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."
Showing posts with label China. Show all posts
Showing posts with label China. Show all posts

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.

 Continue reading

Monday, August 22, 2022

Pixie Dust and Overpopulation: What are the Origins of the "One Child" China's Population Policy?


Often, I have the sensation that we live in a world of pure magic. That everything we think we know is the result of a fairy who spread some pixie dust on the real world, transforming it into an alternate reality where people can fly. Yet, it is so incredibly easy to convince people of more or less anything without bothering to bring any proof. A good example is the story that the Chinese government developed its "one-child" population policy as a result of the influence of the Club of Rome and their evil book "The Limits to Growth." It is so common on the Web that it seems to be an ascertained fact. But, is it? Or is it just a legend? For more details on the influence of the "Limits to Growth" report on world policies, you can read the recent review of the whole story titled "Limits and Beyond"

When it comes to the Chinese "One-Child" policy, two statements seem to be commonly repeated on the Web. One is that it was an abject failure, the other is that it was inspired -- or even driven -- by the evil think tank called "The Club of Rome" and by their even more evil book titled "The Limits to Growth" (1972). They are followers of the arch-evil enemy of the people, Thomas Malthus, the first would-be exterminator of humankind. 

If nothing else, this story shows how easy it is to transform facts into narratives. With a sprinkle of pixie dust, everything can be transformed into the archetypal fight between good and evil, which seems to be the current way of seeing the world in the West. It would be a long story to examine this attitude of Westerners (Simon Sheridan has some good hints, I think). In any case, the legend of an evil cabal that led the Chinese government to adopt the one-child policy  -- and that it failed -- is appealing because it provides us with a comfortable image of bad guys who are both evil and hapless. 

It is easy to find various versions of this story on the Web. A recent one was written in 2021 by Dominic Pino for the "National Review." It shows how easy it is to use pixie dust to build a story that's nearly completely fact-free. So, according to Pino, 

China’s population policy is one of the best examples of the weakness and failure of central planning. Based on the best information available at the time and the opinions of experts around the world, China instituted strict population-control measures to limit most families to have only one child. The policy then stuck around for much too long and now presents a serious threat to Chinese society.


Naturally, there were unintended consequences. Now that China needs to increase its birthrate, the Chinese government is having a hard time persuading its people to have more children. The government lifted the one-child policy in 2015, allowing any married couple to have up to two children. Despite raising the limit, the 2020 census showed that the number of births fell again — for the fourth straight year.

And therefore: 

The failure of the one-child policy has been conclusively demonstrated.

There is so much that's wrong with these statements that you don't know where to start criticizing them. The main point, I think, is how self-contradictory Pino's evaluation is. If the objective of the one-child policy was to reduce the birth rate to stop population growth, then it worked: the Chinese population DID stop growing and now is declining -- so much that China now needs to increase its birth rate. Then, how can a policy that was lifted in 2015 be still "a threat to Chinese society"? Do the Chinese tend to follow non-existing laws? That is, do they still bind the feet of their young girls to make them smaller? Do they still beat drums on eclipses to chase away the invisible dragon that's eating the sun? These contradictions are just buried by the pixie dust liberally sprinkled on the story. 

Then, is there any truth in the idea that the policy was based on "the opinions of experts around the world"? Did the Chinese really seek advice from Western scientists? Pino refers to the work of "The Club of Rome" and its "The Limits to Growth" report, published in 1972, saying that, 

In 1978, Song Jian, a missile scientist who had gained the trust of the governing elites, went to Helsinki for the Seventh Triennial World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control. That completely normal-sounding group was composed of Western scientists who had bought the Club of Rome’s arguments about the need for population control

This sentence is lifted almost verbatim from an article written earlier on by Susan Grenhalgh (2005), who also stated that: "....the Congress was infused with the spirit of scientific certainty, progress and messianic fervour about the potential of control science to solve the world’s problems,” and that it was "tied to the well-known work of the Club of Rome," including "a global systems model in which population growth was destroying the environment and required strong, even drastic, control."

