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Zero COVID and the Chinese model
Shanghai Expo Exhibition Hall, March 2022
Early in the pandemic, it was fairly common to contrast the incompetence of the American response to the new virus with the efficiency and effectiveness of numerous other countries, particularly but not exclusively in the western Pacific. Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand were able to almost completely insulate themselves from COVID-19. Thailand and Vietnam held the virus at bay in spite of being middle-income countries on the Asian mainland. South Korea managed to wrestle their early outbreak to near extinction thanks to a robust testing and tracing infrastructure. Even Europe had its standout successes, with Denmark and Greece both avoiding serious outbreaks in the spring of 2020 even as the pandemic ravaged the U.K., France, Spain and Italy. The United States, with the advantages not only of abundant resources and top-flight technology but also a head start in time on virtually the entire developed world, stood out for its utter failure to prevent the virus from getting a permanent foothold from which to wreak its devastation.
China, too, stood out as an apparent COVID success story. True, the virus originated in their country, but China’s brutal lockdowns—far more severe than any other country imposed—were able to crush the virus in its country of origin. They provided a potent contrast to the flailing response of the United States in particular, one that it looked likely that China would exploit to the fullest.
Today, it’s hard to recall that expectation. China is now an extreme global outlier in refusing to accept that the COVID-19 virus is endemic and needs to be managed. Countries from South Korea to Denmark that performed in an exemplary fashion in the pandemic’s first year went on to conduct equally-exemplary vaccination campaigns and have reversed many if not all of their policies for socially containing the virus. China has gone in the opposite direction, imposing strict lockdowns on major cities like Shanghai while simultaneously failing to vaccinate an adequate percentage of their vulnerable elderly population. China’s perverse persistence on the COVID front are now a significant threat to the global economy. I suspect they will also take a major toll on Chinese soft power and on global perceptions of the Chinese political model.
China’s more recent failures are very much of a piece with their failures at the very beginning of the pandemic, and are directly attributable to their political system. At the outset of the pandemic, China refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation in Wuhan. They were far more concerned to punish people spreading accurate information than they were to prevent the virus from spreading. As a consequence, the virus escaped from Wuhan and from China itself to become a global pandemic. The same political considerations are driving China’s decision making today. The metaphorical war against the virus has taken on a life of its own, becoming an ideological touchstone that cannot be questioned, while the country’s leader insulates himself from accountability for his own policies. China keeps going further and further down a nonviable road while also raising the risks to anyone who dares to question their direction.
This is a dynamic I’ve observed multiple times during the pandemic in the United States, among both COVID-cautious and COVID-insouciant subcultures, where people dig in on untenable positions that they nonetheless feel bound to defend. The difference is that in the United States political and economic competition very directly raise the stakes for making those kinds of perverse choices. People can switch schools, can switch jobs, can vote for different political leadership and can pull up stakes entirely and move to another community. That makes all the difference to how long-lasting and widespread a policy can get that fundamentally serves only to protect those in power from admitting failure.
I expect China will eventually reverse course. They’ll have to; the virus isn’t going away outside of China, so the only way to stably achieve zero COVID would be to cut China off from virtually all contact with the outside world. The question is whether they’ll learn anything from the experience of that reversal. I’m doubtful, for precisely the same reasons related to the nature of the regime. The same officials who are enthusiastically pushing for ever-tougher measures will undoubtedly shift seamlessly to toe the new line with equal fervor, thereby helping the regime forget that it ever failed, or even ever changed its mind.
I’m mystified that there are serious critics of the American system of government—and there are—who still think the Chinese model, as it is evolving under Xi Jinping’s leadership, is a superior alternative.
The Digital Agora Goes Private
My only post this week On Here was about Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter and whether it matters.
If Twitter is indeed the digital agora, the space where the community comes together to discuss and debate matters of collective importance, then it is of paramount importance to the common good that it be well-managed, meaning both that nobody is excluded from legitimate participation and that nobody is able to abuse their participation to harass other participants or otherwise pollute the agora.
But by the same token, if it is the digital agora, then who would we trust to manage it properly? I don’t trust Elon Musk to control the public square. But I also don’t trust any public company, such as Twitter has been and will cease to be when Musk completes his acquisition. Public companies are subject to all kinds of pressures, most importantly the requirement to deliver value for shareholders, that could readily conflict with the public’s need for an open and accessible agora. Twitter, specifically, depends on advertising revenue, which means it needs to please its advertisers in its approach to who it includes and excludes from the agora. That sounds fine if we’re talking about excluding Nazis, but what if we’re talking about excluding Taiwanese voices to placate advertisers who do a lot of business in China? This is a worry that Bezos raised with respect to Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, but it and analogous concerns already exist. For that matter, they exist with respect to the independence of Bezos’s own paper, since notwithstanding their exit from the domestic e-commerce market in China, Amazon still serves as a massive platform for Chinese businesses and does a large volume of business in China. And let’s not even talk about the major media platform that is actually controlled by China!
So perhaps Twitter shouldn’t be privately owned at all? If it’s genuinely as important to democracy as Musk himself seems to believe, perhaps it should be a public utility. That’s a view taken by people with as radically opposed views as Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey and Catholic integralist Adrian Vermeule. But it’s not clear to me that this solves the problem in a material way. Vermeule’s tweet calling for state ownership explicitly says that the state must be “rightly ordered” which is actually the whole rub: Vermeule would be horrified if the public square itself were controlled by a state he viewed as wrongly-ordered, as indeed he considers the state that actually exists to be.
Dorsey favors Musk’s takeover as a kind of enlightened despotism that is preferable to subservience to the demands of advertisers, but he’d prefer the service not be a for-profit enterprise at all. His idealized vision for Twitter doesn’t involve state ownership, but rather decentralized management through publicly available and shared protocols. Twitter would be managed, in other words, something like Wikipedia, or like an open-source operating system. I find that vision instinctively appealing, and I’ve been profoundly impressed by the ability of crowd-managed systems to operate at a high level. But the public square is different. If Wikipedia doesn’t handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to everyone’s satisfaction, well, it’s just one source of information on that topic. If Wikipedia got to decide who was allowed to talk about the conflict, and in what way, that would raise much more serious issues, and the fact that most users considered its volunteer editors to be remarkably fair and balanced in their treatment would not be sufficient to deflect criticism. The managers of the public square require something more than a good track record; they require legitimacy.
I don’t think there’s any entity that could achieve that kind of legitimacy in the world we actually inhabit. Twitter can make its algorithm public, can “authenticate all humans,” can do all the things that Musk is planning to do so as to increase trust and transparency, and in the end the people who lose by his rules (or simply don’t win enough) will blame him. They’d do exactly the same thing if Twitter continued to be managed to satisfy the demands of advertisers (and employees), or if Twitter were run by the state or by a self-appointed group of volunteers.
So if public Twitter and private Twitter are equally problematic, do we have a real problem? Like they say, read the whole thing.