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.
Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that “Mr. Putin” is “convinced Russia’s Western enemies” are “seeking to yank Ukraine from Russia’s orbit.” Clearly, the United States and Russia are locked in a struggle over Ukraine; each wants the territory in its own orbit—that is, in its own empire. US efforts to yank Ukraine from the Russia orbit have been largely successful. Russia is yanking back, but it’s unlikely to win the tug of war.
The idea that the war in Ukraine is but one battlefield in a larger war between two empires is difficult to grasp for people whose understanding of imperialism is influenced by dependency theories developed in the immediate post-WWII period. That period was characterized by one capitalist empire, that of the United States, absorbing most of its former capitalist rivals into its orbit. Under US supervision, the now combined powers, once rivals, jointly exploited the periphery.
People who subscribe to this view, whether consciously or through osmosis, look at the world through a lens whose purpose, when the lens was crafted, was to explain the international system at a time when neither Russia nor China existed as capitalist powers and rivalry among capitalist powers was muted by US primacy. Glimpsed through this lens, Russia and China appear as what they once were, but are no longer: socialist counterweights to a capitalist metropolis.
This, to be sure, is a view of a world that expired 30 years ago, when the Soviet Union was succeeded by a capitalist Russia, and China was at least a decade along the path of capitalist development and integration into the US economy as a low-wage manufacturing center.
Today, Russia and China are capitalist powers. But if they appear to some, not as metropolitan powers keen on integrating regions into their own expanding economies, but as powers lying outside the metropolis, as opposed to merely outside the US empire, it’s because they are understood incorrectly as being what they once were, rather than what they have since become. Both powers are external to the US empire (to some degree; China is so only partially), but the US empire is no longer equal to the metropolis; it is now only one part of it.
None of this is to say that theories about metropolitan exploitation of the periphery are wrong, only that the notion that Russia and China are external to the capitalist metropolis is mistaken. The former socialist giants have joined the metropolis, not as a part of a Kautskyist ultra-imperialism led by Washington, but as rivals of the USA, EU, and Japan.
Is there a better theory?
In its emphasis on rivalry among capitalist powers, the classical Marxist theory of imperialism comports more fully with contemporary developments than dependency theories. If we accept that the contemporary international system is marked by an emerging multipolarity, and that the principal powers in the multipolar system are capitalist, then the world of today bears a much stronger resemblance to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to which the classical Marxist theories of imperialism referred, than it does to the 20th century period of US-led ultra-imperialism.
That’s not to say that the classical Marxist theory is without its problems. But it does say that despite its problems, the classical theory is a better fit with an emerging multipolar world than theories which were developed to explain a world characterized by a US-led metropolis exploiting a periphery, opposed by a socialist Russia and socialist China.
Continuing to see Russia and China as socialist powers that lie outside the metropolis, when they are now large capitalist powers with unconcealed projects of integrating regions into their own economies, is tantamount to applying the geology of the desert to the rainforest, and on this basis, declaring that trees (i.e., an imperialist Russia and an imperialist China) don’t exist.
To summarize, here are four errors that are made by seeing the contemporary multipolar world through a Kautskyist ultra-imperialist lens.
Adopting the now extremely dated view that Russia and China are socialist, rather than capitalist.
Seeing Russian and Chinese opposition to the US empire as rooted in socialism, rather than capitalist rivalry for economic territory.
Perceiving the US empire as equal to the metropolis, rather than as only one part of it, along with Russia and China.
Regarding the periphery as exploited by the US empire alone, rather than by Russia and China, as well.
It has been a tough week for the star-gazers who run a platform called Friends of Socialist China, a motley collection of Sinophiles and pretend-Marxists who support “the People’s Republic of China” and aim to “spread understanding of” what they call “Chinese socialism.”
With Beijing lifting Covid restrictions in response to pressure from capitalists at home and abroad— a move expected to sacrifice up to 2 million Chinese or more to the Moloch of profit—it will be difficult to continue to “spread understanding” that “Chinese socialism” elevates people above capital accumulation.
On 7 December, The Wall Street Journal reported that while Beijing has “repeatedly emphasized the need to maintain the zero-Covid policy,” the “official tune began to change after Covid-related disruptions at the world’s biggest iPhone assembly plant led Apple Inc. to question whether it can still rely on China as its biggest manufacturing base.”
The next day the newspaper reported that:
“A letter from the founder of the world’s largest iPhone assembler played a major role in persuading China’s Communist Party leadership to accelerate plans to dismantle the country’s zero-tolerance Covid-19 policies.”
“In the letter to Chinese leaders, Foxconn Technology Group founder Terry Gou warned that strict Covid controls would threaten China’s central position in global supply chains.”
“Chinese health officials and government advisers seized on Mr. Gou’s letter to bolster the case that the government needed to speed up its efforts to ease its tough Covid-19 controls.”
The lifting of the infection control measures is expected to “put unprecedented strain on the Chinese health system.”
“Using Hong Kong as a proxy, London-based health analytics firm Airfinity estimated in late November that a lifting of zero-Covid measures in China could lead to anywhere between 1.3 million and 2.1 million deaths,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
China-supporters have long pointed to China’s very low pandemic mortality rate to argue that, unlike other states, Beijing puts people’s lives before profits. The argument no longer holds.
But if Beijing puts profits ahead of people, what accounts for China’s superior pandemic performance? The answer, paradoxically, is its poorly-resourced health care system.
It’s often forgotten, if ever understood, that while China has the world’s second largest, if not the world’s largest, economy, that in per capita terms, China is poor. A country that is wealthy in aggregate is not necessarily wealthy on a per person basis, and this is true of China, a country with a large economy, but whose aggregate wealth is divided over an extraordinarily large population.
GDP per capita, 2021 (Current US dollars, Source: World Bank)
Because China has little wealth per person, its has few health care resources to allot to each person.
Health care expenditures per capita, 2019 (Current US dollars, Source: World Bank)
According to The World Population Review, the United States has 34.7 critical care beds per 100,000 people. China has a mere 3.6.
Clearly, as a relatively poor country on a per capita basis, China does not have the resources to adequately deal with a viral outbreak. This is especially true in rural areas, where medical resources are stretched thin.
With a feeble health care infrastructure, China has had no option but to implement stringent infection control measures to prevent outbreaks, otherwise its hospitals would have been overwhelmed.
This means that while China’s approach to pandemic control has always looked different from the West’s, it’s actually the same.
The Western approach, called hospital-based surveillance, calibrates public heath restrictions to hospital capacity. China has followed the same strategy. The only difference is, that because the country has so few critical care beds, it has had to rein in infection levels to keep people out of the hospital.
China’s superior pandemic performance hasn’t, then, reflected a stronger orientation to people over profits, but limited options. China is just another capitalist country prioritizing capital accumulation, but owing to its poorly-resource medical system, it has had to work extremely diligently to keep people out of the hospital. The calculus, however, has shifted, and countless Chinese citizens will be whisked to early graves to save China’s central position in global supply chains, to the greater glory and benefit of Terry Gou, Tim Cook, and Apple shareholders.
Equally troubling for the Friends is reporting from The Wall Street Journal this week that China is transferring drones and ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia, the tyranny that is waging a war of aggression on Yemen.
The Friends did little to put themselves in good stead when they defended the transfer of Chinese weapons to Riyadh on the grounds that arming the Saudis benefits the global working class!
Here is how the Friends replied to my Tweet criticizing them for failing to call out Chinese arms transfers to Saudi tyrants. Some of the Friends had earlier led campaigns to denounce Western arms sales to the same despots, but couldn’t find the courage and integrity to condemn Beijing for doing the same.
Hypocrites to be sure, the Friends are also bold. After all, to claim China is socialist, when it so obviously is not, takes a fair amount of chutzpah. “Socialist China” strikes a jarring note, like “Flat Earth” and “Square Circle.” Imagine a group called Friends of Peace-Loving USA, self-described peace-activists who support the United States with the aim of spreading understanding of America’s rich devotion to a world without war. This is what the Friends are all about: propaganda—and, as it turns out, they’re unabashedly avowed spreaders of Beijing’s manure.
They claim to be Marxists, and while they may think they are, their knowledge of Marxism is wafer-thin. At worst, they’re frauds. Carlos Martinez, one of the group’s principals, criticized a view of imperialism based on the writings of Rudolph Hilferding, Nicolai Bukharin, and V.I. Lenin—what’s known as the classical Marxist theory—as non-Marxist. Martinez labors under the mistaken impression that Marxists understand imperialism to be what the G7, and only the G7, does. Chinese chauvinists may hold this view, but Marxists? No.
On their website the Friends ask Why China? To support “all states building or aspiring to socialism.” What they mean is that China is not socialist, but says it aspires to be someday. For the moment, it’s capitalist, and thoroughly so. Hence, the lifting of pandemic restrictions under pressure from capitalists at home and abroad. Hence, throwing Yemen under the bus by selling arms to the Saudis. Profits take priority over lives and principal as much in Beijing as Washington.