There is a lot of pixie dust, here. There was indeed a congress of the IFAC in Helsinki in 1978. It was a normal congress that lasted for 4 days and you can still peruse its proceedings. You'll see that 294 papers were presented and discussed. Only a few of these papers are available online, so it is not impossible that some of them mentioned or discussed "The Limits to Growth" study. But there was no presentation dedicated to population growth, nor there were members of the Club of Rome among the speakers or the participants (I checked with the original authors of "The Limits to Growth," they didn't even know that such a meeting had been held). So, there is no support at all for Pino having transformed the congress into a "group" that "was composed of Western scientists who had bought the Club of Rome’s arguments about the need for population control." Of course, in the 1970s, control engineering was a new field, and it sparked enthusiasm among scientists. But the "messianic fervour" that Susan Greenhalgh mentions exists only in her mind. There is no trace of anything like that in the proceedings.

But, as usual, once you blow off the pixie dust, shreds of truth start appearing.  In an earlier paper, Susan Greenhalgh describes how a top-level Chinese scientist, named Song Jian, traveled to Europe in the late 1970s. Did he attend the 1978 Helsinki congress? His name does not appear in the proceedings, but he may well have been there as a participant, although not as a speaker. Then, it is not clear whether he was directly exposed to the work of the Club of Rome, although he might have been. In a citation to a paper by Song, reported by Greenhalgh, we only find a reference to the book titled "Blueprint for Survival," published in 1972. It was a study that followed lines similar to those of the "The Limits to Growth" but it didn't use world models and had nothing to do with the Club of Rome

Greenhalgh proposes that, after getting back to China, Song Jian developed a model of the Chinese economy equivalent to "The Limits to Growth." It is not impossible, although there is no evidence that it happened. It is clear from what she writes, that Greenhalgh has no training in the kind of modeling used for control engineering. All she shows as a proof is this diagram from a 1981 paper by Song. 

This is not the output of a world model. It seems to be a much simpler extrapolation of population trends. Correctly, the diagram shows that for birth rates lower than about 2, the population tends to decline. The reverse occurs for higher birth rates. For birthrates remaining at around 3 per woman, theoretically, the Chinese population could have reached 3 billion before the end of the 21st century. But to arrive at these conclusions, paper and pencil calculations would have been sufficient. 

In practice, it is likely that, during his trip to Europe, Song had been exposed to a general view of the Western way of thinking in the 1970s and 1980s that saw overpopulation as a major problem. The Chinese may have been even more sensitive to the issue: surely they still remember how the famines of 1951 and 1961 had killed tens of millions of people in China (note: the commonly reported number of deaths may have been greatly exaggerated as a result of Western propaganda. Nevertheless, famines were endemic in agrarian China). So, when Song developed some simple models to extrapolate population trends in China, the government decided that they had to do something to avoid that the Chinese population could reach levels that would have been impossible to feed. So, they decided that they had to push Chinese families toward lower birth rates. And that's what they did. 

The Chinese were probably those who took the most radical approach to curb population growth, but other countries reacted to the problem, too. In South America, the Mexican President, Luis Echeverría (1970-1976) implemented some policies to reduce the number of children, at the time of the order of 8/10 per woman. Apparently, that was done as a direct result of the work by Victor Urquidi, a member of the Club of Rome. So, in this case (and probably only in this case) the Club of Rome had a direct influence on the population policies of a major country. 

Other countries, instead, ignored the problem. In the Soviet Union, scientists knew about the "Limits to Growth" study and created their own versions of it. But the Soviet Union was a vast and scarcely populated country so, not surprisingly, the Soviet government didn't see an overpopulation problem and paid no attention to them. In the West, instead, governments preferred to react in the way they knew best: they buried "The Limits to Growth" under a thick layer of pixie dust (aka "propaganda") and then they ignored it. 

The interesting part of the story, though, is that, no matter what governments did or didn't do, the results were the same. You can see in the graph (data from the World Bank) how countries close to China had lower birth rates, despite not having implemented birth control policies (Taiwan is not listed in the World Bank data, but it shows the same behavior). 

During the past 50 years or so, the birth rate declined rapidly all over the areas that were called the "first world" (the West) and the "Second World" (The Soviet bloc and China). This trend was called the "demographic transition" and didn't need draconian measures by governments to occur. All the countries of the world are facing the same transition. Third-world countries are just arriving a little later. 

