Today’s episode is about China’s turn toward authoritarianism—and why it might be one of the most important stories in the world. If you don’t know a lot about China—if you’ve been interested or astonished from afar by its “zero-COVID” policy or its alarming saber-rattling toward Taiwan—then you and I are in the same boat. I am not at all an expert on China. But I am fascinated and alarmed by the country’s politics and by the character of its leader, Xi Jinping. Today’s guest is an expert in all things China: Bill Bishop, who writes the incredibly popular Sinocism newsletter. And he has a new podcast out called Sharp China. In this episode, we discuss my biggest fears and questions: What is happening to the Chinese economy right now? Is Xi Jinping a tyrant? And if he chooses to invade Taiwan, is that World War III?
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In the following excerpt, Bill Bishop explains China’s “zero-COVID” policy and the current state of COVID-19 in the country.
Derek Thompson: So let’s talk about the Xi [Jinping] agenda. And I think one place we can start is with “zero-COVID.” China is, to my mind, the only major country in the world that is still pursuing a policy of trying to zero out COVID spread, while at the same time rejecting the mRNA vaccines that were produced in the West. Help us explain, why is Xi doing this?
Bill Bishop: So, when COVID first hit, China locked down Wuhan for many weeks, and basically for a pretty significant period of time after that, life was almost normal in China. They closed the borders effectively, but life inside China was fairly normal. People masked. You have an app where you have to scan your code and get tested on a regular basis. Even through Delta, they were OK. Omicron has really messed things up. But, for the first couple of years after the outbreak in Wuhan, it was a massive victory for China. They avoided mass death, they avoided mass sickness. They avoided mass economic dislocations, except at the beginning, the first few weeks, a couple months after the initial outbreak.
So, there’s a lot of popular support for what they’ve done. And they’ve done a very good job. I mean, in many ways they have a powerful propaganda apparatus, but at the same time, the propaganda writes itself when they’re talking about how other countries, especially the U.S. and in the West mishandled COVID, in terms of misinformation, vaccinations, mass deaths, et cetera. What happened, though, was, there was an almost-two-year period when things were going reasonably well. There were some occasional lockdowns of cities, but it really didn’t get bad in terms of this dynamic “zero-COVID” policy until the lockdown in Shanghai in April-May, when they locked down one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, 20-plus-million people, caused huge, huge problems, food insecurity. Some people did starve to death, a fair number of suicides.
And so, the problem China faces, though, is even if they had taken in the mRNA vaccines—as we’ve learned, unfortunately, they don’t prevent the spread, the transmission. They do have a lot of efficacy in reducing severe illness and death. The Chinese vaccines are also relatively good at reducing severe illness and death. The strange thing, though, is even though China’s government can be very coercive, the vaccination efforts were surprisingly soft-touch. And so, there’s a significant group of elderly who are unvaccinated. And so, it really is likely that if they were to just basically say, “OK, we’re done. We’re going to let it rip,” that they would have a pretty massive outbreak and a lot of deaths among the senior populations.
I mean, the closest analog is probably Hong Kong, where a lot of elderly people died. And if, on a per-capita basis, that would happen in China, it would be probably in the hundreds of thousands. And that would obviously be a humanitarian disaster, an economic disaster, and it would also be a huge political problem for Xi Jinping, the leadership, because they’ve staked a huge amount of legitimacy on putting human life first—as they would say, protecting the people, in comparison with the crumbling Western systems.
And so, this fight against COVID, this dynamic “zero-COVID,” has become a part of the “our system is better than their system” propaganda. And so, if they end up having to pull back and they have similar scenes of mass illness, mass death, that destroys that propaganda bit. And the other problem too is China, as rich and powerful as it now is, the health infrastructure is still not great. And so, it could very quickly become overwhelmed. And one of their problems is they have no natural immunity to the virus in the country, because they’ve actually had so few cases. The data’s probably not completely accurate, but it’s not like half the country’s gotten COVID at some point. And so they just don’t have the natural immunity that, say, we have here in the U.S.
This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the full episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Bill Bishop
Producer: Devon Manze