As to the deceit embedded in the term “socialist China,” I may aspire to be a Nobel Prize winner, but calling myself Nobel Prize winning Steve, would be more than a little deceptive; so too, referring to China as socialist, when China says only that it aspires to be socialist someday, is sheer mendacity.
But, then, deception is the name of the game where the Friends are concerned. No sooner does the Friends’ website acknowledge indirectly that Chinese socialism is aspirational, that is, for the future, does it resume talking about Chinese socialism in the present, as if it’s a real thing.
And then there’s the Friends’ devotion to the backward concept of multipolarity. “China,” the Friends intone, “is the most prominent force pushing for the establishment of a multipolar system of international relations.” Multipolarity is important to the Friends, because it’s important to Beijing, though it’s hardly a Marxist aspiration, or has much to do with Marxism. Marxism aspires to a nonpolar world free from the division of humanity into classes and nations. Martinez and crew wouldn’t know this, because, well, they don’t know much about Marxism. But they do know something about what the Chinese tell them Marxism is.
Multipolarity—the idea that a few large powers should divide the world, so long as one of them is China—is an idea of significance to Chinese nationalists; they’re keen on engineering China’s rebirth as a great power so their profit-making enterprises can claim a greater share of the world market. In practice, multipolarity means that, rather than relying on the United States alone to get arms to wage a war of aggression on Yemen, the Saudi tyranny can also buy weapons from China. One might understand why the leader of a rising power, or a Saudi tyrant, might value multipolarity, but it’s hard to see why a genuine Marxist would.
The Friends of China, of course, are not Marxists, any more than people who would call themselves Friends of Peace-Loving USA would be peace-activists. The Friends are little more than automata who march to the drumbeat of that most capitalist of states, the People’s Republic of China.
The group’s mission, unabashedly acknowledged on its website, is to provide a platform for pro-China propaganda. When you say you support the People’s Republic of China and that your mission is to spread understanding of it, you acknowledge that your aim is to promote information supportive of Beijing; that is, that your role is one of propaganda.
In the Friends’ view, spreading pro-China propaganda equals anti-imperialism. Anti-imperialism, thus, becomes a project of objecting to criticism of China and promoting pro-China narratives; that is, of pro-China propaganda. Behind this absurd conception of imperialism lies an article of faith: that China does not seek to integrate foreign territory into its national economy in competition with other capitalist powers. In other words, China alone, among large capitalist powers, is not compelled by the competition inherent in capitalism to project power abroad, through economic, political, diplomatic, and military means. That Beijing obviously vies with the United States, Europe, and even Russia, for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory, escapes the notice of the Friends, who prefer to think of Beijing projecting influence abroad on behalf of its billionaires as China selflessly promoting development and fostering socialism around the world. One can find the Friends’ equivalent on the other side of the inter-imperialist aisle, who will swear up and down that Washington’s engagement with the world is inspired by lofty ideals of promoting stability, development, human rights, and democracy.
Martinez’s Twitter handle, @agent_of_change is more honestly rendered @agent_of_Beijing. That’s demonstrated by his reaction to my challenging the theory that China puts people ahead of profits. The avowed propagandist complained that I was spraying “anti-Chinese propaganda around the Internet.” When criticism is peremptorily dismissed as propaganda, and propaganda is presented as unalloyed truth, it becomes clear that it’s not information the Friends are spreading, but disinformation. Sadly for avowed propagandists, but happily for scientific socialism, reality is challenging so many of the myths Beijing’s agent of change seeks to propagate under the guise of a phony anti-imperialism.
Empiric, a word infrequently used these days, refers to a quack. This seems odd, considering that empiric and empirical (based on observation) are related. In antiquity, empirics were physicians who relied on their experience and observation rather than on the texts of Aristotle and other philosophers to treat patients. Medicine based on the thinking of philosophers was the realm of the scholastics, or schoolmen, the established medical authorities of their day. Challenging the pure reason of Aristotle with facts was considered an act of quackery.
Soon after writing a blog post titled Why China Is Not Socialist, whose title expresses a conclusion based on the same empirical method the established authority of the ancient world so reviled, I received a rebuke, in the form of an e-mail, from a scholastic, citing chapter and verse from Chinese Communist Party texts. Had I not read any of these texts, the outraged schoolman demanded?
According to my correspondent, my quackery was based, not in any of the following observations, which I was assured the omniscient Chinese CP, endowed with an Aristotelian authority, had already taken into account and factored into its plans.
China’s development is proceeding along capitalist lines.
Capitalism is in command.
China is integrated into the world capitalist economy of exploitation, as one of its most important players, if not the most important.
The vast fortunes of such Western billionaires as Elon Musk, and the wealth of such Western CEOs as Tim Cook, is minted out of the exploited labor of Chinese workers.
As a major power integrated into the world capitalist system, China vies with other capitalist powers for access to markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory, i.e., is part of an imperialist system.
China is not socialist.
But if my observations were already well known to China’s CP, and factored into its plans, why was I being excoriated by an agitated scholastic? After all, I was being censured for the alleged sin of “assuming that 100 million small oriental minds could not figure this out themselves,” another way of saying I was only stating the obvious.
The answer appears to be that while these observations are apodictic, making them is considered bad form. China may be a capitalist power fully integrated into an imperialist system as a major participant, but you’re not supposed to say so.
Having objurgated me for my lapse in etiquette, my schoolman sought to instruct me on proper form. The rules for polite discourse, it turns out, are contained in Chinese CP texts (the one’s my aggrieved correspondent demanded to know whether I had ever read.) Therein one learns that the word socialism can be made infinitely plastic. Indeed, where it was once the antithesis of capitalism, correct form demands it now be used as a synonym of capitalism. In short, Chinese scholastic etiquette redefines capitalism as various stages of socialism, from primary, to intermediate, based on the degree of capitalist prosperity. This allows the schoolmen in Beijing to approach the problem of a capitalist and imperialist China run by Communists as a branding problem. Simply call Chinese capitalism and the country’s integration into an imperialist system of rivalry among capitalist states, “socialism”, and poof, the branding problem disappears.
No longer is it necessary to cast about vainly for an answer whenever someone asks, “How can a capitalist behemoth be run by Communists?” All you have to say is “What do you mean? China is socialist. Haven’t you read the CP documents? C’mon, get an education!”
If one were to observe the punctilios of Chinese proper form, China would be referred to as “primary stage socialist China.” If anyone as unversed in proper form as I am, were so bold as to ask, “What does primary stage socialism mean?”, the honest answer would be “capitalism at a low level of development.” In other words, if you read Chinese CP texts closely, China ought to be referred to as “capitalist China at a low level of development.” You can call “capitalist China at a low level of development” “socialist China” if you like, but then again, you can also call moon rocks Swiss cheese.
In short, “socialist China” is a euphemism for “capitalist China,” in the way “lavatory” is a euphemism for “crapper”. Euphemisms are useful for concealing delicate truths you don’t want mentioned publicly (such as that this vampire, who Beijing has indulged with innumerable subsidies and advantages, is accumulating profit on a Pantagruelian scale on the backs of cheap labor supplied by Chinese workers, or that Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the habit of justifying the exploitation of proletarians in the same manner every Republican does, namely, by invoking the aphorism ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’)
I replied to my aggrieved correspondent with this:
You remind me of Christians who scream at me that I should read the bible. I have read the bible, which is why I’m not a Christian.
I have also read Chinese CP plans. Having done so, I know that even Chinese Communists do not consider China socialist. Not yet. At least not in any ordinary meaning of the word.
You mention plans. In 2100, when China expects to have achieved a fully publicly-owned, fully-planned economy, our grandchildren can have a conversation about whether the plan has been achieved. If it has, I’m sure they will be quite happy to call China socialist. Until then, the term “socialist China” is purely aspirational and until the time China achieves its goal, if indeed that time ever arrives, I’ll call China what it is, and what the Chinese acknowledge in their plans their society is, and will continue to be for quite some time: capitalist.
Long before 2100, and long before the day arrives when we can assess whether China actually arrives at the destination its Communists have mapped out for it, we can have a conversation about whether there are roads to socialism other than those that follow the path of capitalist industrialization; that is, other than the one the Chinese CP has chosen to follow.
Is there a path of socialist industrialization, following along the lines explored by the Soviets, one, which, unlike the Chinese path, isn’t based on integration into the world capitalist economy of exploitation; one that doesn’t compel a people to participate in the project of minting the wealth of billionaires like Elon Musk out of their exploited labor; one that doesn’t enmesh a country in a system of imperialist competition for raw materials, investment opportunities, export markets, and strategic territory?
One senses that you are embarrassed about the capitalist path the Chinese CP has chosen to take, with all its ugliness in exploitation and imperialist rivalry, and that you seek to assuage your embarrassment and burnish China’s reputation by transposing an aspirational distant socialist future onto the present. It’s an exercise in deception. There is no socialist China. All that exists at this point is a China that hasn’t eliminated the exploitation of man by man but embraces it; a China that doesn’t plan to eliminate exploitation fully for decades to come, and may never eliminate it; all that exists today and will continue to exist until the next century is a capitalist China which exhibits all the ugliness that capitalism contains within it.
Have I read the Chinese CP texts? Yes. My question to you is, have you understood them?