So, you see? The story is rather simple: things went the way they had to go. No need for evil guys plotting to destroy humankind. That's just pixie dust liberally spread over everything, as usual. 

h/t Susana Chacón, Li X, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers

To know more about the origins of world models, and their relevance for us, nowadays, you can read the recent report to the Club of Rome titled "Limits and Beyond"

Thursday, May 5, 2022

The lockdown in China: if the powerful are doing something that looks stupid, it is because what they’re doing IS actually stupid

I received several comments on my post "The Shanghai Lockdown: a Memetic Analysis," and I think that some were so interesting to be worth reproducing in a full-fledged post. The first comment comes from an anonymous commenter living in China. It seems to me believable, and also consistent with my interpretation. In practice, the Chinese were (and are) not the only ones conditioned by factors such as avoiding a loss of face. Italians did the same during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. There seems to be an enormous psychological problem that when you discover that you have been conned, you don't want to admit that. It makes little difference if you are Chinese, Italian, or another nationality. There follows a comment by "Mon Seul Desir" on which I fully agree. So much that I used it in a condensed version for the title of this post. When something looks insane, most likely, it IS insane. (UB)

A comment on "The Shanghai Lockdown: A Memetic Analysis"
by "Anonymous"

I am in Shanghai. I have been living here since 2007. I can read/speak Chinese at a high level of fluency. I also traveled extensively in the country.

There is something that most foreign analysts do not grasp: the Chinese Mind (the "collective subconscious" if you wish.)

-The Chinese Mind likes to be seen in the Struggle doing things to fight in the Struggle (no matter what the Struggle is, whether those actions give tangible results or not, at least they make great photo ops for the media.)
-The Chinese Mind is hive-like, it's blindly obedient, and it lashes out at the "Enemy" (whether real or imaginary)
-The Chinese Mind is a bit childish, it is for sure stubborn, and non-rational/logical (non-Cartesian)
-The Chinese Mind is constantly under ideological propaganda, everywhere, every time, from childhood til death, from home to the workspace...
-The Chinese Mind is never guilty, it always blames the Other (and the object of the blame is constantly shifting)
-The Chinese Mind hates losing face (what face, nobody knows) and hates being criticized (just shut up and put it under the carpet)

Remember the famines? One day, they wake up and decide to kill all the birds (that were eating bugs that were eating crops...)

Same Mindset.

Shanghai has always been seen as the most "civilized" city in China. Shanghai is often called Le Paris de l'Orient, it is an "international" first-tier city... probably the top Chinese city in terms of openness, quality of life, and access to medical care.

Nobody expected to see such levels of insanity in Shanghai... in other areas of the country, yes, but not here. Looking at the conditions in the quarantine centers... Containers without doors in a field, tents set on a highway, toilets flooded with feces... open-air zoo.

They come to take positive cases in big buses and ambulances almost daily. The police are patrolling streets at all times and we are unable to even set foot on the sidewalk. Every building that had a positive case is either: shut down with barriers OR has 1-2 men in a tent monitoring 24/7 (imagine all the manpower required.) Currently, there are 3-4 of those tents in my compound. It's basically Martial Law.

The psychological toll is quite high. The monetary one must be hard for the lower classes. Some neighbors have mental breakdowns. Some people spray alcohol in the air while walking to get tested... You'd think the Plague is upon us.

Some people were getting messages in group chat about "foreign spies" and "foreign media fueling anti-China conspiracies." Good ol' shift the blame tricks.

I have been in lockdown since mid-March, got tested 35 times, and lost about 12 pounds. The local governmental commune gave us a little bit of food, but barely enough to survive.

Luckily, we had some preps and were able to order some food. Now, most delivery guys are not allowed to deliver to our address. We can get a bit of food, but we need to get imaginative to create new recipes (boiled/sweet and sour/spicy/fermented cabbage.)

My take is:

It could be a test for something much bigger (i.e., war, energy crisis) or they are truly afraid of the unrest if lots of old people were to die. Chinese people tend to get emotional, and the last thing the authorities want to deal with is mobs lynching doctors in the streets.

Is the frog slowly boiling in the pot?

I think so.

Except the whole planet is pot, and we're all frogs.


