To judge from western media reports, recent protests of China’s “zero Covid” policy amount to a virtual counter-revolution. It makes you wonder. Mainstream media coverage conveys a sense that Xi Jinping could be forced to resign in the face of mass pressure. An opinion piece in the NY Times December 4 highlighted “jarring oppression: the incarceration of hundreds of millions of people in their homes and in field hospitals.” [emphasis added]
Many people in the US know about incarceration firsthand. More than two million people are incarcerated in jails here. Millions more are on the streets – many on parole from prison. Now, as the US pandemic’s eviction moratorium lifts, many more millions may be homeless.
“Xi Broke China’s Social Contract” was the headline of the NY Times opinion piece on December 4. The article asks: “Has an autocrat ever taken away the right of so many people to lead a normal life?”
But are Xi and the Chinese leadership breaking a contract or keeping a promise? In early 2020 the Chinese government announced the economic hit to the country from the pandemic was not going to define the response. The well-being of the people had to be dominant. Medical treatment for COVID-19 patients was guaranteed, free of cost.
Now China’s “dynamic zero Covid” policy is in the process of loosening. “Frequent coronavirus tests and digital health codes…” will no longer be required for daily life or to travel within the country, according to a Washington Post report December 7. The infamous “lockdowns” – quarantining whole neighborhoods of people at home, work, or in group facilities – have been lifted, but unevenly. This has been a key cause of protest: “why here and not there, and when will this end?”
A fire in a high-rise apartment building that killed ten people in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, seemed to touch off the protests. Some people felt pandemic limitations on movement had prevented the fire trucks from getting closer to the blaze or arriving fast enough, according to a Washington Post report November 6.
The fact the tragedy happened in Xinjiang seemed to light up US mainstream media coverage. It was like scratching an old wound. But when a NY Times commentator “asked on Twitter whether demonstrators were empathizing with the victims as Uyghurs or more generally as compatriots,” he got a direct answer: “Is there a difference between Uyghurs and Han? What a rotten question!” But the hyperbolic coverage has continued. The Times editorial board said December 4 that “we have a moral obligation to offer expressions of support, dialogue and collaboration to [the Chinese] people.” But does that include describing zero-Covid measures “incarceration”?
Comparing US and Chinese Pandemic Responses
In August 2021, I reviewed Capitalism on a Ventilator: The Impact of COVID-19 in China & the US. In 2020, during the first 100 days of the pandemic, China’s rate of infections and deaths stayed flat while U.S. cases went through the roof. China’s government set aside economic concerns to manage the crisis. Industrial plants abruptly switched from regular production to churn out protective gear, ambulances, ventilators, electro-cardiograph monitors, respiratory humidification therapy machines and more.
In March 2020 China was sending needed medical equipment to 89 countries around the world. US governors, mayors, charitable organizations and major health complexes – faced with inaction and confusion in Washington – made trade deals with Chinese corporations to get emergency supplies. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) ordered 22 airlifts of supplies from China, and set up their distribution through profit-taking private sector networks.
Meanwhile the Trump government pumped trillions into the economy and called for people to “get back to work.” The president set an example by scorning masks and hyping patent medicines and home remedies instead of vaccines, while cadavers piled up in refrigerator trucks outside hospitals in New York.
The Risks of Lifting China’s Covid Restrictions
Nature Magazine reported December 1 that Chinese people have protested against the government’s policy of quashing outbreaks through strict lockdowns, mass testing, quarantining and travel restrictions. The report adds: “Thanks to the policy, only a small proportion of people in China have been exposed” to COVID-19. But “a resurgence of cases in November has led to an all-time pandemic high that hit 71,000 daily recorded cases” by the end of the month.
“If China were to lift strict restrictions now, Omicron could infect between 160 million and 280 million people ‒ resulting in some 1.3 million to 2.1 million deaths, largely among unvaccinated older adults,” the report says. That would add between a fifth and a third of China’s Covid deaths to date. Those numbers would double or triple the total number of US pandemic deaths. While it’s a small fraction of the total percentage of US deaths from Covid, it’s not acceptable to the Chinese government. But according to the NY Times commentator, “the lockdowns brought untold misery,” and “broke China’s social contract” – suggesting a tradeoff between general well-being and limited rights to protest or participate in decisions.
These claims raise some questions. What is meant by “untold misery”? Clearly there was frustration, coping with quarantines, testing, and all the rest. And the Chinese economy slipped some from its torrid pace of growth in recent decades. Youth unemployment increased, and western investors worried about profits. But people were safe from the virus. The NY Times reported December 1 that “the protesters are a small minority of the population,” and those who shouted anti-government slogans “are an even smaller fringe.” They were widespread enough to get a lot of attention in western media – much more than US media gave to the millions who protested against the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Protests ‘Happen Often’ in China
Is protest really that rare in China? Not according to long-term residents and observers like Cyrus Janssen and Tings Chak. Both say popular protests happen often, even daily, across China, on a range of issues. Tings Chak says there are as many as 180,000 protests per year in China. She says protest, discontent and debate are healthy. “Just because we’re tired of the pandemic doesn’t mean we hate the government,” she said. In fact, as lockdowns have eased and kids have gone back to school, many people call with excuses to keep their kids home. “It’s a gradual process, which has frustrations,” she said.