Colonial politics and imperialism are not healthy, curable deviations of capitalism…they are the inevitable consequence of the very foundations of capitalism. Competition among individual entrepreneurs either to become ruined, or to ruin others; competition between individual countries places before each of them the alternative of their remaining behind, running the risk of [falling behind], or ruining and conquering other countries, thus elbowing their way to a place among the great powers. – V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism and Socialism in Italy”
May 12, 2022
By Stephen Gowans
From The Wall Street Journal we learn that China’s President Xi Jinping has hammered home the need for tighter party control over the economy with a wider role for state enterprises. Under Xi, China’s Communist Party has tried to transition from ‘economics in command’ to ‘politics in command.’
But now “China’s economy is struggling, and its financial markets are suffering. Some economists expect growth to contract this quarter. Millions of graduates are struggling to find jobs.”
Premier Li Keqiang is “helping press Xi to dial back some measures that have contributed to China’s economic slowdown.”
“As a young man, Li pursued a doctorate in economics under a prominent Chinese economist known for advocating Deng Xiaoping’s market-reform agenda and privatizing state firms.”
“Under Mr. Li’s influence, Beijing recently eased a regulatory crackdown on private technology firms, loosened lending to property developers and home buyers, and acted to help some manufacturers”, including Tesla, controlled by Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, “resume production when much of China has been forced into lockdowns by Mr. Xi’s zero-Covid approach.”
As the Marxist sociologist Albert Szymanski once pointed out, communists, like Xi, who choose to operate within the capitalist system soon discover that state policy is structured by capitalism, not by their policy preferences. Decision-makers who defy capitalism’s imperatives find their actions precipitate crises. Humbled, they quickly back peddle.
In a Chinese idiom, economics, i.e., capitalism, is in charge.
“The political orientations of the people who hold high-level positions in the capitalist state are largely irrelevant. The logic of capitalism structures the policy boundaries within which policy- and decision-makers operate, forcing conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and even communists who elect to work within the capitalist system, to operate within the same narrow pro-capitalist policy space. The prosperity and stability of a capitalist society depends on the private owners of capital accumulating sufficient profits. If they cannot generate enough profit, they cease to invest, and economic activity grinds to a halt. To maintain stability, governments must pursue policies to support the profit-making activities of their business communities. If they choose not to, their only option is to mobilize popular support to bring the economy under public ownership and control, so that investment decisions can be transferred from private hands to the public sphere, from profit-making as its goal to satisfying public needs as its end. There is no middle ground, where working-class interests can be robustly and continually expanded within a capitalist framework at the expense of the capitalist class.”
Capitalism structures state policy, not only in the realm of domestic matters, but in foreign relations, as well. Communists who elect to operate within the capitalist system are constrained to compete with other capitalist states for markets, raw materials, spheres of investment, and strategic territory, vital to their investors and profit-accumulating enterprises. If they are to play the capitalist game, states can no more absent themselves from rivalry with other states— with potential to escalate to war—than a private firm can absent itself from rivalry with its competition.
As two Bolsheviks wrote in their ABC of Communism, each “producer wants to entice away the others’ customers, to corner the market. This struggle assumes various forms: it begins with the competition between two factory owners; it ends in the world, wherein capitalist States wrestle with one another for the world market.” And in the struggle of capitalist states for the world market—in arms, oil and natural gas, rare earths, vaccines, robotics, supercomputers, AI, autonomous vehicles, 5G, and other commodities—lies the potential for war.
There is no doubt that Beijing has chosen to play the capitalist game. It is the centerpiece of its development project. There is, therefore, no option for China to excuse itself from imperialism. If it is to develop along capitalist lines, it must behave as a capitalist state, including by vying with other states for capitalist advantage around the world and indulging billionaires like Elon Musk and Apple’s Tim Cook, capitalists who have grown immensely wealthy by exploiting cheap Chinese labor.
That China’s capitalist development project is under the command of communists, neither negates the reality that the project is one of integration into a world capitalist system based on exploitation, or that, as Xi is finding out, politics in command can be checked by capitalism in command.
As political science professor Minxin Pei told The Wall Street Journal, Xi may be a “leftist deep down, but he has to make tactical compromises over the economy.” That is, the world capitalist economy.
In sum, despite the Communist Party being nominally in charge, and the president being a leftist “deep-down,” China is integrated into the world capitalist economy as a major, if not the major player, by the choice of China’s Communist Party rulers. State policies are not structured by communists seeking to end the exploitation of one human by another, but by the imperatives of the capitalist system Chinese communists have consciously embraced.
In Lenin’s view, imperialism is immanent in capitalism as a global system. Inasmuch as China is one of the most significant players in this system, if not the most significant, the implication of Lenin’s view is that imperialism is also immanent in China.
A number of people who claim to be anti-imperialists and to understand the concept thoroughly, to the point of holding workshops, participating in panels, and writing articles to instruct others on what it means, have, despite their professed knowledge, defined the concept in a manner that departs significantly from the way in which imperialism has been understood historically. Until Russia invaded Ukraine, there was little mystery about what imperialism is. Now, it has become altogether different from what it has always been understood to mean. And while many of these same people claim at least a passing knowledge of Lenin’s view of imperialism, the Bolshevik leader would have been baffled by their understanding.
In opposition to commonly accepted definitions and the Leninist tradition, the anti-imperialist docents have developed a view of imperialism that resonates less with Lenin and more with a view developed by Shintoist Japan in the 1930s. According to this view, imperialism is North American and Western European domination of the world. Anti-imperialism is the effort of a rising power to liberate its neighbors from this domination by folding nearby states into its own (declared or undeclared) regional empire (the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere in Japan’s case.)
Hence, Russia’s efforts to “liberate” Ukraine from the United States and Europe, and to incorporate parts or all of it into a palingenetic Russian empire, is viewed as anti-imperialist. Likewise, China’s new security agreement with the Solomon Islands is seen as anti-imperialist—a weakening of US and Australian domination of the islands. While it certainly is this, it is also an effort to define a security architecture that allows Beijing to protect Chinese investments abroad and to safeguard shipping routes that are vital to the unimpeded access of Chinese billionaires to foreign markets and sources of raw materials.
The Leninist view of imperialism as inherent in a globalized capitalism can be used as a lens to parse the New York Times’ reporting on the recent China-Solomon Islands security agreement. According to a leaked draft of the accord, Beijing is empowered to dispatch police, troops, and warships to the islands to protect Chinese investments and Chinese citizens, an agreement that resonates with multiple similar accords struck between Washington and countries in Latin America and beyond.
The Times, tacitly defining US ruling class interests as humanity’s interests, presents the accord as a danger to the world. “China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and his army now have a foothold in an island chain that played a decisive role in World War II and could be used to block vital shipping lanes,” the newspaper warns. What isn’t mentioned is that the United States and its satellites control the shipping lanes. The deal allows China to challenge US control of the maritime routes on which it depends—or more precisely, on which its capitalist economy depends—for access to foreign markets and sources of raw materials. The deal doesn’t threaten humanity so much as it threatens US leverage over a capitalist rival.
The Times continues its diatribe against the accord by noting the pact’s imperialist features, all the while avoiding any mention of the similar accords Washington, London, Paris, and other imperialist capitals have signed with numberless governments around the world for centuries, sometimes at the point of a gun.
“To start,” the accord “provides a broad mandate for China to potentially intervene when its foreign investments and diaspora are under threat, as it stretches its projection of military power.”
The newspaper quotes Richard Herr, a law professor at the University of Tasmania, who observes that “With the pact, China is essentially trying to establish a principle of using military force to protect its economic presence in places where it claims the government does not have the capacity.” In this, China acts no differently than the United States.
“What the Solomons’ deal tells the world, at the very least,” he adds, “is that China believes that if its major projects are threatened, it wants a right to protect them.” Again, this is standard US procedure, or, to put it another way, standard procedure for major capitalist powers. Consider also France’s intervention in Africa to protect access to and investments in uranium mines, vital to an important form of French energy.
“The lesson for the rest of the world is that China is looking to rebalance the global order in its favor,” Herr continues. “And whether that means opening trade routes, establishing a military facility or signing a security agreement, Beijing will act to benefit its own interests.” Herr goes on to say that Beijing will do so at the expense of “democracy and an open and free world”, euphemisms for the US empire. In other words, the expansion of a Chinese empire comes at the expense of a US empire.
What the Times’ article shows, albeit in a clearly chauvinist way, is that large capitalist powers and blocs—the United States and its satellites, Europe (to the extent it acts independently of the United States), China, and Russia—seek to fashion the world order in their favor. They seek to bring as much of the world economy as possible under their own control. This means security arrangements and treaties to protect their investments abroad, and to safeguard their access to foreign markets, sources of raw materials, strategic territory, and investment opportunities. To be sure, the United States is by far the strongest of the rivals, but that doesn’t mean that Russia and China are not driven by capitalist compulsions to dominate the planet every much as strong as those that drive US expansion—a compulsion to settle everywhere, to nestle everywhere, to establish connections everywhere.