Posted by "Mon Seul Desir"

I think that there are far too many attempts to rationalize the conduct and policies of the powerful as being part of some astonishingly clever plan, myself, I use Occam’s razor, if the powerful are doing something that looks incredibly stupid, self-destructive and utterly insane, then it is because whatever they’re doing IS actually incredibly stupid, self-destructive and utterly insane. I don’t buy the myth that those in power are unusually clever, informed or are far-seeing. Here in Canada I’ve been witnessing the follies of our child-rulers for the past few years and the bungling of senile Brandon south of the border and this is governance on the level of Honorius and Arcadius and their corrupt intrigue-filled courts. As for China, I saw a report on Xi’s appearance before the Congress of Peoples Deputies and I wondered. How many of the deputies applauding him are actually plotting against him?

Note added after publication. Latest news from China:

"Our prevention and control strategy is determined by the party's nature and mission, our policies can stand the test of history, our measures are scientific and effective," the seven-member committee said, according to government news agency Xinhua.

"We have won the battle to defend Wuhan, and we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai," it said.

They have clearly realized that they made a huge mistake, but they cannot admit that and they cannot back down. The usual disaster. And, by the way, they completely confirm my interpretation that they really believed that the lockdown in Wuhan had been a success in eradicating the virus. 

Friday, April 29, 2022

The Shanghai Lockdown: a Memetic Analysis

Despite evidence that the rise in the number of cases is stalling, the Chinese lockdown in Shanghai and other cities continues, with hundreds of millions of people forced into their homes or in quarantine centers. What's happening? I argue that the Chinese government may have acted -- and still be acting -- on the basis of a meme that has its origin in a military perception of the pandemic.  

A "meme" is a small unit of information that can easily move from one human mind to another. It is the virtual equivalent of a virus in the sense that it "infects" people and influences their behavior. To explain the concept, maybe the best way is with an example: how my grandmother was absolutely convinced that nobody ever should drink a glass of milk without having boiled it first. She was infected with a meme that we could describe as "boil the damn milk." It was simple and direct, but, unfortunately, completely useless in the 1960s, when pasteurization had become common. 

My grandmother was not stupid: she was simply applying a tested method to deal with things she knew little about. The problem is that memes can be (or become) wrong or harmful, and yet they are very difficult to dislodge. In the photo, you see Colin Powell, in 2003, showing a vial of baby powder while claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed largely on the basis of a meme that turned out to be completely false. 

The Covid pandemic is another case of a complex story that most people are unprepared to understand. We should be trained in microbiology, medicine, epidemiology, and more -- no way! So, we rely on simplified snippets to guide our everyday activities. "Wear the damn mask," "stay home," "don't kill granny," "flatten the curve," and the like. That includes our leaders, and even many of the so-called "experts".

But how can we tell whether a meme is good or bad? One way to decide is to look at its origin. All memes have a story. Sometimes they begin as sensible precautions ("boil the milk before drinking it") but, in some cases ("lock everybody inside their homes"), they have a more complicated story. Where does the lockdown meme come from? Its origin can be found in the evolution of the concept of "biological warfare." But let's go in order. 

The Militarization of Biotechnologies

Biological weapons have been around for a long time in history. Ancient writers tell us of cadavers of infected people shot into besieged cities using catapults. It must have been spectacular, but it doesn't seem to have been common or especially effective. The problem with biological weapons is similar to that with chemical weapons. They are difficult to direct against specific targets and always carry the risk of backfiring. So, in modern times, bioweapons were never used on a large scale and, in 1972, a convention was enacted that outlawed biological warfare. That seemed to be the end of the story. But things were to change.  

You see in  Google Ngrams how the interest in biological weapons started to grow from the 1980s, onward.


The Ngrams results are confirmed by an examination of the scientific literature, as you may see by using Google Scholar or the Web of Science. The figure shows the number of papers dedicated to biological weapons (note that in the figure years go right to left in the graph and that the 2022 data are still incomplete.)

The origin of this renewed interest lies in the development of modern genetic manipulation technologies, supposed to be able to create new, and more deadly germs. But they can do much more than that: what if you could "tailor" a virus to the genetic code of specific ethnic groups, or even to the DNA of single persons? That remains (fortunately) for now in the realm of science fiction, but there is a simpler and more realistic approach. You can direct a virus to harm the enemy while sparing your population. You can do that if you have a vaccine, and they don't (like the old Maxim gun in colonial warfare). Considering that biological weapons are also cheap, you can see how the idea of biological warfare has become popular, with China often believed to be a leader in this field. You can read an in-depth discussion on this point on Chuck Pezeshky's site.

