus’.
Even if the CCP can get through to next year with its Covid policy intact, the likelihood is that it will require increasing repression to make it through. That, too, will chip away at its legitimacy
True, but who originated the virus and allowed it to spread globally by denying its existence and permitting international travel from Wuhan, while clamping down on movement within China? Let alone by preventing a proper investigation into the origins of Covid in a city which happened to be home to the world centre of research into coronaviruses?
Will the policy of delay, wait for an effective vaccine, slow opening and a propaganda blitz work? That depends as much on the mood of the virus as on the CCP. The risk is it might turn nasty and overwhelm the lockdown, tracing and testing strategy. That would be a severe blow to the Party’s self-proclaimed omnipotence and omnicompetence.
Even if the CCP can get through to next year with its Covid policy intact, the likelihood is that it will require increasing repression to make it through. That, too, will chip away at its legitimacy.
Of one thing we can be sure, President Xi Jinping won’t be throwing any parties for his staff in Zhongnanhai, the CCP equivalent of Downing Street. Nor will the Chinese police be issuing any fixed penalty notices. Xi is not a party animal, at least not in the sense which we might understand.
The Chinese like to talk of black swans and grey rhinos, in translation that describes unexpected and unlikely events. But Covid is proving to be worse, a large elephant trampling on the CCP’s plans. This is not what Xi Jinping wanted for the year when he intends to equal or surpass Mao in power and prestige. He must encourage the elephant to move on. But it may have other ideas.
- Charles Parton worked in or on China for 22 of his 37 years as a diplomat. He is now associate fellow at UK think-tanks, the Council on Geostrategy, and the RUSI.
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