With multiple capitalist power centers existing within the framework of a globalized economy, rivalry for profit-making opportunities is inevitable. The rise of one power center at the expense of another may appear to be anti-imperialist, but only so far as the declining power is erroneously viewed as the sole imperialist, i.e., as the lone capitalist power in search of investment opportunities, markets, and raw materials. The decline of US and Western European influence in East Asia with the rise of Japan beginning in the 1930s may have appeared to the naïve as an anti-imperialist victory—this was certainly the illusion Tokyo aimed to create—but it was an illusion all the same. So too is China’s rise an illusory anti-imperialist victory. It may be a victory against China’s domination by the United States, as the rise of the United States was a victory against US domination by Britain, or Germany’s rise was a challenge to British hegemony, but it is in no way a victory over the persistence of capitalist rivalry for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory. It is simply a continuation of this process.
Imperialism within a globalized capitalist economy can be envisaged along two axes. One axis concerns the process of large countries exploiting profit-making opportunities in smaller countries. The anti-imperialist docents err in thinking of imperialism in these terms alone. The other axis concerns the rivalry among large countries for profit-making opportunities within the borders of the countries its rivals dominate and within the borders of its rivals themselves. The first axis is one of large countries dominating weaker ones. The second is of large countries competing among themselves to monopolize the sum total of the world’s profit-making opportunities—to shape the global order in their favor, to use terminology favored by the New York Times.
The security pact between China and the Solomon Islands is a manifestation of imperialism, in three acts:
In China seeking to create a security architecture to protect its tycoons’ investments beyond China’s borders.
In Beijing’s efforts to counter US domination of shipping lanes important to China’s capitalist economy.
In the opposition of the United States (and its sub-imperialist partner, Australia) to China’s challenge to US-led control of maritime routes.
Capitalism need not be invoked to define China and Russia, along with the United States, France, and Great Britain—the permanent members of the UN Security Council—as imperialist states. As victors of WWII, these self-defined “model” nations have assigned to themselves rights and privileges senior to those of all other nations. Russia, for example, can test a new ballistic missile with impunity, by virtue of its permanent membership on the council and access to veto powers, while participating, along with China, in the imposition of international sanctions on a small country, North Korea, for doing precisely the same.
Large countries, including the largest of all, China, have historically dominated their weaker neighbors, even if some of them, China not excepted, were dominated themselves. A fortiori, we would expect large capitalist countries, driven by an expansionary capitalist logic, to continue in this manner. China shows no evidence that it is an anomaly or a departure from expectation.
And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society. — Karl Marx
January 25, 2022
By Stephen Gowans
In the early days of the pandemic, UCLA economist Andrew Atkeson sat down to forecast what would happen if no measures were taken to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Plotting the course of the virus’s spread by day, Atkeson reckoned that in fairly quick order, the number of people infected would climb to 10 percent of the population. One in 10 workers would be off the job. Another set of workers would take time off to care for sick children and relatives. At the same time, a growing number of people would require medical attention, straining hospital capacity. The result would be an unbearable strain on the economy.
Two years later, newspapers are filled with stories of Covid-19-induced employee absenteeism disrupting supply chains, schools plunged into chaos because teachers, staff, and students are out sick, and hospitals groaning under the weight of record-high infections, as burned out doctors and nurses leave their posts.
According to The Wall Street Journal:
Soaring virus cases have brought the U.S. economy to a near standstill.
The U.S. food system is under renewed strain as Covid-19’s Omicron variant stretches workforces from processing plants to grocery stores, leaving gaps on supermarket shelves.
Omicron has left many schools short of the essentials needed to operate, like teachers, substitutes, bus drivers, cafeteria workers—and sometimes students themselves.
Omicron this month pushed Covid-19 hospital admissions among children to record levels.
More than 1,000 hospitals have been reporting daily critical staffing shortages.
The healthcare sector has lost nearly 500,000 workers since February 2020. [In response, the United States, along with Canada and the UK, are now looting the under-resourced health care systems of low-income countries of their doctors and nurses in order to replenish their own Covid-19-depleted health care systems at home.]
In the Canadian province in which I live, Ontario, the trend in the number of Covid-19 patients in the hospital, in an ICU, or on a ventilator, has been increasing almost vertically since Christmas, along with the number of deaths per day. Hospitalizations are at record levels.
It’s as if we’re back to where we were in the early days of the pandemic, under Atkeson’s uncontrolled transmission scenario, despite the fact that vaccines—heralded by Anthony Fauci as a cavalry that would recue humanity from a terrible affliction—arrived more than one year ago.
The rolling seven-day average of daily deaths as of January 23, was higher in the United States than it was in 77% of days since February 29, 2020, higher in Canada than in 89% of days since March 9, 2020, and higher in the UK that 83% of days since March 6, 2020.
No matter how you measure it, whether in number of deaths, infections, hospitalizations, or disruptions to the economy, the pandemic hasn’t been quashed, beaten, overcome, or even tamed into endemicity. Instead, in many respects, it’s worse than ever.
Nor does it seem that an exit is imminent. Despite hopeful prognostications that Omicron represents an “exit wave”, World Health Organization secretary-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sounds a warning: “It’s dangerous to assume that Omicron will be the last variant or that we are in the endgame. On the contrary, globally, the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.”
How is this possible?
In the early days of the pandemic, Bill Gates—who saw himself as the encephalon of the global response to Covid-19—assured a fawning media that “a lot of the work here to stop this epidemic has to do with innovation in diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines”—areas in which he claimed expertise. Gates’ brainchild, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, which works to advance vaccines as the answer to epidemics, has been at the center of the response to Covid-19 in the West. Gates’ view that vaccines are—and continue to be—the solution to Covid-19, is shared by the White House, Big Pharma, and most journalists.
Joe Biden assured us that vaccines would give us “the upper hand against this virus” and announced in the summer of 2021 that owing to vaccines we “can live our lives, our kids can go back to school, our economy is roaring back.” Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, averred that “You can’t have functioning economies without vaccines.” The Wall Street Journal described vaccines “as the only way out of” the pandemic, while Canada’s Globe and Mail announced that “Vaccines are the best weapon in the war on COVID-19” and “the most important tool for fighting the virus.” Jeremy Farrar, director of the drug company-endowed Wellcome Trust, and a scientific adviser to the British government, agreed. Vaccines, he said, have “always been the exit strategy from this horrendous pandemic.” Two officials of the American Civil Liberties Union, David Cole and Daniel Mach, opined that there “is no equally effective alternative [to vaccines] available to protect public health.” The New York Times’ Donald G. McNeil Jr. rhapsodized about US “pharmaceutical prowess” and predicted it would allow the country to “bring the virus to heel.” Nepal’s health secretary, Laxman Aryal, intoned that the only way to control the rate of infection—yes, the only way—was through vaccination. Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that vaccination was “the only path back to a normal life.” France’s “line is simple,” he said. “Vaccination, vaccination, vaccination.”
While Macron’s commitment to “vaccination, vaccination, vaccination” may be emblematic of the thinking in drug company executive suites and the halls of power, in the public health community the thinking has been a good deal more skeptical.
The WHO director-general counselled that “vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis” and “vaccines alone cannot solve the pandemic.” He added that “there is no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be. For now, stopping outbreaks comes down to the basics of public health and disease control; testing, isolating and treating patients and tracing and quarantining their contacts.”
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, echoed Tedros. “We should not be thinking of the vaccine as a silver bullet,” she warned.
Emer Cooke, the Executive Director of the European Medicines Agency—the EU’s drug regulatory body—said the same. “Vaccines alone will not be the silver bullet that will allow us to return to normal life.”
Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, joined the chorus. Vaccines, he said, “are not magic solutions.”
Simon Clarke, a professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading observed that “There’s been an attitude in some quarters that a vaccine is our automatic savior.” While vaccines are “really important,” he said, “they’re not a silver bullet.”
Martin McKee, a professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, put it bluntly” “Anyone who says that vaccines alone can end the pandemic is wrong.” Experience has proved him right.
Pundits and world leaders who anointed vaccines as the only solution, the only way out of the pandemic, and the only effective alternative, were dishonest. Even before Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca sought emergency use authorization for their fast-tracked vaccines, China, along with a handful of other countries, had months earlier taken the exit out of the pandemic. And they had done so by simple, old-school public health measures—measures the World Health Organization kept pointing out were proven and demonstrated to work, but which, unfortunately, much of the world, ensorcelled by vaccines, chose to ignore, with tragic consequences for the lives of millions.
China’s success in using these measures to protect the health of its citizens is perhaps one of the greatest public health achievements in human history. By contrast, the United States’ dismal Covid-19 performance—predicated on the hope that a vaccine would be a silver bullet—is perhaps one of the greatest public health failures of all time.
