A Healthy Dose Of Xi Jinping Hysteria

Concerns around the rapid abandonment of strict pandemic control measures in China filled a news void Thursday.

Predictably, the same outlets which spent the better part of a year mercilessly deriding Xi Jinping’s no tolerance approach to COVID are now engaged in around-the-clock, breathless editorializing about the risks associated with a haphazard rollback of the curbs.

On Wednesday, China unveiled 10 new measures which amounted to an admission that “COVID zero” — “dynamic” or otherwise — is over.

The official case count out of China probably isn’t accurate anymore, because less testing means fewer confirmed cases. Spoiler alert: It was never accurate in the first place. There are 1.4 billion people there, 500 million of whom are rural. Fearing government-mandated quarantine, many urban Chinese were growing wary of testing, which likely meant scores of undetected cases. And then there’s the widespread belief that China isn’t forthcoming about statistics — any statistics, but particularly those related to matters the Party considers sensitive.

Given all of that, the notion that “not many infections were undetected” — as the chair of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health told Bloomberg Thursday — beggars belief. “COVID zero” or no “COVID zero,” the idea that China, the most populous nation on Earth, had basically no cases for months at a time when the rest of the world had so many Omicron infections that public health officials effectively stopped counting, was laughable. Anyone perpetuating that narrative was beholden to the Party, keen to preserve access to the mainland for business purposes or credulous enough to be a useful idiot.

In that context, statements like, “Whether it’s Beijing or Guangzhou, given it’s winter, more gatherings make the virus spread even faster, so the decline in reported cases doesn’t make sense” (from a German-based virologist who spoke to Bloomberg for the same linked article) seem naively trite. That is: No, of course the reported declines don’t make any sense. Why are we even talking about this? The official count was always a fabrication. Now it’s a fabrication flattered by an overnight rollback in mandatory testing.

We shouldn’t lose track of the fact that this is a good thing, though. Assuming China’s healthcare system can handle any surge that accompanies a (much) higher caseload, and assuming any success at all in raising vaccination rates among the elderly, Xi will almost surely thank himself for unburdening the populace. At best, his containment strategy was a quaint anachronism. At worst, it was quixotic to the point of neurosis. And that’s coming from me, someone who suffers from neurosis and was avowedly pro-lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic.

Some locals are asking the right questions. An ER doctor in Shanghai who spoke to the Western media Thursday suggested that instead of pouring money into containment, Xi should’ve invested in the healthcare system as well as better vaccines and therapeutics, for example. But the fact that she wouldn’t provide her name “for fear of reprisals” spoke volumes about China’s plight: Yes, it’s possible that the overnight rollback will be seen in hindsight as a mistake that cost countless lives (and you can take “countless” literally because the only people who’ll know the actual body count will be the Standing Committee), but what else are they supposed to do? Sticking with the existing approach would’ve meant more protests, and to the extent those protests entailed more calls for Xi’s ouster, the “reprisals” would’ve been severe.

As some readers correctly suggested, China’s world-class domestic surveillance apparatus could be leveraged to intimidate protesters such that another Tiananmen wouldn’t be necessary. But this is a new generation of Chinese. They don’t remember Tiananmen mostly because they weren’t alive then, but also because you’re not allowed to talk about it in China, where unfettered access to the internet is only possible through VPNs. Door knocks and the “We know who you are” dynamic implied by any police state probably wouldn’t have proven sufficient to quell public unrest, particularly considering that Xi’s crackdown on Hong Kong didn’t involve rolling tanks into the streets. He’d have needed to kill a few people in public to make the point. Nobody (apparently including Xi) wanted that. So, COVID containment rollbacks it was.

Speaking of Hong Kong, city shares surged Thursday as officials cut isolation times for the infected to five days from seven, while inbound travelers will “only” need five days of testing compared to a full week previously. I frankly don’t understand how any honest person can still consider Hong Kong a bastion of… well, of anything really, considering i) the legislature and judiciary aren’t independent anymore (and please, for the sake of your own sanity, spare me any protestations on that point), ii) the city is now part of Xi’s police state and iii) local authorities are still operating a COVID containment regime that looks almost nothing like the laissez-faire approach long ago adopted by Western democracies.

