Will China's lockdowns have a lasting impact?
It would be easy to look at the reports of life under China’s lockdowns and assume that China is destroying its country. Here’s an article about some of the horrors that took place during Shanghai’s recent lockdowns, below are highlights:
People starving because the government delivered food isn’t adequate
Men in hazmat suits beating up and subsequently tying up Covid-positive patients and taking them to quarantine camps
Tens of millions of people being placed under house arrest, with entrances into apartment complexes being welded shut or covered by bars
Locking up Covid-positive children without their parents
There are also reports of people being cut off even from medical care.
I also have a first hand anecdote from someone I know from the UK who got caught in one of the lockdowns for 39 days. They were provided three “meals” per day, but one of the meals was described as “a rotten shrimp dish with old rice”, and breakfast was literally a piece of bread with carton milk. This person ended up eating only one meal per day for the full duration. No visitation or leaving premises was allowed, so the entire period was spent isolated in a single room. The experience took a physical toll that showed up starkly in “before and after” photos.
I have a personal anecdote too. I’ve taken the PCR tests that are administered in China (when I was in Korea visiting family). They are not like the ones in the West (which I have had numerous times). The sticks are longer and go much further into the nose, to the point at which you actually fear that your brain will be punctured. It’s impossible to adequately describe how much worse of an experience these PCR tests are than the ones we used early on in the US. Imagine having to take one of these tests every time you leave your apartment, or being forced to take one every day as they clamp down on an outbreak?
These measures never would have been possible in the West. It would have been political suicide. Immediate mass impeachments. According to The Economist, a full third of foreigners living in China now plan to leave the country due to their Covid policies.
So, the answer to the question we asked in the title to this post (Will China’s lockdown policies have a lasting impact?) seems obvious: YES!
But I’m not so sure. Despite the draconian lockdowns there is broad support among the public for China’s handling of Covid-19. In China, unlike in the West, the vast majority of people are hugely supportive of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). We could attribute the support to propaganda, after all you cannot talk against Xi Jinping or any of his policies unless you want police to show up at your door. China actually banned Winnie the Pooh after people started comparing Pooh’s likeness to Xi.
China controls the media with an iron fist. Tencent and other tech giants who control the communication platforms are active participants in censorship. Even Apple has altered their software and turned over management of user data to the CCP to enable the CCP to monitor iPhone users’ text messages, emails, contacts, movements, etc. This is according to a New York Times investigative report - not some conspiracy theory floating around in the ether.
But, IF we did attribute support for the CCP to their dictatorial control over the flow of information, we would be wrong. Support for the CCP is mostly derived from the economic miracle that has taken place since 1980.
In 1980, GDP per capita in China was $195. Most people lived in poverty, and had no access to healthcare or anything resembling a social safety net. 30 million people starved to death between 1959 and 1961 - 1 out of every 33 people in the country. There are still 165 million people alive in China today who experienced those times first hand.
As of 2021 GDP per capita had increased to $12,556 ($17,200 in terms of purchasing power parity). This is an astonishing 65X increase. It is impossible to fathom such a thing taking place over a period shorter than an average life. It is an economic miracle with no historical precedent.
China has built out a social safety net that includes healthcare and pensions. All major cities in China now have infrastructure that puts America’s to shame. The CCP has stood by the people in ensuring that the wealth is distributed. The poverty rate in China has plummeted. There were approximately 785 million people living in Poverty in China as defined by the $1.90 of purchasing power per day as of 1980, a figure that has since dropped to effectively zero.
Even the young have experienced the economic miracle. GDP per capita has tripled since 2010. Essentially, the entire living Chinese population with the exception of those born after 2000 have watched the CCP lead the country through a resurgence that accomplished in 40 years what took the United States, Europe and the UK closer to 200 years.
Here is a picture of the financial district of Pudong taken in 1987:
This picture was taken in 2013:
It would be difficult if not impossible for someone who grew up in the West to truly understand the impact this pace of progress has had on the people who experienced it.
Another thing I’d like to point out is that whenever you read about protests against the government taking place in China in Western media outlets, you are often being fed misleading information. These protests are - almost universally - protests against local governments, not the CCP governing body itself. In the vast majority of cases the protests are people coming together to try and get the attention of the CCP to come in and act as a savior.
For decades it has been popular sport in the West to predict a Chinese downturn. Every year The Economist, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and every other major media presence publishes article after article about the “mistakes” China is making - whether they be economic or geopolitical. And yet, for 40 years straight now, China has done right by its people and executed a nearly flawless economic miracle.