Despite the fact that the first Covid-19 cases were identified in China, and the country’s population is over four times the size of that of the United States, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States surpassed China as early as March 26, 2020, only two weeks after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By March 29, US deaths due to Covid-19 had already inched past China’s, and have continued to climb, with the gap between the two countries unremittingly increasing. The disparity between the US and Chinese figures—little mentioned in Western public discourse—is astonishing. By December 31, 2021, some 23 months after Chinese authorities reported a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, there were nearly 55 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States, compared to slightly over 100,000 in the far more populous China. The number of people that had tested positive for Covid-19 was over 164,000 per million in the United States compared to only 71 per million in China. Incredibly, deaths per million in the United States were over 770 times greater than in China. Over 800,000 US Americans had died from Covid-19, making the outbreak the greatest death event, measured in absolute numbers of deaths, in US history, exceeding fatalities from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Great Influenza of 1918-1920, and even the Civil War. Meanwhile, in China, fewer than 5,000 had died, less than six-tenths of one percent of the US figure. At 3.2 people per million, Covid-19 deaths in China were less than two-tenths of one percent of the United States’ 2,480 deaths per million.
Is China the anomaly or is the United States? In fact, both are, though compared to the world at large, China performs anomalously better and the United States anomalously worse. On December 31, 2021, confirmed cases per million were over 500 times better in China than the world average and over four times worse than the world average in the United States. Confirmed deaths per million were over 200 times better in China but over three and a half times worse in the United States. The United States, with only four percent of the world’s population, accounted for 19 percent of cases and 15 percent of deaths, while China, comprising 18 percent of the world’s population, accounted for less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s cases and a similarly infinitesimal fraction of the world’s deaths.
What has China done to outperform the United States and the rest of the world? Beijing takes Covid-elimination seriously—perhaps more seriously than any other country, with the possible exception of North Korea. “China,” according to New York Times’ reporters Rebecca Tan and Alicia Chen, “always set zero as their goal.”
There is no particular genius in China’s approach to stamping out Covid-19. Beijing’s strategy is based on an axiom. As author Michael Lewis explained in his book The Premonition, “One thing that is inarguably true is that if you got everyone and locked each of them in their own room and didn’t let them out to talk to anyone, you would not have any disease.” China’s approach is based on this core truth.
Beijing’s initial response to the outbreak was to lock down Wuhan, the city in which the disease was first identified. Only one member of each household was permitted to leave their place of residence every few days to gather provisions. This was a variation on Lewis’s “lock everyone into their room and don’t let them out until the disease is gone” approach. Within a matter of weeks, the city’s 11 million people were tested for SARS-CoV-2. Sixteen temporary hospitals were rapidly built to isolate people with mild to moderate symptoms. Because patients were quarantined in a hospital and not at home, family residences did not become petri dishes for the growth and transmission of the virus. If a patient’s condition worsened, they were transferred to a regular hospital. By March 10, the outbreak had been brought under control, and the temporary hospitals were no longer needed. After 76 days, infections had been driven to zero, and the city was reopened.
At the same time, Beijing rapidly set up a country-wide contact tracing system, eventually developing a highly stringent definition of contact. Anyone who has been in a building four days before or after a person who develops Covid-19 symptoms or tests positive for the disease is deemed a contact and quarantined. While this may appear to be draconian, and a measure guaranteed to gather large numbers of people in its net, it should be remembered that case numbers are exceedingly low. In fact, they’re so low that the odds of encountering an infected person are less than the odds of being struck by lightning. As a result, only a small fraction of the population ever gets caught up in the net.
Having eliminated the disease within its borders by severing the chains of transmission, China implemented additional measures to minimize the chances the virus would seep into the country from outside. Travelers require special government approval to enter the country, and those who receive visas are required to quarantine for weeks. Quarantine is required for all travellers, including those who are fully vaccinated. These controls are not infallible. Occasionally, the virus evades border restrictions and slips into the country. When it does, public health authorities act quickly and decisively. When nine airport cleaners at the Nanjing Lukou International Airport tested positive for Covid-19 during routine testing, the city immediately imposed lockdowns and tested its 9.3 million residents in just two weeks.
Zeng Guang, the former chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, describes China’s strategy as on one that doesn’t “simply treat infected patients but cut[s] off the disease infection routes by screening out and quarantining every close contact or potential virus carrier through prompt epidemiological investigations.” In others words, China simply follows the tenets of epidemiology 101. As the British Medical Journal explained:
“China mobilised quickly and within two months had contained the epidemic and eliminated local infections in the country. There were no magic bullets in the tools it used: the methods were old school public health strategies, which are often called non-pharmacological interventions. Other countries also successfully eliminated local infections, showing that elimination of an emerging disease with pandemic potential is possible by using non-pharmaceutical interventions alone. Public health methods such as mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, and restriction of public events and travel played an important part. Identifying and quarantining people with covid-19 and their close contacts was also critical.”
China’s success, then, has been due, not to vaccines—the lodestone of the West’s pandemic response—but to old school pubic health strategies—strategies the World Health Organization describe as proven and known to work.
Had the world reached for known and proven old school public health methods in early 2020, as China did, it’s likely that the embryonic pandemic would have been aborted, sparing humanity two years (and counting) worth of clogged hospitals, cancelled surgeries, burned out nurses and doctors, supply chain disruptions, closed businesses and schools, millions afflicted by long-Covid and its enduring health impairments, and possibly as many as 20 million deaths to date, according to excess death estimates.
In May 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the World Health Organization released a report by an independent panel on the performance of the world’s governments in responding to the Covid-19 health emergency. The panel arrived at a stunning conclusion. The pandemic could have been avoided. It wasn’t inevitable, even as late as January 30, 2020, the day the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, and two to three months after the virus likely first began to circulate. Even at this late date it was “still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk”—in other words, to do what China did.
But that didn’t happen. By March 11, 2020, the virus had spread far enough that the global health organization declared a pandemic. How had an avoidable pandemic become a catastrophe—and a continuing one—on a world scale?
The answer was simple. Inaction. “On 30 January 2020, it should have been clear to all countries from the declaration of the” public health emergency of international concern “that COVID-19 represented a serious threat,” the panel concluded. “Even so,” it continued, “only a minority of countries set in motion comprehensive and coordinated Covid-19 protection and response measures.” The result was that February 2020, a month “when steps could and should have been taken to” prevent a controllable outbreak from morphing into a pandemic, was lost to history. Governments tarried, and their foot-dragging plunged the world into the dark abyss of a viral nightmare.
Not all governments were content to sit tight until it was absolutely certain they were staring disaster in the face. “China, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore and Thailand and Viet Nam,” the panel noted, all acted quickly and decisively to contain the emergency, and all with exemplary success. These countries pursued an aggressive containment strategy that involved mass testing, robust contact tracing, and quarantine, with “social and economic support to promote widespread uptake of public health measures.”
Most other countries, by contrast, waited far too long to act. And when they did act, they failed to do enough, never fully implementing the measures needed to bring their outbreaks under control. What’s more, they almost invariably dialed back measures too soon, with catastrophic consequences for the health of their citizens.
So, why did most countries do too little, too late? The panel pointed to cost. Most governments judged concerted public health action—the aggressive test, trace, and isolate measures implemented by China and a handful of other countries—as too expensive. Three costs were central to their concerns:
The direct expense of testing, contact tracing, the construction of isolation facilities, coordinating quarantine, and providing financial support to the quarantined.
The indirect cost of business disruptions.
The impact on the stock market.
Concerning the first cost, the “people inside the American government who would be charged with executing various aspects of any pandemic strategy … believed none of these so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions”—the kind China pursued to great effect—”would contribute anything but economic loss,” according to Michael Lewis.
Concerning the cost of business disruption, the Great Influenza offered an anticipatory model. Studies of how the United States responded to the 1918-1920 flu pandemic found that government decision-makers were under incessant pressure from businesses to lift public health measures. Now, as then, capitalist governments were highly influenced by business communities and finely attuned to their needs. Minimizing the cost to business was the top priority of governments working out how to deal with a global health crisis.
Finally, US president Donald Trump deliberately downplayed the public health emergency, repeatedly declaring that it would magically resolve itself, because he feared that acknowledging the danger would result in untold stock market losses. “Trump grew concerned that any [strong] action by his administration would hurt the economy, and … told advisers that he [did] not want the administration to do or say anything that would … spook the markets,” reported the Washington Post. What the WHO panel perceived as “a wait and see” attitude on the part of many governments was actually a “take no strong action to avoid spooking the markets” attitude. The contrast between China’s aggressive response and the United States’ “see, hear, and speak no evil” approach, is revealingly summarized in the comments of the countries’ respective leaders: China’s Xi Jinping: “Infectious disease control is not merely a matter of public health and hygiene; it’s an all-encompassing issue and a total war.” The United States’ Donald Trump: “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
Why did the United States, and most countries in its orbit, embrace vaccines as a silver bullet, when the World Health Organization urged countries to adopt the proven public health and social measures that were known to work and that China had confirmed did, indeed, work—and what’s more, worked remarkably well?
One driver of Washington’s predilection for vaccines was the ability of billionaires, such as Bill Gates, to set the public health agenda to favor pharmaceutical solutions. Owing to their great wealth, billionaires, foundations supported by the wealthy and large corporations, and the pharmaceutical industry, were able to strongly influence public discourse on healthcare issues and to set the public policy agenda on matters related to health, including pandemic preparedness. They had long ago used their influence to push vaccines—a potential cornucopia of profits—to the top of the agenda on how to meet the challenge of future pandemics. As a result, when the pandemic hit, governments followed the path capitalist influencers had already set, eschewing the proven public health measures which, though unquestionably effective, offered no opportunities for amassing profits.
