For decades, the United States and China have each treated the other’s ideology as a kind of infection.
Then came an actual virus.
The pandemic has been a testing ground for governments. Societies that prize individual rights and civil liberties panicked and puzzled over how much they should ask their people to sacrifice (how much movement, moneymaking opportunity, school and so on) to reduce the spread. It was a fault line — one versus all, liberty versus security — across which China and the United States have long observed in each other qualities to envy and traps to fear.
This week, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping stepped out of a trap he himself set, dismantling elements of his impracticable project of “zero Covid” in the face of familiar pandemic symptoms: economic weakening and popular unrest. Americans looked on from afar as eerie scenes of China’s stringent lockdowns gave way, suddenly, to rowdy protest.
Here in the ever disputatious United States, reactions to the Chinese approach were never unified.
In 2020, before becoming director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, spoke of the effectiveness of China’s “really strict” Covid policies. But as time went on, U.S. observers recoiled from the dystopian flavor of disembodied voices drifting from high-rise windows into an empty Shanghai night; robot dogs and drones policing the hollow streets.
But just as America was watching China, so China has watched America. Chinese state media and officials have held up U.S. dysfunction as proof that our system is irrevocably broken, countless tragedies written off as the bitter harvest of American selfishness and, crucially, a fate that China would avoid. Even in the final days of “zero Covid,” as protests were about to spread across China, the government continued to broadcast warnings about the pernicious underbelly of U.S. liberty.
“The price of ‘freedom’ in the US: 1 million Covid deaths + 40,000 gun deaths per year + 107,622 Fentanyl deaths in 2021 alone,” the foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted in late November. (To be accurate, that figure is for deaths from all drugs, not just fentanyl.) “The American people deserve something far better than that. What we want is to protect our people’s lives and ensure them a better life.”
This has been China’s mic drop.
Neither country, of course, can claim any real triumph. Both have suffered trauma, severe economic damage and political turmoil in their efforts to contain Covid. All the more reason, then, to distract people with nationalistic slurs against a rival.
From the earliest days of the outbreak, President Trump and his supporters sneered about the “China virus” and the “Wuhan flu.”
Chinese officials threw the accusations back at the United States, speculating that Covid might have leaked from a U.S. military laboratory or perhaps made its way into China via the bodies of infected American service members.
It might be the “U.S. Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” tweeted Zhao Lijian, a spokesman with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in March 2020. U.S. officials “owe us an explanation!”
In those early months, China had an advantage: The mechanics and habits of control already existed.
Meanwhile, Americans flailed over masks and restrictions even as people began to die at a heartbreaking clip. Every bit of suffering that befell the United States would be amplified on Chinese media.
In the fall of 2020, state-run media featured prominently a report in which Chinese think tanks named the United States “the world’s No. 1 failure in the fight against Covid.” Xinhua blasted a “cold” U.S. government for playing politics with Covid and allowing people to die, describing “political manipulation that ignores the basic human rights of the American people” and calling it “a huge humanitarian disaster.”
China, by contrast, was proving its superiority, government mouthpieces proclaimed.
A People’s Daily article breathlessly described China’s anti-Covid campaign in military terms — a “battle” or “fight” that was repeatedly described as “thrilling.” The same piece quoted Mr. Xi, who urged his countrymen to understand the pandemic as proof of their superiority.
“The fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic has achieved major strategic results,” Mr. Xi said, “fully demonstrating the significant advantages of the leadership of my country’s Communist Party and our country’s socialist system.”
Xiao Qiang, a University of California, Berkeley, research scientist who focuses on technology, information and censorship in China, told me: “Chinese people were getting the message every day: ‘Look, this is our systematic advantage, we can centralize power, we can coordinate everything, and that’s why China is better.’” He added: “it widened into his complete political message: ‘That’s why you need a Xi Jinping, that’s why he needs to stay in power.’”
And he plans to keep power. Xi ended term limits in the Chinese Constitution, allowing for an unheard-of third term.
For years, people complied with government demands, but quietly, the indignities of endless P.C.R. tests and daily inconveniences piled up. Many believed Covid barricades were to blame for the deaths of at least 10 people, including children, in an Urumqi apartment fire in November. (Authorities deny this.) The sight of unmasked crowds reveling at the World Cup, too, made people realize that, contrary to the dire depictions on state media, the rest of the world was again enjoying a relatively normal existence. Upset and exhausted, people poured into the streets, demanding an end to lockdowns, forcing Mr. Xi’s hand.
China’s economic woes, no doubt, were a crucial motivation in Mr. Xi’s abandonment of the quixotic race for “zero Covid.” Still, it will be hard for Chinese officials to avoid the impression that they’ve bent to demands for liberties they had scorned.
And now what? Despite all the energy spent enforcing lockdowns, scrubbing the internet and surveilling citizens, China has not done enough to get people vaccinated or expand hospital capacity. If deaths and hospitalizations multiply as a patchily vaccinated public mingles, Chinese people may complain that, despite years of nationalistic rhetoric, their leaders failed to take the most obvious steps to protect their health.
But let’s put the governments aside and focus on the people. Through all the vagaries of their leaders’ rhetoric and programs, neither the Chinese nor the American population stuck to their expected script.
Chinese people got fed up with endless isolation and demanded, at considerable risk, greater civil liberties. Some Americans, meanwhile, lamented — despite emerging evidence of the extreme harm done to kids’ education and mental health by the closures — their own leaders’ failure to impose even stricter controls.
It makes me recall when I was dispatched to a Shanghai high school years ago to report on the world’s highest-scoring standardized test takers. I was taken aback by the unexpected humility of the Chinese educational experts I interviewed. They fretted that students weren’t learning to think creatively — that Chinese youth, while technically flawless, might still struggle to compete in fields that required innovation.
American parents peered anxiously at China’s STEM training, but Chinese people were looking back with their own anxieties.
We all crave freedom and safety. Maybe it’s the fate of governments to botch the balance.
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