Before going on, stop for a moment to remember that these are just ideas: they have never been put into practice. And you are discussing lethal viruses that can kill millions (maybe hundreds of millions) of people. What could go wrong? Nevertheless, the idea of a weapon that only kills your enemies while sparing your forces is an irresistible meme for military-oriented minds. Then, once the meme is loose in the memesphere, it starts acting with a force of its own. The increasing interest in bioweapons indicates that during the past 3-4 decades, military planners started believing that "genetic warfare" was a real possibility. At this point, strategic planning for a biological war became a necessity, in particular about what should have been done to prepare a country to react when targeted with bioweapons.

The diffusion of this meme generated a revolution in the views on how to contain an epidemic. Earlier on, the generally accepted view favored a soft approach: letting the virus run in the population with the objective of reaching the natural "herd immunity". For instance, in a 2007 paper, the authors examined a possible new influence pandemic and rejected such ideas as confinement, travel bans, distancing, and others. On quarantines, they stated that "There are no historical observations or scientific studies that support the confinement by quarantine of groups of possibly infected people for extended periods in order to slow the spread of influenza." 

But when the military meme of biological warfare started emerging, things changed. A bioweapon attack is nothing like a seasonal flu: it is supposed to be extremely deadly, able to cripple the functioning of an entire state. Facing such a threat, waiting for herd immunity is not enough: the virus has to be stopped fast to allow the defenders to identify the virus and develop a vaccine. 

You can find several documents on the Web advocating an aggressive attitude toward epidemics. One was prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in 2006. Another comes from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2010, where you can read of a scenario called "Operation Lockstep" that described something very similar to what came to pass in 2020 in terms of restrictions. Possibly, the most interesting document in this series is the one written in 2007 for the CDC  by Rajeev Venkayya. The document didn't use the term "lockdown" but it proposed a drastic series of measures to counter a possible outbreak that leading nearly two million victims in the United States only. It proposed a series of restrictions on the movement of people and, for the first time, the concept of "flattening the curve." It had a remarkable influence on the events that took place in 2020. We'll go back to this graph later. 

Up to 2020, all these ideas remained purely theoretical, just memes that floated in the memesphere. Things were soon to change. 

The Wuhan Lockdown meme

In early 2020, the Chinese government reported the discovery of a new virus, that they labeled SARS-Cov-2, rapidly spreading in the city of Wuhan. The authorities reacted by enacting a strict lockdown of the city and a partial one in the province of Hubei. The lockdown lasted from Jan 23 to April 8, a total of about 2 months and a half. 

It was an extraordinary event that finds no equivalent in modern or ancient times. Of course, quarantines have been known for centuries, but the idea of a quarantine is to confine people who are infected or who have been in contact with infected people. A lockdown, instead, means locking down everybody in a large geographical region. It had been tried only once in modern history, when a three-day lockdown was implemented in Sierra Leone with the idea of containing an outbreak of Ebola. It had no measurable effect on the epidemic. 

Many people proposed elaborate hypotheses about how the Chinese government may have been planning the pandemic in advance for strategic or political reasons. I don't see this idea as believable. Citing W.J. Astore, "People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse. Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way. This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing." I think the Chinese government is not different. Governments tend to react, rather than act. They also tend to be authoritarian, and a drastic lockdown is surely something that they favor since it enhances their power. 

Seen in this context, it doesn't matter if the SARS-Cov-2 virus was a natural mutation of an existing virus or, as some said, it had escaped from the biological research laboratory in Wuhan. What's important is that the Chinese authorities reacted "by the book." That is, they put into practice the recommendations that could be found, for instance, in Venkayya's CDC paper, although, of course, that doesn't mean that they actually read it. The Chinese surely had their own recommendations on preparedness that we may imagine were similar to those fashionable in the West. They may have believed that the virus was a serious threat, and they may even have suspected that it was a real biological attack. In any case, it was an occasion for the Chinese leaders to show their muscles and, perhaps, also to test their preparedness plans.