Additionally, Washington had long been planning for how to meet the threat of a biological attack, or warfare carried out with germs. Always, the response had been seen to depend mainly on developing and stockpiling two things: vaccines and personal protective equipment, or PPE.
Vaccines and PPE, however, are not the only ways to address germ threats, but the idea is so ingrained in public discourse, that when asked how humanity ought to prepare for another pandemic, the answer is almost invariably: make sure we have enough N-95 masks and build vaccine manufacturing infrastructure. But there is another model of pandemic preparation that is almost always overlooked: develop the infrastructure to trace, test, and isolate. Few people—and no one in senior positions in government—ever talk about developing the infrastructure for an elimination strategy as the means to meet the next pandemic threat. Instead, the chorus only ever has two notes: vaccines and PPE.
This might reflect borrowed thinking from the military. The standard ways of defending military forces from weaponized pathogens are to equip troops with biohazard suits and respirators and to vaccinate them in advance against the bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens the enemy might employ. Test, trace, and isolate is absent from the military doctrine on defense against biological threats because it is ill-suited to the military environment. Blindly importing military anti-biological threat doctrine into public health practice omits an effective technique that, while ill-suited for military purposes, works very well in the civilian realm.
Moreover, vaccines and PPE comport with the United States’ techno-fix culture. “Techno-fixes,” according to the late Howard P. Segal, who was an historian of science and technology at the University of Maine, “are short-term, avowedly practical proposed solutions to hitherto unsolvable economic and social problems” that “reflect an almost blind faith in the power of technology as panacea.” Techno-fix culture biases people enmeshed in its web to overlook social and economic solutions, in favor of what seem like quick technological fixes. Techno-fix culture is a religion based on faith. Its votaries believe that the god of technology will save humanity from all problems, even in cases where the evidence shows that proposed techno-fix solutions have failed. If techno-fix religion has a pope, it is surely Bill Gates.
But the technofix religion has other grand figures, as well. “Google,” wrote historian Jill Lepore,” opened an R&D division called X, whose aim is ‘to solve some of the world’s hardest problems.’” Elon Musk, one of the world’s richest people, if not, the wealthiest, promotes “a capitalism in which companies worry…about all manner of world-ending disasters”—disasters, notes Lepore “from which only techno-billionaires, apparently, can save us.”
Techno-billionaires promote techno-fix faith because the religion stimulates interest in their products. Techno-fix enterprises are the perfect distillation of their view that the combination of technology and private enterprise can save the world. Technology and free enterprise are also the foundations of the techno-billionaires’ fortunes and instruments of their continued expansion.
A number of other mutually reinforcing factors led Washington’s to favor vaccination as “the key to getting the pandemic under control and keeping the economy strong,” as Joe Biden put it.
First, non-pharmaceutical public health measures are contraindicated under capitalism. Rather than spending billions of dollars on vaccines, billions could have been spent on a robust public health response. The Rockefeller Foundation proposed a test-trace-isolate program to the Trump administration, which was immediately rejected. The problem, from a capitalist perspective, is that a public sector program to hire hundreds of thousands of public servants to carry out old-school public health measures, offers few, if any, profit-making opportunities for the private sector. Shoe leather epidemiology—the basic, hard labor of tracking down infected individuals, tracing their contacts, and herding them into quarantine—is the unsung labor of public servants. On the other hand, vaccine production can be quickly and easily made a private sector activity, one offering a rich banquet of profits on which investors—Washington’s principal clients—can gorge.
Additionally, Washington—always a bastion of free enterprise and private sector boosterism—has no desire to promote the public sector. The capitalist class, the US state, and individual billionaires such as Gates, agree that free enterprise must be the main vehicle through which the world’s problems are addressed. There is no room in this view for the public sector, except as a host for private enterprise parasitism and source of the private sector’s new products (such as mRNA vaccines.)
Writer and journalist Nina Burleigh observed that the White House’s focus was “on its conviction that private enterprise was the way out of the disaster.” Not only would vaccines be the exit from the calamity, but vaccines produced by the private sector (generously funded by the public sector) would be presented as the only possible escape.
Burleigh also argued that Washington’s incompetence, evidenced in its failure to prevent hundreds of thousands of US citizens from dying, is deliberate. The White House could seize the levers of public power to bring the pandemic under control by dint of old-school public health measures, following China’s path, but chooses not to in order to avoid giving hope to US citizens that government, unhinged from its service role to the bourgeoisie, can be a force for good.
The vaccine strategy—the notion that vaccines alone can protect public health and return the world to the status quo ante—has failed. Vaccines were approved under emergency use authorization after an unconscionably short period of testing (only two months into planned two-year-long phase 3 clinical trials) because the FDA declared falsely that there were “no adequate, approved, and available alternatives” to address a (self-inflicted) medical emergency, as if China’s success had never occurred. The reality is that there existed then, as there does now, a safe and demonstrably effective alternative to the failed silver bullet vaccine strategy. China has shown the way. Unfortunately, capitalism holds us back.
*The title is adapted from André Picard, “’I’m done with COVID’ is easier said than done,” The Globe and Mail, January 24, 2022.
Coming soon. The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster. Available for pre-order from Baraka Books.
When then US president Donald Trump said he would call off US efforts to extradite from Canada Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou to face bank fraud-related sanctions-evasion charges in exchange for trade concessions from China, he effectively admitted to a political kidnapping. The reality that normal US practice is to fine companies that violate US sanctions, not arrest their officers, strengthened the contention that Washington was conspiring with Canada to abduct Meng for political gain.
The Meng case has become the most high-profile aspect of a US campaign to cripple the Chinese tech champion Huawei. But it is also one of the least consequential elements of a multi-layered operation. Since 2010, Washington has spied on Huawei, declared it a national security threat whose equipment must be banned from telecom networks, starved it of US technology, harassed its employees to gather information to use in law suits against the company, and has even gone so far as to pay Huawei’s potential customers to buy from its competitors instead.
The impetus of the campaign is multidimensional and mutually reinforcing. Washington is trying to block China from achieving success in emerging tech industries. Huawei, a global telecom powerhouse, is seen by Beijing as a key player in China’s industrial strategy, a jewel in the country’s crown. Crippling the company could slow China’s technological ascent, condemn China indefinitely to low-wage manufacturing, and ultimately allow US investors, rather than Chinese enterprises, to reap the bounty of tomorrow’s industries.
Moreover, telecom networks are an important part of the infrastructure the NSA and its counterparts in the Five Eyes signal intelligence alliance—Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—use to gather political and business intelligence, and conduct cyberattacks, around the world. As the preferred network supplier, Huawei was on track to blanket the world’s telecom networks with its gear. This was hardly an auspicious prospect for the US intelligence community. As a Chinese company, Huawei is far less likely to cooperate with US intelligence than equipment manufacturers based in countries under US influence. The latter can be expected to accede to Washington’s demands to comply with US intelligence community requests for cooperation; not so Huawei.
In 2019, Huawei was the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturer. It had 180,000 employees and the largest R&D budget of any tech company in China.  Over 40 percent of its employees worked in research and development. The company was held privately, with an ownership stake divided among 81,000 employees.  Renowned for the quality of its gear and the attractiveness of its prices, Huawei was at the forefront of the next-generation 5G networks. 
As a global leader capable of outcompeting its US-allied rivals, Huawei was vitally important to Beijing’s industrial strategy. Indeed, so important was the company to Beijing, that Wall Street Journal reporters Bob Davis and Lingling Wei called the company China’s “crown jewel.” 
But to Washington, Huawei was a threat. Referring to 5G, US telecom experts prepared a paper for the White House warning that “For the first time in modern history, the United States has not been the leader in an emerging wave of critical technology.” 
Huawei’s US competitors were seen as too small to compete with the Chinese firm.  As for Huawei’s main competitors, Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung, Washington and London worried that the Chinese tech company was so attractive to the world’s telecom providers that it would drive its rivals out of the 5G business. 
In 2010, the NSA secretly broke into Huawei’s computers, looking for evidence that the company was covertly controlled by the Chinese military, and that the company’s CEO and founder, Ren Zhengfei—he had once served in the People’s Liberation Army Engineering Corps.—retained an active role in the Chinese military. The NSA was unable to confirm its suspicions.  All the same, two years later, Congress declared Huawei a national security threat, effectively shutting it out of the US market. 
A half a decade later, with Huawei defying Congress’s efforts to slow its rise, US National Security Advisor John Bolton decided to step up the war on Huawei.  Washington plotted to insert “the federal government deep into the private sector to stiffen global competition against Chinese telecom giant”.  Senator Tom Cotton, author of an attack plan to “roll back Chinese power”,  tweeted: “@Huawei 5G, RIP.” 
One of the first salvos in the Bolton-initiated operation was to formalize the exclusion of Huawei from the US market. US president Donald Trump signed an executive order prohibiting US companies from doing business with China’s crown jewel. 
