The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Disastrous Effects of the "Zero Covid" Policy in China. Do the Chinese see Themselves as Culturally Superior to Westerners?

The recent congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Note the empty seat at the left of the General Secretary of the party, Xi Jinping. It had been occupied by his predecessor, Hu Jintao, forcibly removed and dragged out of the room just minutes before this image was taken (see the broadcast of the event). Note also how everyone wears face masks, except the leaders in the first row. What's happening in China? It may have to do with the "Zero Covid" policy pushed by Xi Jinping, which has been used to argue for the superiority of the Chinese political system over the Western one. But the failure of this policy is starting to be evident and that may have unexpected consequences in the future. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a post by Chuck Pezeshky on the Covid situation in China. Chuck is an expert in many things, not specifically in Chinese matters, but he knows much more than me on the subject (incidentally, his wife is Chinese). I was struck by this paragraph: 

As embodying a preeminent narcissistic authoritarianism with 2500 years of history behind it, trust me that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) has convinced everyone (like Zero COVID activists) everywhere that their lack of the disease was a direct result of a eugenic and cultural superiority.

"Eugenic and cultural superiority" Really? Actually, it is not surprising that people, more or less everywhere, see themselves as the best people in the world. The West has a century old tradition of this idea, well expressed by Rudyard Kipling as the "White Man's Burden." But I found it hard to believe that the Chinese, intelligent as they are, would not realize the mess in which they find themselves with their insistence on evidently ineffective "Zero Covid" policies. You may have read about people locked shut in their apartments, streets closed by barbed wire, universal masking everywhere, forced testing and vaccination, household pets exterminated, and much more. It is a situation that Eugyppius correctly described as "Zero Covid Hell". Can't the Chinese realize that they are being bullied by a government that's thinking only of its own survival? 

And yet, it turns out that Chuck was right, as it is often the case. I realized that all of a sudden, a few days ago, while I was listening to the talk of a Chinese colleague at an online conference. One of the things she said was that the cultural superiority of China over the West is demonstrated by the willingness of Chinese citizens to wear face masks all the time. That doesn't happen, she said, with the unruly Westerners, who refuse to act in harmony with each other and wear such a simple and completely harmless device as a face mask. She didn't mention the genetic superiority of the Chinese, but it was just a small step to get there from what she said. 

One of those moments in which you feel your painstakingly assembled worldview crumbling around you. Did she really say that? After the conference, I contacted her separately. I asked her if she was sure that face masks are harmless. And I sent to her a link to a peer-reviewed paper showing the many negative effects of masks on health. She answered me very politely, thanking me for the link, and saying that face masks are basically harmless; hence they have to be worn all the time in public. End of the discussion.

I should have expected that. You can't fight beliefs with data, and that's especially true when the data challenge an entrenched worldview. To understand that, just try to discuss the limits to economic growth with an economist. Or maybe try to teach stratigraphy to a biblical literalist -- I never did that, but I suppose the results would be the same.

So, it seems that the Chinese society pushed itself into a self-reinforcing memetic loop, where nobody can admit that their initial success with containing the pandemic was not due to their cultural and genetic superiority. Most likely, it was because the virus had been already circulating for some time in China, and the Chinese had acquired a certain degree of natural immunity against it. But when the virus mutated into a different form, it started diffusing rapidly, as viruses do, without giving a peduncle about lockdowns, face masks, dead pets, and vaccines developed for earlier viruses. 

The problem is that an authoritarian government can't admit having been wrong. Let me cite again from Chuck's post,

So what do you do, if you’re the CCP, and especially if you sit on the Central Committee of the CCP, who extremely likely knows the whole backstory (as do our various organs, like Fauci/NIAID and the CIA)? You double down. Because you now know that you’re in Nazi High Command territory, where when the Big Lie comes due, your head will roll. Forget about Grandma. People in China love their kitty-cats too, and no one wants to be the one that tells the general public they murdered their pet for a failed governmental strategy. (Note — I am not inserting easily found Youtube videos on this because it is so upsetting.)

Conversely, it seems that, today, the West has at least a chance to shake off its fixation with the zero-covid policy and with the disastrous and ineffective measures that were taken as a consequence. It is a fighting chance, but it is a chance. The Chinese may arrive at that point, too, but it may turn out to be a longer and more painful road.

On the other hand, don't make me take the opposite, and just as wrong, position that the West is somehow culturally superior to China because of our democracy and freedom of expression (by now, both purely theoretical). True, the Western governments didn't arrive at the point of exterminating people's pets, but the Covid pandemic showed how similar Westerners and Chinese are: both easily coerced into submission by authoritarian governments. The main difference seems to be that the Chinese still trust their government, and we bloody don't. 

Then, I also understand -- and appreciate -- the position of my Chinese colleague on harmony. I wish that here, in the West, we cared more about harmony instead of dividing ourselves into tribes of angry individuals who then spend most of their time insulting the members of other tribes. This attitude is not going to do us any good when the chow mein hits the fan. And that may be soon. 


