China’s leaders, however, seem to have believed that lockdowns could permanently stomp out the coronavirus, and they have been acting as if they still believe this even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.
At the same time, China utterly failed to develop a Plan B. Many older Chinese — the most vulnerable group — still aren’t fully vaccinated. China has also refused to use foreign-made vaccines, even though its homegrown vaccines, which don’t use mRNA technology, are less effective than the shots the rest of the world is getting.
All of this leaves Xi Jinping’s regime in a trap of its own making. The zero-Covid policy is obviously unsustainable, but ending it would mean tacitly admitting error, which autocrats never find easy. Furthermore, loosening the rules would mean a huge spike in cases and deaths.
Not only have many of the most vulnerable Chinese remained unvaccinated or received inferior shots, but because the coronavirus has been suppressed, few Chinese have natural immunity, and the nation also has very few intensive care beds, leaving it without the capacity to deal with a Covid surge.
It’s a nightmare, and nobody knows how it ends. But what can the rest of us learn from China?
First, autocracy is not, in fact, superior to democracy. Autocrats can act quickly and decisively, but they can also make huge mistakes because nobody can tell them when they’re wrong. At a fundamental level there’s a clear resemblance between Xi’s refusal to back off zero Covid and Vladimir Putin’s disaster in Ukraine.
Second, we’re seeing why it’s important for leaders to be open to evidence and be willing to change course when they’ve been proved wrong.
Ironically, in the United States the politicians whose dogmatism most resembles that of Chinese leaders are right-wing Republicans. China has rejected foreign mRNA vaccines, despite clear evidence of their superiority; many Republican leaders have rejected vaccines in general, even in the face of a huge partisan divide in death rates linked to differential vaccination rates. This contrasts with Democrats, who have in general followed something like New Zealand’s approach, if much less effectively — restrictions early on, relaxed as vaccination spread.