A View From China

TPM Reader PH gives us a wild, bracing, sobering view from China. This is a must-read …

I’ve been following the COVID-19 cataclysm, as I believe it is, very closely. One reason is that I had the fortunate timing of moving to Beijing from San Francisco in January 2020. I’m far from any kind of expert on China or epidemiology, but as a longtime TPM reader and Prime AF member, I thought I’d share some experiences and thoughts.

The governmental response has been extraordinary, and the national quarantine is total. In February, I only had two places I could go: the place I was staying and the grocery store Carrefour. When entering either, I have my temperature taken by a security guard, and if it were elevated I would go into mandated quarantine. I got caught in a non-tier 1 city for the month after LNY, and for weeks returning to Beijing was out of the question. After I finally returned to Beijing, I received regular phone calls from the police to confirm I was abiding by the self-quarantine, including a door check. Recently it has been loosening up, but most white collar workers are still opting to work from home. Masks are required and ubiquitous. From a personal tech perspective, we are able to have groceries cheaply delivered twice per week, and when we purchase goods in person it’s all self-checkout via QR code, as potentially virus-carrying cash hasn’t been too common in China for awhile. In the past week, the only people I’ve interacted with in person are my security guard and my girlfriend.

Once the threat of COVID-19 was identified, the government was willing and able to sacrifice the economy–what too many Western observers think of as its sole legitimizer–and put all of Chinese society on a total wartime footing against the coronavirus, in the span of one or two weeks. And it’s been wildly effective. It’s really the most impressive deployment of state capacity I’ve seen. It wouldn’t happen in the USA, but moreover it couldn’t happen in the USA even if we wanted it to.

I joke with my friends now that I have a sofa they can crash on if things get bad stateside, but I’m only half joking. Singapore and Taiwan responded to coronavirus very effectively (preventing even the start of community spread), South Korea competently, Italy with a level of mediocrity, and Iran with deep incompetence. The US will likely end up somewhere between Italy and Iran. Because of the test kit fiasco and the resultant lack of rigorous contact tracing, as well as messaging from national leadership, we don’t even know where we stand now, and in the early stages of exponential growth that’s a very bad place to be. The government is unable and unwilling to take the actions necessary to slow the spread, apparently for fear of spooking the markets, which Trump identifies as *his* sole legitimizer. All of that is to say, I wouldn’t be surprised if China issues a travel ban
on Americans by April.

Amartya Sen argued democracy was the cure for disasters such as famine, because it and the free press facilitate the flow of information from the reality on the ground to the national leadership and provides the incentives to address issues correctly. And that argument still has some power: the disconnect between medical officials and bureaucrats in Hubei and the national Chinese leadership contributed to this disaster. But in a post-truth world where power wills its own reality, does democracy still have those feedback mechanisms that give it the edge? When I talk to people in China, the general sense is that China essentially got a pop quiz and scored a B+, while other countries are getting a take home exam and failing it. Buy into that analogy or not, if the USA and the West more broadly flunk this test, the Chinese model will be gaining legitimacy over democracy, not losing it. And that loss in legitimacy will happen everywhere, not just in China.

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