On China and Covid, you may read other posts on The Seneca Effect Blog here, and here. Below, an excerpt from the excellent post by Eugyppius, that I mentioned at the beginning:

As late as last year, my theory was that China had exported lockdowns to the West while quietly redefining testing criteria and taking other steps to make the pandemic disappear domestically. It turns out that I was totally wrong. The Chinese remained deeply committed to Zero Covid the whole time, while benefiting from the strangely mild behaviour of SARS-2 in East Asia. As the virus has drifted genetically from the wild type and in response to growing immunity across the world, it’s only become more virulent in China. The Chinese have responded not by ignoring infections, but by cracking down ever harder.

There’s obviously shades of the old mid-century Communist regimes here. You have the General Secretary and other high party officials setting lunatic policy goals, which are then eagerly implemented by corrupt and sycophantic bureaucrats, who hope only to curry favour within the Party and secure promotion. But the infamous Five Year Plans at least had the ostensible economic purpose of industrialisation. Zero Covid is wholly pointless, and there’s no way for China ever to end this except by admitting defeat.

I often wonder if there isn’t something addictive about lockdowns, at least to the bureaucrats who get hold of these policies and implement them. Or perhaps it’s a disease of administration, subject to the same three-step progression everywhere. There is, first, the initial act of mass containment, followed by a seasonally-driven collapse in infections and the illusion of victory. The second step is the winter, when infections spike again despite all the masks and the tests. In response, the pandemicists intensify the old restrictions, now far less effective and far more costly than anybody had imagined. The third and final step is then a gradual abandonment of containment as counter-productive and futile. The only thing that’s different in China is that two years, rather than six months, intervened before their the first and the second stages of their disease. They’re like a nightmare version of what we were in Fall 2020.

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  1. This could never happen in our reasonable democracies...except that it already did:

    Plus ça change, moins ça change...

    1. Ouch.... I didn't know that story. Horrible. Humans at their worst.

  2. Back when the corona event started, I was terrified they'd find cases of pet-to-human transmission. The reason this terrified me was because I feared they'd massacre the pets. In general, during this whole corona business, I figured da virus was a somewhat nasty flu virus equivalent that wasn't, however, a serious threat to most people (though I certainly didn't enjoy my bout of COVID; but then again, that bout of COVID was bound to happen one way or another). But the government response absolutely terrified me.

  3. QUOTE: ***The main difference seems to be that the Chinese still trust their government, and we bloody don't.***

    Many (mainland) Chinese have already begun to lose faith in the CCP. A 'movement' called 'Tangping' -- literally 'lie down flat' -- has recently become popular among large numbers of the younger generation of (mainland) Chinese, alongside a similar 'movement' called 'Bailan' (literally 'let it rot'). Both movements signify a sense of total resignation with respect to the current state of affairs in their country, a sense that there's simply no point in exerting oneself in any direction anymore. They've simply lost hope in the future i.e. in their government's ability to put things right.

    That Chinese colleague you mentioned, by the way, was either thoroughly brainwashed or blackmailed into giving the response she did -- and you should know better than to expect anything else from a country ruled by a regime called the CCP (read: Callous, Cannibalistic Psychopaths).

    Being Chinese by descent myself I do take immense pride in the many achievements of the millennia-old civilization to which I'm an heir. I just don't view the CCP as one of the things China has any reason to be proud of.

    1. She said it very matter-of-factly -- didn't seem to be blackmailed. But, who knows?

    2. Many years ago (1996), on my first of several trips to Mainland China, I was pleased with the (technical) professional classes' willingness to chat with Americans absent the presence of our handlers. One comment that stuck in my mind was that they would tolerate the CCP as long as freedoms were gradually increased. This seems to be ending.

  4. Sorry, Etyere, no insults allowed in the comments

  5. I spent the entire pandemic drama in the UK and can tell you that the masses in the West are as gullible to our own governments' propaganda, I saw this in my own relatives in Italy too Ugo, so you should know. I would therefore be totally unsurprised that if the authorities here told people they had to walk on their hands and balance a ball on their feet when going out in public - for their own good of course - then they would unquestioningly do it. Fear over-rides the ability to think for yourself, even in the minority of the population capable of doing that, so I'm guessing (based on what I saw) that ultimately, maybe 10%, doubted the official orders and acted accordingly.

    As for the CCP autocracy, if you've ever worked for a powerful global corporation, this is seen in the board room at all times, top-down edicts that can end up crazy because the only people allowed to associate with those 'in power' are trusted worshipers. So in this business-cult dynamic, they never get to hear if the things they cause. work at ground level among the powerless with no voice; sadly this is basic human nature at its most simplistic primate level.

    I think it explains why our species is so destructive and most of the time doesn't act in enlightened ways even though rare periods in history show we are capable of that.

  6. Ugo, the zero covid policy is only disastrous if you ignore the CCP power. Recall in the Maoist period somewhere between 20 and 40 million starved to death and the chow mein never hit the fan for the govt. As was the result of the Congress this week, Xi is now completely in command and anyone who defied him is either gone or silenced. He got exactly what he wanted from zero covid.

    Reading Chinese history now...the Mongols (Yuan dynasty) were finally defeated by climate change (colder...famine), natural disasters and plague...probably, though not apparently verifiable, Black Death.