Cyrus Janssen is an investor and golf instructor who has functioned as “an international ambassador for the PGA of America for the past 15 years.” In early December he broadcast a video to “break down the truth in what is really happening” in China. He corrected the impression that “China has been on lockdown for three years.” He said parts of China have been on lockdown while many have not. He points to numerous “myths about China” – like the one that there is “widespread anger” among Chinese. He pointed to a report from Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation that finds over 90% of the Chinese people like their government, and “rate it as more capable and effective than ever before.” In exploding the media myths Janssen says “we’ve been lied to about China many times.”
Trying for a ‘Soft Landing’
Tings Chak is a researcher for Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, author of Serve the People: the Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China, and editor of Dongsheng News on China. She spoke with Brian Becker of “The Socialist Program” on Breakthrough News in early December. She clarified that “dynamic” is the key word in China’s “dynamic zero-Covid policy” – it’s not rigid, and “changes with the science.”
Chak says China’s leadership is trying for a “soft landing” from zero-Covid. “China hasn’t thrown in the towel, it’s still fighting the virus, putting people first instead of profits,” she said. But a “soft landing” involves lifting restrictions gradually, in a carefully planned way which varies among cities and counties across China.
The NY Times reported December 3, “there are some signs that the leadership is shifting focus from building quarantine facilities to fortifying its best hospitals.” But that will take time, Tings Chak says. While China has more hospital beds per 1,000 people (4.34) than the US (2.9), it lags in intensive care (ICU) beds. To get them will involve training new staff and implementing new technology – all within reach for China. Vaccines are another challenge, especially for the elder population. Tings Chak says 76 percent of elders have received one vaccine, but only 40 percent have been boosted. This is an obstacle to ending lockdowns. Getting the older population vaccinated safely will take time.
Travel restrictions are another source of frustration, this time with hopeful signs. Now the quarantine for people arriving in China has been reduced from three weeks to five days in a hotel plus three more days “at home.” In-country travel restrictions vary, but are all gradually loosening.
Contrasts in Health Coverage
The issue of health coverage is a major contrast between the US and China. Medical insurance in China covers 97 percent of the population, thanks to what the World Bank described as “the largest expansion of insurance coverage in human history.” Meanwhile, the United States ranks 175th out of 195 countries in access to health care, according to the Global Health Security Index. Two-thirds of U.S. bankruptcies are caused by medical bills. More than 30 million people in the US lack health insurance. In the first weeks of the pandemic, as more than 26 million people filed for unemployment benefits for the first time, five million of them lost their health insurance, adding millions more to the uninsured. And tens of millions of people who had health insurance could not afford care because of out-of-pocket costs required before insurance benefits could begin.
“The Safety Net for Covid Care Is Going Away,” says a front-page NY Times report December 6. Federal funds of about $25 billion covered Covid care for 30 million uninsured people since the beginning of the pandemic. The funds are “running low,” the report says. “The White House asked Congress last month for more than $9 billion in additional funding for the pandemic response,” with some of it targeted for uninsured people. But the report says politicians in Congress “have shown little appetite for providing more funding.” (Perhaps the $60 billion+ in Ukraine war funds has spoiled congressional appetites for health funds.)
In September President Biden declared “the pandemic is over.” But the NY Times report says “roughly 50,000 coronavirus cases – a figure that is almost certainly a significant undercount – are being reported in the United States each day.” That’s not very much lower than the 71,000 daily recorded cases for November in China – with a population more than four times larger than the US – where such a high number of recorded cases indicates a significant danger to millions.
“As federal funding dries up,” the NY Times article says, “people without insurance may be left footing the bill for tests and treatments, or they may be discouraged from seeking care altogether.” In the state of Tennessee, which has not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, “We’re back to the old ways,” said Michelle Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center. “People are going without vitally important services, and/or they’re going into debt for the rest of their lives.”
Why Attack China?
The question arises: why does the mainstream media highlight Chinese protests against the zero-Covid policy? Is it meant to discourage and reduce US corporate investment there? Or is it simply part of the ever-expanding cold war against China? The official US narrative is basically that China is bad (“authoritarian”), and the US and West are good (“democratic”). Democracy and human rights were the theme in the face-off at the UN in September 2021 between Biden and Xi, with Biden loudly condemning China, though few delegates agreed.
Attacking China’s record on managing the Covid pandemic seems like a bad choice. While the recent protests do highlight people’s frustrations, the small size of the protests would suggest the general attitude of the majority has not changed much from a year ago, shortly after Wuhan emerged from the COVID-19 lockdown. At that time York University Professor Cary Woo led a survey of 19,816 people across 31 provinces and administrative regions. Published in the Washington Post, the study found that 49 percent of respondents became more trusting of the government following its response to the pandemic, and overall trust increased to 98 percent at the national level and 91 percent at the township level.
At that time, according to the study, the vast majority in many Western countries felt China handled the outbreak poorly. Their views toward China became overwhelmingly negative. U.S. citizens’ confidence in President Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs also declined significantly. But the study found that the pandemic had not shaken the long-standing support of Chinese citizens for their government. Empirical research, including the professor’s, has shown that the Chinese government’s handling of the pandemic has actually boosted its legitimacy.
Tings Chak, at the end of her recent interview on BreakThrough News, said one of the big “takeaways” from the recent 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, was a “strong, even harsh” criticism of shortcomings in its own middle leadership. “Corruption, money worship, and hedonism” are still problems, she said. But, she added, the other main “takeaway” was China’s alternative project to western capitalism: a model for socialist modernization, and a shared future for humanity, as opposed to the one-way street of US hegemony.
China’s success may be what the Biden administration and the mainstream media really fear. That may be what makes them hope a few protests will somehow stop China’s progress. That isn’t really very likely.