The Disastrous “Zero Covid” Policy in China. Do the Chinese see Themselves as Culturally and Genetically Superior to Westerners?

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The recent congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Note the empty seat at the left of the General Secretary of the party, Xi Jinping. It had been occupied by his predecessor, Hu Jintao, forcibly removed and dragged out of the room just minutes before this image was taken (see the broadcast of the event). Note also how everyone wears face masks, except the leaders in the first row. What’s happening in China? It may have to do with the “Zero Covid” policy pushed by Xi Jinping, which has been used to argue for the superiority of the Chinese political system over the Western one. But the failure of this policy is starting to be evident and that may have unexpected consequences in the future. 
 

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a post by Chuck Pezeshky on the Covid situation in China. Chuck is an expert in many things, not specifically in Chinese matters, but he knows much more than me on the subject (incidentally, his wife is Chinese). I was especially struck by this paragraph: 

As embodying a preeminent narcissistic authoritarianism with 2500 years of history behind it, trust me that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) has convinced everyone (like Zero COVID activists) everywhere that their lack of the disease was a direct result of a eugenic and cultural superiority.
“Eugenic and cultural superiority” Really? Actually, it is not surprising that people, more or less everywhere, see themselves as the best people in the world. The West has a century-old tradition of this idea, well-expressed by Rudyard Kipling as the “White Man’s Burden.” But I found it hard to believe that the Chinese, intelligent as they are, would not realize the mess in which they find themselves with their insistence on evidently ineffective “Zero Covid” policies. You may have read about people locked shut in their apartments, streets closed by barbed wire, universal masking, forced testing and vaccination, household pets exterminated, and much more. It is a situation that Eugyppius correctly described as “Zero Covid Hell”. Can’t the Chinese realize that they are being bullied by a government that’s thinking only of its own survival? 
And yet, it turns out that Chuck was right, as it is often the case. I realized that, all of a sudden, a few days ago, while I was listening to the talk of a Chinese colleague at an online conference. One of the things she said was that the cultural superiority of China over the West is demonstrated by the willingness of Chinese citizens to wear face masks all the time. That doesn’t happen, she said, with the unruly Westerners, who refuse to act in harmony with each other and wear such a simple and completely harmless device as a face mask. She didn’t mention the genetic superiority of the Chinese, but it was just a small step to get there from what she said. 

One of those moments in which you feel your painstakingly assembled worldview crumbling around you. Did she really say that? After the conference, I contacted her separately. I asked her if she was sure that face masks are harmless. And I sent to her a link to a peer-reviewed paper showing the many negative effects of masks on health. She answered me very politely, thanking me for the link, and saying that face masks are basically harmless; hence they have to be worn all the time in public. End of the discussion.

I should have expected that. You can’t fight beliefs with data, and that’s especially true when the data challenge an entrenched worldview. To understand that, just try to discuss the limits to economic growth with an economist. Or maybe try to teach stratigraphy to a biblical literalist — I never did that, but I suppose the results would be the same.

So, it seems that the Chinese society pushed itself into a self-reinforcing memetic loop, where nobody can admit that their initial success with containing the pandemic was not due to their cultural and genetic superiority but, most likely, to the fact that the virus had been already circulating for some time in China so that the Chinese had acquired a certain degree of natural immunity against it. When the virus mutated into a different form, it started diffusing rapidly, as viruses do, without giving a peduncle about lockdowns, face masks, dead pets, and vaccines developed for earlier viruses. 

The problem is that an authoritarian government can’t admit having been wrong. Let me cite again from Chuck’s post,
So what do you do, if you’re the CCP, and especially if you sit on the Central Committee of the CCP, who extremely likely knows the whole backstory (as do our various organs, like Fauci/NIAID and the CIA)? You double down. Because you now know that you’re in Nazi High Command territory, where when the Big Lie comes due, your head will roll. Forget about Grandma. People in China love their kitty-cats too, and no one wants to be the one that tells the general public they murdered their pet for a failed governmental strategy. (Note — I am not inserting easily found Youtube videos on this because it is so upsetting.)
Conversely, it seems that, today, the West has at least a chance to shake off its fixation with the zero-covid policy and with the disastrous and ineffective measures that were taken as a consequence. It is a fighting chance, but it is a chance. The Chinese may arrive at that point, too, but it may turn out to be a longer and more painful road.

On the other hand, don’t make me take the opposite, and just as wrong, position that the West is somehow culturally superior to China because of our democracy and freedom of expression (by now, both purely theoretical). True, the Western governments didn’t arrive to the point of exterminating people’s pets, but the Covid pandemic showed how similar Westerners and Chinese are: both easily coerced into submission by authoritarian governments. The main difference seems to be that the Chinese still trust their government, and we bloody don’t. 

Then, I also understand — and appreciate — the position of my Chinese colleague on harmony. I wish that here, in the West, we cared more about harmony instead of dividing ourselves into tribes of angry individuals who then spend most of their time insulting the members of other tribes. This attitude is not going to do us any good when the chow mein hits the fan. And that may be soon. 
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On China and Covid, you may read other posts on The Seneca Effect Blog here, and here. Below, an excerpt from the excellent post by Eugyppius, that I mentioned at the beginning:
As late as last year, my theory was that China had exported lockdowns to the West while quietly redefining testing criteria and taking other steps to make the pandemic disappear domestically. It turns out that I was totally wrong. The Chinese remained deeply committed to Zero Covid the whole time, while benefiting from the strangely mild behaviour of SARS-2 in East Asia. As the virus has drifted genetically from the wild type and in response to growing immunity across the world, it’s only become more virulent in China. The Chinese have responded not by ignoring infections, but by cracking down ever harder.
There’s obviously shades of the old mid-century Communist regimes here. You have the General Secretary and other high party officials setting lunatic policy goals, which are then eagerly implemented by corrupt and sycophantic bureaucrats, who hope only to curry favour within the Party and secure promotion. But the infamous Five Year Plans at least had the ostensible economic purpose of industrialisation. Zero Covid is wholly pointless, and there’s no way for China ever to end this except by admitting defeat.
I often wonder if there isn’t something addictive about lockdowns, at least to the bureaucrats who get hold of these policies and implement them. Or perhaps it’s a disease of administration, subject to the same three-step progression everywhere. There is, first, the initial act of mass containment, followed by a seasonally-driven collapse in infections and the illusion of victory. The second step is the winter, when infections spike again despite all the masks and the tests. In response, the pandemicists intensify the old restrictions, now far less effective and far more costly than anybody had imagined. The third and final step is then a gradual abandonment of containment as counter-productive and futile. The only thing that’s different in China is that two years, rather than six months, intervened before their the first and the second stages of their disease. They’re like a nightmare version of what we were in Fall 2020.

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