    Did you do an Extermination essay on the greatest exterminators in history: the Mongols? Did I miss this?


  7. I would also add that it's not the genetic superiority of the "Chinese" but of the Han. In the Mongol period, the Mongols raised the Tibetans and Uighurs to an upper level in the 4 levels, Mongols, semu, Han and Southern people "ensured that the Han and "Southern" scholars, ...had little opportunity"...Han were at the bottom and suffered accordingly. Interesting that many years hence, they are on top.

    1. Good point about non-homogeneity of "Chinese".

    2. At this point, as I read it, they are 94% Han. One wonders how that came about...who died in WWII and the Civil Wars...even before the Maoist hunger exterminations. I have not read anything on this point.

  8. Thank You, Ugo.
    Fundamental to this Chinese unified political position is the long competition between hierarchical-Order China and distributed-order India.
    Hierarchical lock-step can move quickly, but for better or for worse, and it must have widespread revolution to reset.
    The distributed-order in India, including the caste-system, appears chaotic, but it is actually highly adaptive and resilient in the face of shocks and changes, though more slowly. It is more holographic. Any sized piece of the culture is still the culture, still functional.
    The "west" has been going through marked changes in the last 3-4 centuries, trying things out.
    Power elites love the Chinese hierarchical system with themselves at the apex, of course, but it is now in ongoing early-collapse. The second, more suddenly downward inflection in the Seneca curve.
    We individuals need to act supportively in our own longer-term interests, the interests of our families, "communities", our nations, and life on Earth, in that order.
    I try to act to the benefit of all of these interests. It's hard to judge my efficacy or progress, though.

  9. I should add that the CCP is treating COVID as a bioweapons attack and preparing for more, hence the emphasis on civil-defense procedures.

  10. Ugo, why stress ideology at all? Lockdowns are means to an end, specifically per capita energy reduction consumption. Vaccines are, according to Bill Gates, means to an end of population reduction. Both are useful in managing the decline in resources. China seems to have chosen to stress only the per capita aspect. The rising of cultural superiority theories then is part and parcel of an historical situation where China is forced to expand abroad to expand its resource base. Other parts will include rising malcontent in various strata of the population, the abandonment of the one child policy (which has already happened), and the need to do something with some 50 millions excess young males. It is all energy driven. Your female colleague, and her wonderfully typical 1984 persona, are just symptoms, milestones, telltale details...

  11. Ugo, I am sitting here flabbergasted. Have you learned nothing about totalitarian systems? The Chinese lady is not free to discuss with you the merits and demerits of facemasks. She is giving you the party line, because anything else would be dangerous.

    She could be brainwashed, or she could be completely disbelieving, or anywhere in between... but to think she would tell YOU something that could endanger her and her family? You are the crazy one here. She may not even trust her closest with her true views.

    Back to Orwell 101 with you! (Sorry, but this one really got me. I lived under communism. Does it really have to keep repeating?! And if you, a thoughtful and well informed person, don’t get it, who will?)

    1. Anonymous, I am sure that there are plenty of things you can't say in public in China, just as you can't here, in the West. But the point is that the conference where I heard this lady talking had nothing to do with the Covid story or with face masks. It was her decision to say that the Chinese are superior to the Westerners because they wear masks all the time. So, I think she genuinely believed in what she said -- nothing surprising about that. Think of how many people here genuinely believe in things that nobody sane in his/her mind would normally believe, were it not for propaganda. So, you don't have to be flabbergasted. The point I wanted to make was that a certain opinion is commonplace in China, even among intellectuals.

    2. I would say it is far more likely she was collecting brownie points regarding the regime. She probably has an asigned "watcher" and needs to sound "right." Every so often. Such behavior was commonplace among intellectual elites under Eastern European communism.

    3. Could even be..... totalitarianism takes many forms.

  12. Hello Ugo,
    I think that Deng Xiaoping's greatest achievement was the political construction that allowed Chinese Presidents to retire.
    However, this week we have seen that element being dismantled.
    I think that Xi's decision to remain in power and ONLY keep sycophants in the politburo is the most important geopolitical shift this year, bigger than the Ukraine debacle.

    And you are right that there are delusions everywhere.

  13. If I was the head of an intelligence agency and wanted to expand civilian surveillance or counter Washington-style colour revolutions, one could use the plausible deniability of "zero covid". You would even have a DNA sample for everyone entering into a country and immediately highlight spooky types with multiple identities. If one wanted to refine facial recognition systems to deal with occluded faces, one might continue with the mask charade. And back to autonomous vehicles, track n' trace systems under the guise of covid will work just as well for proximity sensors regarding people-blind rollo-bots.

    In March 2020 someone asked me for a synopsis for covid and I answered with "war preparations with russia" and a second phase however long away with China. I also likened so called covid counter measures to the Reichstag Fire Decree:

    Haebus corpus was suspended (everyone was presumed guilty of covid), freedom of opinion/expression was revoked, the right to assemble was annulled, freedom of press curtailed, and at the Queen's request telecommunications became funnelled through Zoom and similar surveillance systems.

    There are some true covid believers, but ulterior motives are abound.