AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
Remember COVID-19? Remember China? The Chinese Communist Party really hopes you don’t. The official CCP narrative is that COVID-19, whose origins were entirely natural, was contained in early February of 2020 through the leadership of the party and its full mobilization of Chinese society. Beijing’s statistics claim only five individuals have died of COVID in two years in Mainland China – unless, of course, you count Hong Kong, where more than 8,000 have died in the last month, nearly double the government figure of 4,638. But for once, Beijing is quick to insist that Hong Kong is not an intrinsic part of China.
For the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing’s ability to successfully implement a “Zero COVID” policy is more than a public health strategy – it is a source of legitimacy for their entire system. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the Chinese government and media sought to contrast China’s successful Zero COVID strategy with rising death tolls and political struggles over restrictions in the West. Only a country as efficient and well-managed as the People’s Republic of China, so the argument went, could possibly have managed COVID so “successfully.” Accordingly, the collapse of China’s Zero COVID strategy is a political disaster for the CCP.
Currently, social media is full of videos and messages of desperate pleas for food from starving residents of Shanghai. One of the world’s largest cities and China’s economic and commercial hub, Shanghai and its 25 million residents have been experiencing a harsh lockdown that even surpasses the draconian measures employed in the spring of 2020. Residents are forbidden from leaving their homes even to shop for groceries, leading to many running out of food. The government has introduced a policy of removing children from parents who test positive, placing them who knows where or for what purpose. One resident, quoted by the Financial Times, remarked that “prison must be better than this. Prisoners are locked up, but at least they have three meals a day and know how long their sentence is.”
The response of the CCP to an outpouring of criticism over the harshness of the policies, their seeming pointlessness, and the failure of the local authorities to organize the delivery of food and medical supplies has been to charge those spreading such “online rumors” with sedition. This indicates an awareness of a much broader problem. On the one hand, Shanghai is not alone. Twenty-three cities with a total population of over 200,000,000 are under similar lockdowns. On the other, China’s “performance” in handling COVID-19, once ammunition for selling the “Chinese model” to the world, now looks like a dead end.
As recently as February 12, the CCP-linked Global Times published an op-ed entitled “U.S. media outlets now recognize China’s zero-COVID policy. Is it too late for them?” After praising China for “protecting global supply-chains,” it featured the following paragraph:
“With all these barriers, the West, particularly the US, is facing a painful dilemma: To learn from China – too difficult; not to learn from China – more tragedies. Moreover, for some Western elites, learning from the Chinese experience means confirming that China has beaten the West in terms of COVID-19 strategy. This is something they do not want to admit. This is why self-reflection from US media came so late.”
Less than two months later, it now looks like China has failed to learn the lessons from the West. States like Florida and nations like Sweden experimented with a soft-touch approach of pushing vaccines and shielding the vulnerable while encouraging others to live their lives, work, and, most importantly, return children to school. There was a recognition that, especially with Omicron, attempting to contain the virus was a futile endeavor and an exercise in societal self-harm. Even Australia and New Zealand, which strenuously pursued lockdowns longer than anywhere else in the western world, abandoned them after Omicron.
This leaves a Chinese government that appears to be advertising all the wrong lessons. A stubborn refusal to change course in the face of overwhelming evidence. A vaccination program that produced neither an effective vaccine nor managed to distribute it to the population. Worse, a government that, while publicly bragging about Zero COVID, made no preparations for future outbreaks or variants such that even the distribution networks for food which existed in 2020 no longer seem to be functioning. When a senior executive at a private equity firm is quoted as saying, “It doesn’t matter how much money you have or are willing to spend, you can’t get steady access to food,” it might please hardcore Maoists in the U.S. who wish to eat the rich. Still, it is not the model of a society which will inspire anyone in Africa or Latin America, as the CCP now seeks to expand its reach abroad.
The result is a major potential collapse in China’s soft power. But the exposure of Zero COVID as a failed policy also has significant implications for China’s hard power. COVID-19 was already highlighting the dangers posed by global supply chains dependent on one country. That is one reason why Chinese propaganda was heralding Beijing’s protection of “global supply chains.” If China cannot even keep its own factories open, that is an additional economic reason, on top of national security, why the United States should double down on its ambitions to bring manufacturing back to America.
At the end of the day, it is not just COVID-19. China’s government has shown once more what everyone familiar with it always suspected: behind all the rhetoric about growth, ultimately, it is made up of Marxists who will sacrifice economic performance and the very lives of their citizens for ideology every time given a choice. They are not pragmatists. The government which rules China today is the same party that caused millions to starve in the Great Leap Forward. Is it really so surprising that CCP would rather let millions go hungry in China’s largest city than admit that a Western democratically-elected politician might have had a point in saying that Zero COVID was a pipe dream? The CCP has also shown that it is not a reliable partner in the long term. Not for Brazil. Not for South Africa. Not for Europe. And certainly not for the United States of America.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.