The very rigidities of the political system built by the Chinese Communist Party are hampering the country’s ability to handle the highly infectious Omicron variant with anything other than a game of lockdown Whac-A-Mole.
China’s mastery of censorship, propaganda and social control checked Covid-19’s initial spread and allowed Beijing to tout its successful response amid international discussion on the virus’ origins. But censorship is a double-edged sword that is now isolating Beijing’s policy elite and hampering the upward flow of timely and accurate information from the ground.
This infodemic — the censoring and undermining of the truth — is costing China dearly.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Shanghai, the jewel of China’s economic crown.
Eventually the Shanghai government reverted to the Wuhan playbook and sealed shut the metropolis of 25 million people. Zero-Covid entails literally locking some people in their homes, mass testing, sending the infected to quarantine centers and restricting most social interaction in an attempt to stop community spread.
“This pandemic has become a political issue that’s consuming so much manpower, resources, and money, just to solve this flu-like disease. What other country do you think is doing this kind of epidemic prevention now?” the official asked in the recording.
The answer is none. Few countries, even the most autocratic, have the surveillance network and social control mechanisms to impose anything like zero-Covid.
The state pounces on any attempts at political organizing that might challenge its hold on information and power. Officials could not stop people shouting from the rooftops and posting smartphone videos, but the protests were not amplified by mainstream media, which is held tightly in check.
The flow of information in China is essentially top-down. Accurate grass-roots reports, especially those that cast the regime in a bad light, rarely penetrate up to policymakers.
President Xi Jinping is now so identified with zero-Covid that to change course would be a huge political climbdown as he positions himself for an almost unprecedented third term in office at the 20th party congress this fall.
It has contained the spread of the disease and until now projected an image of government competence.
But as the lockdown in Shanghai has shown, it has all come at great cost to the economy and the individual well-being and liberty of ordinary Chinese citizens.
Some of them may be happy with the trade-off. But even in China’s censored information landscape, it seems that a growing number of people aren’t.