Next, Washington pressured its allies to declare Huawei’s network equipment a potential instrument of Chinese espionage. At its July, 2018 meeting in Halifax, the US-led eavesdropping network, the Five Eyes, announced it would work to ban Huawei 5G equipment from the core of its telecom networks. 
Other US allies were pressured to follow suit. Washington designated foreign telecom providers that shunned Huawei as ‘clean telcos’, and implied that those that did business with Huawei were US national security threats to be dealt with accordingly.  Frightened of US reprisals, telecom providers turned cool to the Chinese gear provider.
US pressure to eschew Huawei was seen by foreign telecom providers as a dishonest ploy to gain leverage in trade negotiations with Beijing, rather than an effort to address legitimate national security concerns. The view was reinforced by Washington’s failure to produce evidence showing Huawei was engaged in espionage or that its equipment could be used by Beijing to eavesdrop on Western governments and businesses.
Some US allies questioned “whether America’s campaign [was] really about national security or if it [was] aimed at preventing China from gaining a competitive edge.”  Executives at Canada’s first and third largest telecom providers complained that they were being asked to rip Huawei gear out of their networks to satisfy US trade ambitions and to allay US fears of losing its coveted place as a global technology leader. 
While trade ambitions and a desire to reply to China’s challenge to US global technology leadership were playing roles in Washington’s campaign to cripple Huawei, so too was another motivation: Controlling the world’s telecom networks to allow the United States to maintain its dominant role in espionage and cyberwarfare.
When the NSA penetrated Huawei’s computers in 2010, it had two goals: First, to find out whether Huawei was an espionage threat; and second, to look for a backdoor into the company’s network equipment. “Many of our targets communicate over Huawei-produced products,” a N.S.A. document leaked by Edward Snowden said. “We want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products,” in order to “gain access to networks of interest” around the world. According to the New York Times, the NSA’s goal was “to exploit Huawei’s technology so that when the company sold equipment to other countries — including both allies and nations that avoid buying American products — the N.S.A. could roam through their computer and telephone networks to conduct surveillance and, if ordered by the president, offensive cyberoperations.” 
Washington argued that as a Chinese company, Huawei is obligated to comply with any request from Beijing to use its equipment as a vehicle for spying and cyberattacks. But Washington’s real concern may have been, not that Huawei was a potential tool of Chinese espionage and cyberwarfare, but that it would be an unwilling tool of US espionage and cyberaggression. In contrast, Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung, as companies based in US satellite countries, would be far easier to recruit, either knowingly or unwittingly, as instruments of NSA eavesdropping and US cyberoperations. From Washington’s perspective, the ideal intelligence scenario would be one in which the guts of a country’s network are provided by manufacturers under US influence. Since Washington has no sway over Huawei, it is undesirable as a provider of equipment to the world’s networks. From the vantage point of US intelligence, Huawei needs to be crippled and blocked so that ductile US-allied manufacturers—Washington’s ‘security’ partners—can take its place.
In order to promote Huawei’s rivals, Washington is paying network equipment buyers to use Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung. Acting through the U.S. International Development Finance Corp, Washington offers “financial incentives and other enticements to countries willing to shun Chinese-made telecom gear.”  For example, the DFC has provided a $500 million loan to a consortium of telecom companies led by the UK’s Vodaphone to build a mobile network in Ethiopia. A condition of the loan is that it cannot be used to purchase Huawei equipment.  Meanwhile, Congress is expected to pass legislation that will allow Eastern European countries to use US aid to build cellular networks, so long as they use Huawei rivals.  In effect, Washington is paying countries not to use the Chinese supplier.
The DFC was created by Congress in 2018 to compete with China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. While its main goal is to invest in US companies, the corporation is willing to support non-US firms, if doing so hurts Huawei, and pushes NSA-compliant manufacturers to the fore . “We’re not out to play defense,” DFC head Adam Boehler told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re out to play offense.” 
On top of promoting Huawei’s competitors, Washington has sought to degrade the company’s products, by denying it access to the US technology it needs. In 2019, Washington banned the export of US-made chips to Huawei, and additionally blocked Huawei’s access to chips made anywhere in the world with US equipment. The aim, according to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, is to decouple “computer technology supply chains from China” and Huawei. 
Washington has also mounted a campaign of harassment against the company. According to Huawei, US officials have instructed US “law enforcement to threaten, menace, coerce, entice and incite both current and former Huawei employees”.  US prosecutors have brought charges of racketeering conspiracy and conspiring to steal trade secrets against Huawei and its partners.  FBI agents have visited the homes of Huawei employees to pressure them to disclose information that could be used against the company in US courts. 
The most high-profile case of harassment has been the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou by Canadian officials at Washington’s request. Meng, the daughter of Huawei CEO, Ren Zhengfei, awaits a Canadian decision on her extradition to the United States. US prosecutors allege that Meng helped Huawei circumvent US sanctions on Iran by lying to banks.
On the surface, the case has a number of curious features.
First, the alleged crime appears to have little to do with the United States. Meng’s putative misdeeds occurred in Hong Kong; one of the alleged victims, HSBC, is a British bank; and the accused is a Chinese national.  The US connection is the alleged evasion of US sanctions on Iran, but US law does not apply to Chinese nationals or Chinese enterprises outside US jurisdiction.
Second, Washington’s standard practice is to punish corporations that violate its sanctions laws, not arrest company executives. The economist Jeffrey Sachs produced a long list of US and international banks that have paid fines to the US government for sanctions violations. None of their executives were arrested or charged with crimes.  Recently, the software giant SAP paid $8 million in fines for selling software to Iran. Not only were company executives spared arrest, the company wasn’t even prosecuted. Instead, it was let off with a promise to improve its compliance.  As Canadian political operative Eddie Goldenberg has argued, the arrest of Meng is not a criminal matter. Instead, it lies in “the realm of geopolitics. That is why Ms. Meng was personally targeted when the normal U.S. practice in similar matters is to charge the corporation, not the individual.” 
Third, while the Canadian government has presented the Meng affair as a purely criminal matter, when he was US president, Donald Trump told Reuters that he would intervene in her case if by doing so he could secure a better trade deal with China, suggesting Meng had been arrested as a bargaining chip. 
US prosecutors argue that the Huawei CFO committed bank fraud by misleading Huawei’s banks in order to evade US sanctions on Iran. The extradition case hinges on the question of whether bank fraud is a crime in both the United States and Canada. Under Canadian law, Meng cannot be extradited for an act that is not recognized as a crime in Canada.
Meng’s lawyers have argued that, notwithstanding US claims, the case pivots on sanctions-evasion, with bank fraud as a red herring.  “It is a fiction to contend that the United States has any general interest in policing private dealings between a foreign bank and a foreign citizen on the other side of the world. However, it is the case that the United States has a global interest in enforcing its sanctions policy. Sanctions drive this case.” 
Meng’s lawyers have also argued that if the Huawei CFO had misled the banks—a point they do not concede—the banks would have suffered no harm in Canada, since Ottawa has no extra-territorial sanctions which would prohibit Huawei from selling equipment to Iran, and therefore would have no reason to penalize the banks for their actions. The critical point is that deception is not fraud unless harm befalls the deceived party and a benefit redounds to the party practicing the deception. Since the banks would have suffered no harm in Canada, and neither would Huawei have obtained any gain, the necessary condition for extradition of dual criminality—that the actions of the accused constitute a crime in both Canada and the United States—has not been met. 
In March, Canadian officials indicated that there was a “strong possibility” that the US Justice Department would drop its extradition request if Huawei admitted guilt and agreed to pay a substantial fine.  Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei rejected the offer out of hand. His daughter, he said, had “committed no crime,” adding that “the U.S. is the side that should plead guilty.” 
While US prosecutors and the Canadian government argue that the Meng case is non-political, and purely criminal, the United States’ top business newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, thinks otherwise. “We might prefer that prosecution of its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou … were over something other than violating U.S. sanctions on Iran,” opined editorial writer Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. “But the U.S. is nonetheless positioning itself to destroy China’s shiniest success story.” 
If the US operation succeeds, not only will the world’s telecom networks be dominated by US-allied equipment manufacturers, but the United States will have secured its position as the world’s top cyberwarfare and cyberespionage threat, with the power to spy on governments and businesses, and carry out offensive cyberoperations, virtually anywhere in the world.
1 Dan Strumpf, Min Jung Kim and Yifan Wang, “How Huawei took over the world,” The Wall Street Journal, December 25, 2018
3 Stephen Fidler and Max Colchester, “U.K. to Ban Huawei From Its 5G Networks Amid China-U.S. Tensions,” The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2020
4 Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War, Harper Business, 2020, p. 26
5 Editorial Board, “Huawei and the U.S.-China Tech War,” The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2020
7 Bojan Pancevski and Sara Germano, “In rebuke to US, Germany considers letting Huawei in,” The Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2019
8 Matthew Dalton, “Spy charges put Huawei’s European ambitions in jeopardy,” The Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2019
10 Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War, Harper Business, 2020, p. 25
11 Drew FitzGerald, Sarah Krouse, “White House Considers Broad Federal Intervention to Secure 5G Future,” The Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2020.