As regular readers have doubtlessly noticed, I’ve morphed into an ardent China critic over the past year. I want to emphasize that being a China critic isn’t the same thing as being a China “hawk.” I don’t think, for example, that an optimal approach to curbing Xi’s technological ambitions is to play semiconductor Whac-A-Mole. That’s just a delay and pray strategy. China will develop that technology eventually. No, we shouldn’t hand it to them in the meantime, but the harder the line, the more resources Xi will pour into domestic initiatives. There are no right answers. Or, if there are, I don’t pretend to have them. Also, I think the idea of committing (implicitly or, if you’re 80-year-old Joe Biden and you’ve forgotten your own advice to George W. Bush, explicitly) the US military to an old fashioned ship fight with the PLA (whose navy is bigger) in defense of an island (Taiwan) that almost no one is willing to recognize as an independent nation, is positively insane. Again: There are no right answers. And if there are, I don’t pretend to have them.

All I know is that between the distinct possibility that Xi’s Uyghur internment camps are even more macabre than what’s known to the world, the Hong Kong crackdown and the inauguration (last month, at the Party congress) of what amounts to a totalitarian dictatorship, it’s impossible to countenance the idea of Xi’s China as anything other than a dangerous antagonist.

Sad as this is to admit, one-man rule and various iterations of authoritarianism can be conducive to stable states where a majority lives in peace and enjoys something loosely akin to relative prosperity under a modified social contract with fine print that stipulates the complete and total surrender of individual liberty to an autocrat in the event that exercising those liberties amounts to challenging the head of state.

I’d argue that model can’t work at scale in modernity — that large, modern, wealthy states can’t run on that model. But emerging markets and frontier economies probably still can, assuming the tenuous truce between the autocrat and the populace (i.e., stability and the absence of intrusion into daily life in exchange for complete subservience and a blind eye to corruption and kleptocracy) holds. In many places, it does hold. In places where it did hold (past tense), and the US intervened in the name of democracy, the states rapidly collapsed into chaos.

What can’t work anywhere, in any context (let alone in the context of a superpower) is the totalitarian dictatorship model. In some respects, Xi’s China isn’t all that different from Kim’s North Korea. Of course, Xi does care about the Chinese people. That’s not nothin’, as they say. I have little doubt that Xi would lay it all on the line for China, whereas I’d be inclined to think Kim would be on the first flight to Moscow in the event one of his toy rockets accidentally landed in Tokyo, prompting a Bush-like “48 hours” ultimatum from the White House.

Despite regular warnings from the Pentagon about the strategic — almost existential — threat posed by Xi’s China, most of us are conditioned to view Vladimir Putin’s Russia as the West’s most dangerous, unpredictable adversary. Putin has certainly played that role in 2022, and he revels in it. But Putin’s ostensibly ominous nuclear warnings (which he reiterated on Wednesday) increasingly come across as a pitiable sideshow, much like Kim’s own bombast — a local mob boss waving around his WMDs more as a reminder to the world that he still exists than as a credible threat.

The local, near-term threat to global security obviously emanates from the Kremlin, and I wouldn’t want to trivialize that, particularly given the unfathomable suffering Putin has foisted upon Ukraine. But from a 30,000-foot, long-term perspective, the real threat emanates from Beijing. Unlike Putin’s rickety army, the PLA is nearly a match for the US military. And unlike Kim’s cartoonish pretensions to carrying on a noble tradition of principled, dictatorial communism, Xi is the genuine article in that regard.

Consider this: It’s all but a foregone conclusion that China will have the largest economy and the most powerful military on Earth within two decades, if not much sooner. And China is a totalitarian dictatorship where the unchallenged big man has deeply-held ideological convictions which, unlike Putin’s imperial delusions, aren’t the product of any late-life identity crisis, but rather stem directly from an (almost explicit) desire to serve as a reincarnated Mao, and thereby allow one of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators to rule the world vicariously.


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9 thoughts on “A Healthy Dose Of Xi Jinping Hysteria

  1. This may be one of your best posts, ever. It is rife with analysis, soul searching, and humility. Bravo for putting all of yourself into your work.

    The criticism of Xi’s policies, no matter which direction they go is reflective of the 24 hour news coverage that fights for our attention. Hyper criticality is now a daily response to whatever qualifies as newsworthy content. It’s meaningless and a waste of thought and energy but we play that game daily anyway.

