From TPM Reader JF …
As someone who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years and what passes here for a passing familiarity with Chinese politics (but would probably be a more than passing familiarity for the average American), I agree with you about COVID and the PRC secrecy culture. It’s especially strong around things that make China look bad, and the instinct to censor and clamp down has only gotten stronger since Xi consolidated power. His shift from a term-limited supremo to a for-life supremo is underappreciated in the US, where I think most people just see a the same generic dictatorship, but it was a major change. The Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin served two five-year terms, in and out, and then retired after a decade (both are still alive).
The last supremos to wield power until at or near death were Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. By the time of Deng’s departure, China had moved to a system where, power was negotiated among the party elite. There was rotation at the top, governed by the incumbent leader, other politburo members, aspiring leaders, etc, and there were constitutional term limits (of course the PRC constitution can be changed, and was to allow Xi to stay on). All this constrained Hu and Jiang. They made all the real decisions, but their decisions could be overridden by the next guy, who everyone understood would be in power eventually.
Now, Xi calls the shots and he’s relatively young. He will almost certainly rule for another decade, maybe 20 years easily and he is often compared to Mao or Deng (a comparison that is only made because he allows it). He sees himself as the strong emperor after several weak (or “weak”) ones. The sort of emperor whose name lives on in national textbooks as a great father of the country. The useful comparison is not to a generic idea “dictatorship” (which sort of implies a level of pettiness), but, in a European context, monarchy. Xi wants to be a great emperor (the last one was Mao). The goal is, in a European context, to be like Louis XIV, or maybe Louis XIII, not Louis XII or Louis XV. Or better yet, Frederick the Great of Prussia or Peter the Great of Russia. Xi wants to be in that league, not one of those also-ran kings. All of the leaders I mentioned were militarily powerful, but also saw great reforms and advancements at home.
So Xi is putting his imprint on everything much more fully since lower level officials can expect to see most of their career transpire under his leadership: so they don’t have to please an amorphous party leadership, they have to please him. And what Xi wants is national greatness. He wants to be the ruler who makes China great, a world power, a scientific leader, a developed country, and realizes the “Chinese dream” as he calls it. Observe all the steps toward this. There’s China’s space program (which as you may have noticed, is no joke, they are currently assembling their own space station in orbit). The new aircraft carrier building program, the updating of ICBMs and the nuclear arsenal, the ambitions for lunar and Martian exploration, the aggressive economic growth targets, the aggressive environmental objectives (to seize the commanding heights of wind energy and solar energy production), the growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and on the border with India, and of course the strong push in AI, genetic engineering, and emergent science and technology generally (which could very easily include virology) all point in this direction. So whether the lab leak is real (maybe it is, maybe not), Xi doesn’t want the global headlines to be about that, he wants the global headlines to be about China becoming the third country to put a man on the moon and all that. His influence here thus accentuates the natural secrecy of the party-state (which had loosened under Hu).
There has been a clamp down in China on memoirs of last year’s Wuhan lockdown which cast China in a negative light, such as Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary, which was initially written in her Weibo account (a Chinese microblogging site), and was perpetually pulled down. It eventually came out in English, but not in Chinese, and she hasn’t seen the end of that yet, since, in coming out in English, after disappearing in Chinese, it’s really only about making China look back (at least in the eyes of online nationalists, the government, and others). See here.
Also of course there was the initial denialism and coverup of the virus, leading to death of Dr. Li Wenliang.
But, on the lab leak per se, I also think that the lab leak theory is quite dangerous because it makes China seem weaker than it is. The theory assumes a level of incompetence and maliciousness on China’s part. If China f—ed up and unleashed a virus from WIV onto the populace by mistake and then covered it up (a la the USSR and Chernobyl), this implies that China presents as a rival like the late Soviet Union, one that can be competed with and defeated.
But China is NOT like the late USSR. It’s much more powerful (economically, militarily, technologically, and so on). And, like Russia, we have every reason that, in some form or another, it will be there for the next century and beyond. The recent American talk of competing with China too often misses that China as a country (whatever happens to the current state) isn’t going away anymore than Russia and Germany disappeared in 1991 and 1945. And Xi in particular points to Gorbachev as the big failure, the giant cuck who did not fight to keep his empire. The CCP looks at the demise of the CCCP and says “never again,” and China’s focus on economic development and modernization is meant to prevent that. There is a certain American (and esp. Republican) fantasy about the USSR, that Reagan just said “boo” and it went away. But, ultimately, it fell because Gorbachev let it fall, Like the fall of KMT dictatorship in Taiwan or in South Africa, it was a case of the last ruler of the old regime choosing to shepherd in the new regime and not crack down. But usually dictatorships do crack down. It’s their jam. Thus from Xi’s perspective (and this view is shared broadly party higher ups who go to classes on this issue), Gorbachev lost his nerve. On June 4, 1989 Gorbachev allowed parliamentary elections to be held in Poland (in the sense that the Red Army could have just not let it happen). On the same day, Deng Xiaoping went a very different way in Beijing. Xi is right that Gorbachev let the USSR fall. Our talk of competition with China misses 1) that China’s not going away 2) that it’s more powerful and will have a larger demographic base than any other geopolitical rival has ever had 3) that it’s not going to let itself be overthrown internally and that 4) any world war type scenario that leads to its fall (a la Hitler) is unthinkably cataclysmic which means 5) we have to live with a powerful Beijing with divergent interests for the rest of our lives. Winning in this scenario isn’t The Coming Collapse of China. Rather, if this was an engineered virus, it’s surviving the next virus, and everything else that will come out of China between now and 2100 with the US intact.