December 28, 2022
Beijing’s abandonment of its zero-Covid policy has created a spate of propaganda. On one side, US sources use the surge in cases following Beijing’s volte-face on infection control to unfairly tarnish China’s reputation. On the other, pretend Marxists at the congregatio de propaganda fide sinae pump out flagrant “what about?” propaganda to deflect attention from China’s health care crisis.
The New York Times of December 27 offers an emblematic example of Covid-related anti-China propaganda.
Reporters Isabelle Qian and David Pierson write that “China’s hospitals were already overcrowded, underfunded and inadequately staffed in the best of times. But now with Covid spreading freely for the first time in China, the medical system is being pushed to its limits.”
This may be true, but it’s also true of high-income countries. Change the word China to Canada or any of a number of other G7 countries, and you have a serviceable description of the Covid crisis in countries better equipped than China to deal with medical emergencies owing to their greater wealth. That they haven’t used these resources to avert crises in their own health care systems condemns them more than China.
China—ranked 79th of 185 countries in GDP per capita, just below Iraq— is a fairly poor country in per capita terms. Poor countries necessarily have inadequately resourced medical systems, too few hospitals and a dearth of medical staff.
If hospitals in high-income countries are being pushed to the limits by Covid, would we not expect the same in a mid-income country?
Qian and Pierson fault Beijing for failing to use “the past three years” of virus suppression “to bolster its health system by stockpiling medicine and building more critical care units.” They argue that China “could have launched a major vaccination drive targeting the millions of vulnerable older adults who were reluctant to receive a jab or booster,” noting, however, that “China did little of that.”
But could the Chinese have realistically done what Qian and Pierson say they should have done? No country has unlimited resources, especially a middle-income one. At the time Beijing was incurring the costs of implementing zero-Covid, it’s unlikely that it could have taken on the additional fiscal burden of increasing the number of its critical care beds and broadening its vaccine roll-out. That would have been difficult even for a high-income country.
Many countries, including China, coped with Covid by calibrating mitigation measures to hospital capacity. China, with limited hospital capacity and few critical care beds, had to implement very stringent mitigation measures to prevent hospital overcrowding. As high-income countries did, it too followed the strategy of bending the curve, but its relative poverty meant that it had to bend the curve to zero, where G7 countries, with more money and more richly-resourced medical systems, had the luxury of never having to go quite so far.
What’s known now as “bend the curve” was originally known as “bend the curve and raise the line.” “Raise the line” refers to the necessity of expanding hospital capacity, something few countries did.
Here’s the idea: To cope with an increased burden on medical systems caused by the emergence of a novel pathogen, governments ought to reduce the spread of the pathogen through mitigation measures to limit the number of people who will require medical attention at any one time (bend the curve), and increase the capacity of the system to deal with the people who do need attention (raise the line.) Most high-income countries ignored the second part of the formula. Singling out China for the same failure, especially in light of its limited resources, is unfair.
If Qian’s and Pierson’s reporting is partial, the commentary of the avowed Beijing propagandist, Carlos Martinez, is pure diversion. Martinez fires back at criticism of Beijing for prioritizing profits over people in lifting its zero-Covid strategy, by emphasizing Washington’s poor performance in protecting its own citizens from the dangers of Covid.
But pointing out that Washington signed up as one of the killer’s henchman long before Beijing did, hardly absolves Beijing of blame for choosing to follow Washington down the same road. All the same, Martinez tries gamely to draw fire away from Beijing, with an article in China state media CGTN. The Friends of Socialist China, an avowed platform for propagating pro-China narratives, introduces Martinez’s propaganda piece this way:
“The following article … compares the rising hysteria in the Western media over China’s Covid situation with its near-total silence in relation to the ongoing public health crisis in the US. The US has just surpassed 100 million Covid cases; its Covid death toll exceeds 1 million; and its average life expectancy has dropped to 76.4 years – the lowest since 1999. What’s more, as a result of centuries of systemic racism, the impact of this crisis is multiplied for the black, Latino and indigenous population. The media prefers to sensationalize the wave of Covid cases in China – as a form of deflection and diversion, and as part of the generalized campaign of China-bashing. People should be awake to this tactic, and refuse to be fooled by it.”
The argument is that the US media are trying to divert attention from Washington’s execrable pandemic performance by emphasizing China’s challenges with Covid. The problem is that it is the US media themselves that have documented Washington’s Covid failures, from the 100 million cases, to the death toll north of 1 million, to the decline in US life expectancy. If the US media were really trying to obscure these facts, why would they have reported them in the first place? Indeed, the fact that Martinez even knows about “the ongoing health crisis in the US” contradicts his claim that there is “near-total silence” about it.
But then it comes as no surprise that an avowed pro-China propagandist would regard any reporting that casts China in a less than glowing light as sensationalistic and anything less than a total media obsession with developments that cast the United States in an unfavorable light as “near-total silence.” The reality is that the US media have not imposed “near-total silence” on the United States’ Covid struggles any more than they have “sensationalized” China’s. A more plausible account is that they have simply reported the struggles of both, and that propagandists on either side don’t like to hear bad news about their side and delight in hearing bad news about the other side. So, the propagandists try to draw attention to the other side’s bad news.
That’s what Martinez has done. In mentioning Washington’s bad conduct, he and his coreligionists at the congregatio de propaganda fide sinae hope to accomplish what they accuse the US media of trying to achieve: divert and deflect attention. Indeed, the passage from the Friends of Socialist China platform introducing Martinez’s CGTN article can be turned back on the congregatio:
CGTN, the Friends of Socialist China, and Carlos Martinez prefer to sensationalize the United States’ health care crisis as a form of deflection and diversion from Beijing’s struggles with Covid, and as part of the generalized campaign of US-bashing. People should be awake to this tactic, and refuse to be fooled by it.
Clearly, zero-Covid is unsustainable as a long-term project in a world where no other countries are pursuing the same suppression measures. At a certain point, Beijing would have had to transition to a new policy if it wanted to avoid the penalty of retarded economic growth and growing popular recalcitrance. Beijing abandoned zero-Covid for three reasons: pressure from the streets; pressure from business; and because the policy was unsustainable.
If zero-Covid was necessary in a country with limited resources to provide medical care to its citizens, in order to protect hospitals from overcrowding and the medical system from collapse, then the lifting of restrictions will have consequences as dire, if not more so, than those that beset the citizens of the United States, where greater US wealth provided the government with the capability to offer robust protection—a potential that was never realized.
China’s pandemic performance has reflected its nature: not that of a socialist country, which it clearly is not, notwithstanding the fantasies of various dreamers, but a middle-income capitalist country with limited resources, whose strength lies in a strong central government able to make the most of its limited resources in the pursuit of its central aim: the rejuvenation of the country, by means of capitalist development, as a great nation, capable of pushing back its economic frontiers in competition with rival powers—a project known in more flattering terms as championing the development of a multipolar international order, or more honestly, as the return of great power competition and inter-imperialist rivalry.