    I think China is still in a place where we can manage them through diplomatic ties. With a country that large and under such surveillance the best we can hope for is the people there tire of their dictatorship and rise up. That can be best accomplished with soft power.

    China’s military may be larger than ours but it is not battle tested. I think if we can learn anything from the Ukraine conflict it’s that you can’t look at sheer size and modernization and assume any outcomes. There is no reason in the world anyone would have assumed that Russia would have fallen so flat on its face against a tiny force like Ukraine. It is also easy to assume the US would be challenged by a large Chinese navy, but that navy has never been tested and doesn’t have centuries of success behind it. I’m certainly not advocating for a conflict, war never really seems to solve anything anyway, but I do think other fighting forces get way more credit than they have earned. And yes, my bias as a Navy vet is showing.

    All in all, Russia has demonstrated that they would have no chance in a traditional conflict with us, all they have left is mutually assured destruction. China, while tenuously amenable to maintaining peaceful relations is certainly a threat. However, I think the recent protests will push back Xi’s plans vis a vis Taiwan. We can use that newly bought time to rely on our soft power to push them further away from that notion. Ideally we need the people there to push back against that regime and enable the fight when it comes.

    1. What better way to distract a restive population than starting a nice war? Especially one that can be presented as a battle to save national face.

      Looking at the weak US military presence in the region, our depleted stock of weaponry thanks to our aid to Ukraine and eventual weakening of the chip stranglehold, if was in Beijing I’d look to take action sooner rather than later, before those vulnerabilities are rectified.

      Nor do they need to launch a full scale conventional war to wring concessions out of the west. Disrupting Taiwan’s energy grid, the two crucial LNG import terminals and general computer system mayhem might be enough to crack Taiwan’s “Silicon Shield”.

      Plus, how much appetite do US taxpayers have for yet another war? I recently spoke with some Taiwanese there and over there. None of them are counting on the US to commit forces to their defense. Are they wrong?

      1. War can be a distraction but when large volumes of people recently called for a change of leadership, you’re not going to easily convince them to put their lives on the line for an unnecessary conflict.

        The US has naval bases all across Japan and South Korea. It’s not like we’re looking at such a weak Pacific presence akin to the 1940’s. We have been preparing for an Asian conflict for decades.

        1. I was thinking more of tactical aircraft rather than ships, which can take weeks to move into position, if they are available nearby. The loss of the bases in the Philippines would haunt us if we were forced to defend the island.

  2. Great article and comments. I echo the thought that the recent protests are a tony beacon of hope that sets Xi’s plans to take over the world back a little bit. But also, thinking about Hershel Walker receiving 49% of the vote gives me pause about any long term optimism.

  3. I know this isn’t politically correct but I am still stuck with the metaphors of my youth. I read most, if not all, of the “Uncle Remus” tales. As I think of the idea of a direct engagement with China I can’t help but remember the “Tar Baby” from those stories. Every time you touched it the more it absorbed you and the more you got stuck. China is a tar baby and over-estimating our ability to confront it physically is simply silly.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this post. China is one of the biggest and most interesting puzzles to me, in large part due to something you noted, it is set to become the largest economy and have the largest military, but can it succeed as a true world power maintaining the current police state system and blocking the free flow of information into its population? Can you truly dominate the world order, as the US has, when you need to spend as much effort controlling your own people as you might spend influencing other nations? I used to visit Hong Kong frequently during the good years of the “one country two system” experiment and I crossed into the mainland on several occasions. My impression back then was that the China that Hong Kong promised could become an undisputed superpower but not the one I witnessed in the mainland, as impressive as it was. I think China would need to attract immigration and relax restrictions in the flow of information for it to really achieve its full potential and both of those premises are at odds with the party’s survival strategy, for all the faults we can find with the US and Europe both can eventually solve an aging population and declining productivity by allowing immigration (again), people still want to move to the developed world and try their shot at a decent life, will that ever be the case for Xi’s China?

  5. H- yet another 10 out of 10 post.
    Your ability to present complicated and multi-layer concepts with your own ideas while adding a personal and vulnerable detail about yourself makes for unparalleled writing that truly resonates on so many levels.
    I believe that the US will remain a superior superpower based on the declining birthrate in China and the recognition that most of the world’s population that does not have opportunities in their native countries would choose US over China- if given such an opportunity.

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