Opinion: Why no one dares to tell China Xi the terrible truth – zero-Covid does not work

The very rigidity of the political system built by the Chinese Communist Party hampers the country’s ability to handle the highly contagious Omicron variant with nothing but a game of lockdown Whac-A-Mole.

China’s mastery of censorship, propaganda, and social control controlled Covid-19’s initial proliferation, enabling Beijing to proclaim its successful response amid international discussion about the virus’ origins. But censorship is a double-edged sword that now isolates Beijing’s political elite and hampers the upward flow of timely and accurate information from the ground.

This information demise – censorship and undermining of the truth – is costing China dearly.

Since mid-March, more than 70 cities, which account for 40% of national economic output, have implemented Covid controls. The consequences not only for the Chinese economy but also for world trade and already strained supply chains have worried economists.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Shanghai, the jewel in China’s economic crown.

When city officials noticed an increase in infections, they tried partial shutdowns in hopes of blocking the spread without hurting trade. But it failed to stop infections, which rose five times in the first weeks of April to about 20,000 cases a day. A large part of the population, especially the elderly, are not vaccinated. China’s Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine has also been reported to be less effective against Omicron.

Eventually, the Shanghai government returned to the Wuhan gambling book and closed the metropolis with 25 million people. Zero-Covid literally involves locking some people inside their homes, mass testing, sending the infected to quarantine centers, and limiting most of the social interaction in an attempt to stop the spread of the community.

The harsh and arbitrary way it was done in Shanghai backfired. Popular anger boiled over on social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo against food shortages, forced imprisonment and separation of children from parents.
A man placed an empty refrigerator on the balcony of his apartment to complain about the lack of fresh produce. Scenes of medical staff in hazmat suits pushing people around, and a video of a worker killing a possibly infected dog with a shovel went viral.
The outrage over family separations was such that the authorities rushed to abandon the practice. And when some residents started shouting angrily out of their apartment windows, one came surveillance drone warned: “Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing.”
Meaning: We are locked inside Shanghai with 25 pounds of mango - and some very helpful neighbors
To add to the dissatisfaction, reports were that the authorities had postponed the publication of the recovery until after two important CCP meetings in Beijing in early March. In a leaked recording of a phone call with a confused resident of Shanghai, an official from a local office in the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention admitted that the health system was in disarray, that test results were manipulated to downplay case numbers and health professionals’ advice was ignored .

“This pandemic has become a political issue that uses 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?” asked the official of the recording.

The answer is no. Few countries, even the most autocratic, have the surveillance network and social control mechanisms to impose something like zero-Covid.

Internet blocking and filtering, combined with a small army of human censors and ubiquitous CCTV cameras and face recognition software, acts as a circuit breaker between words and action.

The state throws itself into any attempt at political organization that may challenge its grip on information and power. Officials could not stop people shouting from rooftops and posting smartphone videos, but the protests were not amplified by the mainstream media, which is kept tightly in check.

The flow of information in China is essentially top-down. Accurate grassroots reports, especially those that put the regime in a bad light, rarely penetrate politicians.

President Xi Jinping is now so identified with zero-Covid that it would be a huge political downturn to change course as he positions himself for an almost unprecedented third term at the 20th Party Congress this fall.

With most goals, China has outperformed many other countries in handling Covid-19. It has only registered nine deaths per. million inhabitants compared to 2,983 for the United States, although its narrow definition of Covid-19 deaths may partly explain it.

It has contained the spread of the disease and so far has projected a picture of government competence.

But as the shutdown in Shanghai has shown, it has all cost the economy and the individual welfare and freedom 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 an increasing number of people are not.

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