The pandemic has been wreaking havoc in China, not due to the virus but due to the Chinese government’s policies. Shanghai has been locked down since March 28, and people are scrambling for food and other vital supplies on a daily basis. The government has ordered the city’s 22 million people to be tested for COVID numerous times. A friend of mine in Shanghai wrote on social media, “So far, the government had ordered me to do 12 antigen tests and 16 nucleic acid amplification tests (NAAT). Furthermore, I am scheduled to do the 17th NAAT tomorrow.”
The capital city of Beijing is not spared, either. After a few cases there, Beijing is on the verge of being locked down, causing Beijingers to hoard food. The running joke is, “Shanghainese are in lockdown waiting for food, and Beijingers get food waiting for lockdown.”
Some smaller cities have fared much worse, and their plight has not even been reported. For example, Ruili, a small town in the southwest bordering Myanmar, has had lockdowns on and off for 160 days.
We all know that the newly mutated virus is more transmissible but causes less severe disease. This means that it is difficult to contain it using frequent tests and large-group quarantines, which increases the chances of cross-infection. And lockdowns do not work effectively or efficiently, either. But the damage of China’s policy is enormous: Shanghai’s economy is at a standstill, people lack supplies, and patients are left untreated and die. The cost greatly outweighs the benefit, if any.
The inhumane, anti-science, and impractical nature of China’s zero-tolerance COVID policy is clear to everyone, including the Chinese Communist Party leadership. So why is the CCP so determined to carry it out?
We cannot answer that question for sure because the CCP keeps its decision-making secret. But we can analyze using logic and observations.
As long as China’s political system remains a top-down dictatorship, the zero-tolerance COVID policy will continue.
The logic of dictatorship is that society serves the top ruler, not vice versa. Since the founding of communist rule in 1949, the whole of China has revolved around the top leadership. The lives of the top leaders are the most valuable and thus shrouded in secrecy, including where they live, their families, and their health status. When they travel, roads are blocked and commercial flights yield. The late ruler Mao Zedong loved to travel by train. When he rode his private train, the whole railroad system would be reserved for him, making numerous trains stop and ordinary passengers wait. Changan Avenue in the center of Beijing, which connects the CCP’s headquarters, is frequently closed to the public when party leaders travel. (READ MORE: Why China Got Away With It)
Extending from this logic, protecting the top leadership from COVID has the highest priority. Unfortunately for the powerful, the COVID virus does not discriminate between the powerful and the powerless — it loves all people equally. More unfortunately, the powerful people have a higher chance of getting COVID because they have more functions and see more people — secretaries, guards, drivers, maids, and subordinates.
All of this makes protecting the rulers from COVID difficult. The most effective way to protect them is to make sure the people they contact (the first layer) are clear of the virus. To achieve this, the first layer of people must make sure that the people they contact (the second layer) test negative for the virus. For example, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, meets provincial leaders regularly, the provincial leaders see city mayors, and the mayors summon county heads, who eventually meet residents. If residents get COVID, they can infect the county, city, and provincial officials all the way up to Xi. That cannot be allowed to happen. Therefore, to protect Xi, the entire country must be shielded. This, I believe, is the logic behind the lockdowns.
As long as China’s political system remains a top-down dictatorship, the zero-tolerance COVID policy will continue. We will see a universal health code (without a green code, one cannot go out), COVID testing, mass quarantine, and lockdown normalized. Sure, the zero-tolerance policy will severely affect the economy, but that is secondary because for the CCP, absolute rule is the No. 1 and only goal. If the top leaders are not well protected, why do they need a good economy?
Of course, the party leaders never reveal this goal to the Chinese people. On the contrary, the CCP always tells the people that the party’s goal is “to serve the people.” Likewise, the zero-tolerance COVID policy is touted by the party as protecting the people. And many brainwashed people believe it.
While public opinion in the democratic countries is critical of China’s COVID policy and media coverage focuses on the inhumane treatment of people there, one critical fact tends to be overlooked: So far, there has been no significant mass resistance or protest against the policy. The tight control, severe punishment, and brainwashing have made most people in China quite obedient. This “success” demonstrates the great ability of the CCP to mobilize the entire population and society for its cause, be it eliminating the COVID virus, overtaking Taiwan, or rivaling the democratic world, including America. The democratic countries should take this into account in every interaction they have with China.
Shaomin Li is Professor of International Business at Old Dominion University and author of The Rise of China, Inc.: How the Chinese Communist Party Transformed China into a Giant Corporation.