China’s lurch from extreme zero-Covid to extreme herd immunity is a watershed moment in the global ideological struggle of our age, an unanswerable illustration of why autocratic regimes are less successful in the end than messy liberal democracies.
Leadership cults and totalitarian media control can at times enable breath-takingly destructive policies, and it is hard to think of a policy more unhinged than suddenly exposing a “naive” population with inadequate vaccination to mass infection in mid-winter, and just before the great internal migration of Chinese New Year.
What was the purpose of lockdown torment – and the economic slippage that came with it – a full eighteen months after the rest of the world had reopened and moved on?
Most regional governments are suppressing Covid data but Zhejiang province south of Shanghai, with a population the size of England, says it faces a million new cases a day. It expects the figure to double again this week. Sichuan is in the eye of the storm already.
China’s National Health Commission fears that up to 37 million people a day are being infected and that 248 million caught the virus over the first 20 days of December, according to leaked but unverified minutes posted online.
To the extent that successful Covid management has been mobilised over the last three years in the beauty contest of the new Cold War, this portends a public relations disaster for China’s authoritarian model. The breakdown of the Chinese hospital system cannot be hidden. To rub salt in the wound, wealthy Chinese have been converging on Macau in search of a western mRNA vaccine.
President Xi Jinping brooks no questioning of his policy pirouettes from within the Communist elites. “We should resolutely toe the Party’s line. We must never deviate from the notes,” he told the Politburo at a “self-criticism” session this week, a Maoist practice back in vogue.
The Party’s briefing “notes” in this episode state that dynamic zero-Covid was an unqualified success and demonstrated the superiority of China's Communist system over the feckless and immoral West, but that it can now be cast aside because Omicron is “just like the flu”.
This is scientific malpractice and the Chinese authorities know it. A high-powered US study by Johns Hopkins University found that the risk of severe disease or death from Omicron was “similar to ancestral lineages” (other than Delta) among those either unvaccinated or never exposed to the disease. This would include the original Wuhan strain but also the Kent variant that killed large numbers in the UK’s second wave just as the vaccine roll-out was starting.
A new preprint from Queensland’s Berghofer Institute says Omicron’s BA.5 sub-lineage attacks the brain and “shows increased neurovirulence compared to earlier omicron sub-variants” in mice. It is not yet reproduced in human studies.
To throw open the borders at this moment and disgorge planeloads of infected travellers on the world comes close to a hostile act, given the known risk of new variants arising. Tests found that 62 of the 120 passengers on a flight from Beijing to Milan on December 26 were positive.
The British government is taking a major gamble by letting in any flights from China at a time when the National Health Service is already stretched and at the peak of the viral season. This has echoes of those first fatal weeks of insouciance after the Wuhan outbreak in early 2020.
The astounding feature of China’s big bang reopening is the near-total lack of preparation. The regime has gone overnight from welding people into their apartment blocks to stamp out a single urban case, to the opposite absurdity of compelling infected and feverish workers to return to the factory floor for the higher cause of GDP.
Little was done in advance to plug the vaccination gaps. As of mid-December, almost a quarter of the over-80s had never had a single jab. A third of the over-60s had the original two doses of patriotic vaccines but no booster. None have received Western vaccines with better efficacy and cell memory, even as part of a mix and match.
“If China had said that zero-Covid was only a temporary measure to buy time until people got vaccinated, and communicated the policy accordingly, they would be in a far better position right now”, said Professor Ben Cowling from Hong Kong University in an analysis for the Lancet.
But Xi’s government did not do so. It claimed instead to have defeated the virus by tracking every infection with omnipotent surveillance. It led people to think that vaccination was not necessary.
China has just 3.6 intensive care beds per 100,000 people, compared to 34 in America, or 29 in Germany. The ratio of nurses is a quarter of western levels. The regime has spent heavily on testing, isolation camps, and quarantine facilities - mostly useless at this point - and neglected the hospitals.
Fifteen years ago I attended a panel session in Davos with a leading Chinese demographer who predicted that his country’s ageing crisis would prove so overwhelming that the elderly would be sent onto the ice to die – figuratively speaking, he meant mass euthanasia. Let us hope that we are not seeing this Darwinian cull in action.
Consultants Airfinity concluded last month that 1.3 to 2.1 million could die, but that was based on maximum infections of 279 million. Feng Zijian, ex-deputy director of China’s Centre for Disease Control, thinks infections are more likely to top 800 million, or 60pc of the population.
Whatever the grim tally, the coming weeks are going to change the world’s view of Xi Jinping’s China, and it coincides with a change in economic perception: global opinion has stopped believing in the fairy tale of Chinese perma-growth. The fencers-sitters of the international system – what we used to call non-aligned countries – no longer think it quite so inevitable that China will displace the US as economic and regulatory hegemon by mid-century. The Saudis may be raising their geopolitical bets on China but others are quietly hedging.
The economic rot set in before Xi. The Party leadership misread the Lehman crisis of 2008, supposing it to be a fundamental crisis of American laissez-faire capitalism and a vindication of state-directed Leninist capitalism. But it was China that suffered the deeper damage. The effect was to side-line reformers warning that China would slip into the middle income trap if it clinged too long to an exhausted catch-up model.
Xi Jinping has finished the job, more or less guaranteeing the collapse in China’s productivity growth rate by subjecting the productive part of the economy to the same sledge-hammer methods used against Covid. His assault on tech companies and private enterprise – installing party commissars at every level of management – is systematically undermining the market dynamism nurtured by Deng Xiaoping forty years ago. But such is the logic of a totalitarian party that lives chiefly for its own perpetuation. It cannot give up the state-owned industrial behemoths that serve as a patronage machine for the cadres and a lever of political control, and nor can it allow commercial fiefdoms such as Jack Ma’s Alibaba to emerge as a rival centres of power.
It has been a bad year for China and for the alliance of autocracies. Iran is beyond the point of pre-insurrection. Russia has been exposed as a second-rate military power with a deranged political culture. The West has shown the long-reach of its economic, financial, and maritime power – almost irresistible when the whole G7 acts unison – and has shown the superiority of its military technology and signals intelligence. Oppose that if you dare.
Was Francis Fukuyama so wrong after all in the End of History? Liberal democracy may not be the end state of human political progress but it may well have more staying power than the dictatorships this century.