Imagine living on a canal. One day a person on the other side starts yelling at you to stay inside because the streets are about to get dangerous. You would ignore them, thinking they were crazy.
But what if instead of yelling at you from across the canal, that person walked across the water first and then delivered the message at your door. You would probably give them the benefit of the doubt and stay the fuck inside.
China is not so insular that its people are unaware of what life is like outside the country. They know they are alone in the world in how they are handling Covid. But, it is easy to believe that the reports of widespread support for the CCP’s handling of Covid are accurate. The CCP has an unimaginably large reservoir of goodwill built up that will not easily be depleted.
Still, it is tempting to feel like this time is different. The youngest members of Chinese society have experienced less of the economic miracle. They have grown up exposed to global culture via the internet.
The following is an excerpt from the Economist:
“Ruins parties” are secret dance-nights held in empty office blocks or disused commercial sites…A college graduate who attends such parties says that she and her friends would rather go to regular nightclubs, but are prevented by pandemic rules that they consider “stupid”. The young woman describes how she accepted controls early in the pandemic. But her trust faded, especially after a harsh, bungled lockdown that saw 24m people strictly quarantined for two months this year in Shanghai. Calling the Omicron variant “not that serious”, she is more frightened by rules that require Beijingers to scan QR codes with a movement-tracking smartphone app each time they enter a shop or public building or catch a taxi. Her parents accept such controls, the graduate says, suggesting that older Chinese were rendered “obedient” by long-ago hardships. But like a striking number of her peers, she works hard to keep her own movements hidden.”
Is this more Western doom that inaccurately represents the viewpoint of the young? Maybe not. The practice of using screenshots of old QR codes and other gaming mechanisms to avoid the tracking system became prevalent enough that authorities have invested in new tracking systems that imbed “animated borders and synthesized voices”- the equivalent of watermarks central banks print on currencies to prevent counterfeiting. They have also started prosecuting companies who allow their apps to be used to create and share fake health codes.
I’m going to conclude this post with an excerpt from a post by Noah Smith, who writes the Noahpinion Substack:
"Xi Jinping is widely hailed as China’s most powerful leader since Mao. He certainly has been highly effective at consolidating power under his own person. From his utter destruction of potential rivals Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang to a sweeping “anti-corruption” campaign that purged or cowed every faction but his own, Xi showed very quickly that he was not going to tolerate the factional pluralism that the Chinese Communist Party had enjoyed under his predecessors. His abolition of term limits essentially means that he’s now president for life, effectively ending the system that had seen three peaceful transfers of executive power. And he has been more effective than any leader since Mao at creating a cult of personality around himself, recently introducing “Xi Jinping Thought” into school curricula.
But other than turning a bureaucratic oligarchy into a personalistic dictatorship, what are Xi’s accomplishments, exactly? In my experience, people tend to assume that Xi is hyper-competent because:
There’s a general impression that the Chinese government is hyper-competent, and Xi has made himself synonymous with the Chinese government, and
Under Xi’s watch, China has arguably become the world’s most powerful country.
But this doesn’t mean Xi actually deserves his reputation as a one-man engine of Chinese greatness. Much of his apparent success was actually inherited from his predecessors. He has taken absolute control of the apparatus built by people such as Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, but I think it’s hard to argue that he has added much to that apparatus.
In fact, I think there are multiple signs that Xi has actually weakened the capabilities of the Chinese juggernaut. So far, China’s power and general effectiveness are so great that these signs seem to have gone largely unnoticed, but I think they’re there. The three big ones are: Slowing growth, an international backlash against China, and missteps related to the Covid pandemic."
Unlike his predecessors of the past few decades, Xi Jinping is singularly focused on maintaining control through a strong CCP. Economic advancement is still important but no longer the primary metric with which to measure success. The flipside of more centralized control is an impaired ability to get feedback on the body politic’s perceptions of how things are going. Can the CCP accurately game-theory out the long-term impacts of their Covid policies?
According to The Economist, in 2004 only 25% of Chinese students returned home. That figure improved to 65% by 2019, a year in which over 700,000 young Chinese were studying overseas. Students who return to China are known as “sea turtles”.
China has shown no signs yet of keeping their citizens from moving overseas, though they have taken measures to make it more difficult to move wealth outside the country.
At the least, it seems like the Covid policies will result in the exodus of a huge number of foreigners working in the country.
I know that I would never consider living in China after what I’ve read about the lockdowns (I had previously considered spending an extended period of time there), but is that only because I’m a Westerner?
Will the number of sea turtles keep growing?
Great work Ben :)