Here are the results of the first phase of the pandemic in China. We see how the number of cases moved along a typical epidemic curve that started in January 2020 and went to nearly zero after two months, and there remained for two years.


There is no doubt that the Chinese government saw this result as a success. Actually, as a huge success. Don't forget that the initial reports had described an extremely deadly virus, of the kind that could cause tens of millions of victims. In practice, the deaths attributed to the SARS-Cov-2 virus in China were about 5000. Over a population of a billion and a half, it is an infinitesimal number, and the probability for a Chinese citizen to die of (or with) Covid during 2020 was of the order of 2-3 in a million. Infinitesimal, indeed. But was it was a success of the containment policies? Or simply the result of the virus being much less deadly than it had been feared to be? Whatever the case, whoever took the decision of enacting the lockdown also took the merit for its perceived success. It was a personal triumph for China's president, Xi Jinping. 

The apparent success of the Wuhan lockdown generated a new, powerful meme about the effectiveness of the drastic NPI measures based on lockdowns, distancing, cleaning, disinfecting, masking, etcetera. They seemed effective not just in terms of "flattening the curve", but also as methods to control the epidemic and arrive at a condition of "zero covid." Memes such as "stay home" spread to the Western governments, just as the SARS-Cov2 virus spread to Western countries. The memes of "flattening the curve" and of "zero covid" were remarkably successful, as you can see in these data from Google Trends: 

Initially, it seemed that the Covid epidemic in Europe would disappear after the first wave, thanks to the NPIs. European leaders may have been genuinely convinced of this. For instance, in November 2020, the Italian Minister of Health, Mr. Roberto Speranza, published a book titled "Why we will be healed" taking credit for the successful eradication of the epidemic in Italy. But shortly afterward the number of Covid cases in Italy restarted to grow, and Mr. Speranza hastily retired his book from bookstores and from the Web. It was as if that book had never existed. In no country in the West, the number of cases could be lowered to zero, nor the epidemic could be limited to a single cycle as it had been done in China. The comparison of two years of data for China and the US is simply dramatic:

Many Chinese people seemed to take this result as a demonstration that the Chinese society is superior to the Western one because of the better discipline and self-control shown by Chinese citizens. It is an opinion (another meme) that could be maintained as long as the epidemic was at a truly zero level in China. 

Maybe, but a little more than two years later, things changed in China. The virus started spreading in the Southern areas of the country despite a new, drastic lockdown enacted by the authorities. Here are the most recent data available.


And you see that China went along the same path that several Western countries followed. After a lull in the spread of the virus, they concluded that the virus was eradicated. But then a new, stronger wave arrived. China didn't do so much better than the West, after all. 

The Memes that won

Up to March 2022, the China lockdown policy was seen as an exemplary case of successful containment of an epidemic. But the Shanghai lockdown changed everything. I argue that what we are seeing is a meme that got loose in the mind of politicians and led them to make several bad mistakes. 

The point, here, is to define success and failure in the containment of a pandemic. But what metric would you use? Let's go back to Venkayya's diagram in the 2007 CDC report, reproducing it here again. 

Do you notice what scam this diagram is? This figure is not based on data, has no experimental verification, no references in past studies. It is just something that the author, Mr. Venkayya, thought was a good idea. The problem is that the diagram cannot be quantified: it shows two nice and smooth theoretical curves. But, in the real world, you would never be able to observe both curves. Think of the epidemic in Wuhan: which of the two curves describes the real-world data? You cannot say: you would have needed two Wuhans, one where the restrictions were implemented, another where they weren't. Then, you could compare. 

Of course, in the real world, there are no two Wuhans, but there are 51 US states that applied different versions of the concept of "restrictions" during the pandemic. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economics Research went to examine how the different states performed and found essentially no effect of the restriction on the health of the citizens. There are other studies based that show how the effect of NPIs such as lockdowns, distancing, masks, etc., is weak, if existing at all. 

That leaves open the question of why the first lockdown in Wuhan was perceived to be so effective that it was replicated all over the world. The key, here, is the term "effective." If the virus had been as deadly as it was believed to be, maybe even a biological weapon, then, yes, you could claim that the Wuhan NPI had contained it. But later experience showed that the Covid virus was not much more lethal than that of normal influenza. Some data show that it may have been endemic before the outburst of 2020, so the immune system of the Chinese may have been already equipped to cope with it. That would also explain why the 2022 wave was so much stronger: the Chinese had not exposed their immune system to viruses for nearly two years, and they had become especially vulnerable to new variants.  

At this point, I can propose an interpretation for the reasons for the recent Shanghai lockdown as a good example of the power of memes. It is possible that the Chinese authorities were genuinely convinced that the Wuhan lockdown of 2020 demonstrated that restrictions work (in different terms, they remained infected with the relative meme). So, facing a new wave of the COVID virus, they reacted in the same way: with a new lockdown, convinced that they are doing their best to help Chinese citizens to overcome a real threat. 

If this is true, the Chinese authorities -- and the Chinese citizens, as well -- y must have been surprised when they saw that the new Covid wave refused to be flattened, as it had seemed to be during the Wuhan lockdown. The problem, at this point, lies with the stubbornness of memes, especially in the minds of politicians. A politician, in China as everywhere else, can never admit to having been wrong. When they find that some of their actions don't lead to the expected results, they tend to double down. Of course, a larger dose of a bad remedy does not usually help, but it is the way the human mind works. We may imagine that the leaders of the inhabitants of Easter Island did the same when they increased the effort in building large statues there. Incidentally, these statues were themselves another stubborn meme infecting a population.

Conclusion: a memetic cascade

Two years of the pandemic are summarized in a single graphic from "Worldometers." What you see is a series of seasonal peaks, one in the summer for the Southern Hemisphere, the other in winter for the Northern Hemisphere. There is no evidence that the various campaigns of non-pharmaceutical interventions had a significant effect. Every day in the world, some 150,000 persons die for all reasons. The graph tells us that, on the average, only about 7-8 thousand people died of (or perhaps just with) Covid every day. Even assuming that all those who died with Covid can be classified as dead from Covid (not obvious at all), more than 95% of the people who died during this period died for reasons other than the Covid. 

The question that we face, then, is how was it that the world reacted with such extreme measures to a threat that, seen today, was much exaggerated. It may be still too early to understand exactly what happened, but I think it is possible to propose that it was a typical "feedback cascade" in the world's memesphere. A convergence of parallel views from politicians, decision-makers, industrial lobbies, and even simple citizens, most of them truly convinced that they were doing the right thing. 

I don't mean here that there were no conspiracies in this story, in the sense of groups of people acting to exploit the pandemic for their personal economic or political interests. Lobbies and individuals do ride memes for their own advantage. So, when the pharmaceutical industry discovered that they could make money with vaccines against the Covid, they pushed hard for the meme to spread. The surveillance industry did the same. And governments, of course, pushed for more control over their citizens. They are naturally authoritarian and the Chinese government may not be especially more authoritarian than the Western ones. 

But, overall, memes can be a force that moves infected people even against their personal interests. My grandmother had no advantage, just a slightly higher cost, from her habit of boiling her milk before drinking it. It is much worse for the Covid story. A lot of ordinary people fully believed the memes that the government's propaganda machine was pushing and they did things that were positively harming them, physically, socially, and economically. They still do, memes are resilient. Daniel Dennett said that "a human being is an ape infested with memes." and the Covid story shows that it is true. 

Fortunately, the number of cases in China seems to have reached its peak and from now on, it can only go down. But the recent news from Shanghai is worrisome. If the Western media are to be trusted, the Chinese government is engaged in fencing apartment buildings to keep people locked inside. It may still be way too early to say that the time of the requiem for an old meme has come. 

See also the work by Jeffrey Tucker, and Chuck Pezeshky.

Note added after publication. Latest news from China (May 9th, 2022):

"Our prevention and control strategy is determined by the party's nature and mission, our policies can stand the test of history, our measures are scientific and effective," the seven-member committee said, according to government news agency Xinhua.

"We have won the battle to defend Wuhan, and we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai," it said.

They have clearly realized that they made a huge mistake, but they cannot admit that and they cannot back down. The usual disaster. And, by the way, they completely confirm my interpretation that they really believed that the lockdown in Wuhan had been a success in eradicating the virus. ("our measures are scientific" -- yeah, sure.....)