12 Gerald F. Seib, “Tom Cotton Has a China Coronavirus Attack Plan,” The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2020
13 Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War, Harper Business, 2020, p. 27
14 Parmy Olson, “US would rethink intelligence ties if allies use Huawei technology,” The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2019
15 Matthew Dalton, “Spy charges put Huawei’s European ambitions in jeopardy,” The Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2019
16 Stephen Fidler and Max Colchester, “U.K. to Ban Huawei From Its 5G Networks Amid China-U.S. Tensions,” The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2020
17 Matthew Dalton, “Spy charges put Huawei’s European ambitions in jeopardy,” The Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2019
18 Christine Dobby, “Bell, Telus warn of 5G delays, higher costs if Ottawa joins peers in banning Huawei,” The Globe and Mail, December 21, 2018
19 David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth, “N.S.A. Breached Chinese Servers Seen as Security Threat,” The New York Times, March 22, 2014
20 Stu Woo and Drew Hinshaw, “U.S. Fight Against Chinese 5G Efforts Shifts From Threats to Incentives,” The Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2021
21 Alexandra Wexler and Stu Woo, “U.S. Fund Set Up to Counter China’s Influence Backs Covid-19 Vaccine Maker in Africa,” The Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2021
22 Stu Woo and Drew Hinshaw, “U.S. Fight Against Chinese 5G Efforts Shifts From Threats to Incentives,” The Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2021
23 Editorial Board, “Huawei and the U.S.-China Tech War,” The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2020
25 William Mauldin and Chao Deng, “US-China talks stuck in rut over Huawei,” The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2019
26 , Jacquie McNish, Aruna Viswanatha, Jonathan Cheng and Dan Strumpf, “U.S. in Talks With Huawei Finance Chief Meng Wanzhou About Resolving Criminal Charges,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 4, 2020
27 William Mauldin and Chao Deng, “US-China talks stuck in rut over Huawei,” The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2019
28 K J Noh, “Why Canada must release Meng Wanzhou,” Asia Times, October 30, 2020
29 Jeffrey D. Sachs, “The U.S., not China, is the real threat to international rule of law,” The Globe and Mail, December 12, 2018
30 Aruna Viswanatha, “SAP Admits Iran Sanction Violations to Justice Department,” The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2021
31 Eddie Goldenberg, “Want to bring the Michaels home? Send Meng Wanzhou back to China,” The Globe and Mail, January 16, 2020
32 Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, “China moves to address US economic concerns,” The Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2018
33 Sean Fine, Andrea Woo, and Xiao Xu, “Fraud allegations are a façade, lawyers for Meng Wanzhou argue at extradition hearing,” The Globe and Mail, January 20, 2020
35 Dan Bilefsky, “Huawei executive goes to court, fighting extradition to US,” The New York Times, January 19, 2020
36 Robert Fife and Steven Chase, “Canada held secret U.S. talks in bid to free Kovrig, Spavor jailed in China,” The Globe and Mail, June 7, 2021
37 Robert Fife, Steven Chase, and Nathan Vanderklippe, “Meng Wanzhou in talks with U.S. Justice Department to allow her to return to China, The Globe and Mail, December 3, 2020
38 Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., “U.S. Can Destroy Huawei, Part Two,” The Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2019
A Wall Street Journal article has attempted to discredit the effectiveness of China’s Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine, even though the article presents data which show the vaccine to be highly effective, but does so in a way that conceals the shot’s efficacy and suggests the vaccine has largely failed.
The article is emblematic of black legend journalism aimed at China—the Western media practice of painting a defamatory picture of the Communist country in order for Washington to better battle it, and to discourage other countries that may be seeking to engage more deeply with Beijing, especially in trade and investment.
Among the defamations are claims that China is perpetrating a genocide against the Uyghur people, is exploiting coerced labor in Xinjiang, is engaged in covering up a coronavirus lab leak, and, now, is peddling ineffective vaccines across the global south.
More than one hundred years ago, Lenin identified the practice of black legend journalism aimed at China. “At the present time, the press is conducting a campaign against the Chinese,” he wrote in 1900, in connection with the Boxer Rebellion. “Journalists who crawl on their bellies before the government and the money-bags are straining every nerve to arouse the hatred of the people against China.”
According to Emont, “At least 10 of the 26 doctors in Indonesia who died from Covid-19 this month had received both doses of the vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech Ltd.”, raising “questions about the Chinese-made shot that is being used in many parts of the developing world.”
Rounding out his attack on CoronaVac, the name of Sinovac’s Covid-19 vaccine, Emont went on to quote two professors, one from the UK, who opined that “the Sinovac vaccine was ‘probably not as effective a vaccine as most of the other vaccines that are on the market’,” and another from Hong Kong, who recommended that Indonesian medical workers be given “a U.S.-developed shot to ensure stronger protection.”
Emont’s message is clear: The Sinovac vaccine is largely ineffective, US-developed vaccines are superior, and Chinese vaccines are leaving the global south unprotected.
The problem is that the data in Emont’s report make a stronger case that the Sinovac vaccine is highly effective than largely ineffective.
According to his reporting, “Around 90% of Indonesian doctors—roughly 160,000 in all—have been vaccinated with Sinovac’s shot.” This information, along with Emont’s lead that at least 10 of the 26 doctors who died had been vaccinated, is all that is needed to estimate the efficacy of Sinovac’s vaccine in reducing Covid-19 mortality among Indonesian doctors.
The table below assembles the data Emont provided. Figures marked by an asterisks were directly cited in his article. The remainder are arithmetic deductions (e.g., if 10 of 26 doctors who died were vaccinated, then 26 – 10 = 16 were not vaccinated.)
Not vaccinated (10%)
[A] Died from Covid-19
Didn’t die from Covid-19
Mortality rate [A/B]
At less than one two-hundredths of one percent, the Covid-19 mortality rate among Indonesian physicians is vanishingly small. It’s questionable that a Covid-19 mortality rate this miniscule merits an article in a major US newspaper. Lenin’s imagery of journalists “straining every nerve” is highly relevant here.
The mortality rate is much smaller among vaccinated than unvaccinated doctors. In fact, doctors who were vaccinated with CoronaVac were more than fourteen times less likely to die from Covid-19 compared to unvaccinated physicians. This translates into an efficacy rate of 93 percent, using a formula analogous to the one used to calculate vaccine efficacy (see the note at the end).
Emont blundered by restricting his analysis to doctors who died, rather than comparing the mortality rate of unvaccinated physicians to those who received the vaccine. Because the vast majority of Indonesian doctors are vaccinated, most Covid-19 deaths are going to happen in this group owing to its preponderant size.
Emont’s error is tantamount to arguing that most people who die in traffic accidents were wearing seatbelts, therefore seatbelts are ineffective. Since most people wear seatbelts, it’s likely that most traffic deaths will happen among this majority group. To know how effective seat belts are, traffic accident fatality rates must be compared between two groups: those who wear seat belts and those who don’t. When the analysis is done properly, the conclusion is that seatbelts are effective.
Likewise, to examine the efficacy of a vaccine, those who are vaccinated must be compared with those who aren’t. When the analysis is done this way, it appears that Sinovac’s vaccine has worked well.
It’s possible that Emont is numerically and logically inept, and that he made an honest error, but then we would have to conclude that his editors are equally inept, also a possibility. However, just as some stories are too good to check, so too is some stupidity too good to correct. I have had opportunity on countless occasions to see research of low quality receive unqualified praise when it corroborated a desired political position, while research of high quality was torn apart that challenged the same stance.
It’s possible that Emont’s blunder was overlooked because it said what the Wall Street Journal’s editors and owners, the US government, Wall Street money-bags, and not least, those with investments in Western vaccines, wanted to hear. Or it could have been a crafty construction of a defamatory anti-Chinese message. Whatever the case—stupidity allowed by a system of propaganda to evade all checks, or a deception deliberately constructed to fit such a system—Sinovac’s vaccine appears to have been effective in protecting Indonesian doctors from Covid-19 mortality.
Blunders of this sort, along with shoddy reporting on the Uyghurs and alleged coerced labor in Xinjiang, all of which rely on patently biased sources, along with the resurrection of a conspiracy theory about a lab leak that is manifestly inspired by the political goal of diverting attention from Washington’s abject pandemic failures, can’t help but recall Lenin’s imagery of journalists crawling on their bellies before the government and the money-bags, straining every nerve to rouse the hatred of the people against China.
1 The formula used to calculate the efficacy of CoronaVac in reducing Covid-19 mortality among Indonesian doctors is:
Efficacy = (mru – mrv) / mru X 100%
mru is the mortality rate among the unvaccinated
mrv is the mortality rate among the vaccinated
2 My analysis of CoronaVac’s efficacy in reducing mortality among Indonesian doctors departs from a proper analysis, which would require random assignment of doctors to vaccinated and non-vaccinated groups. Assuming this didn’t happen, the Indonesian doctors who weren’t vaccinated may be different in important ways from those who were–in ways that make them more or less likely to be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or die from the disease. It cannot, therefore, be concluded from my analysis that CoronaVac is highly effective, but the analysis strongly challenges Emont’s reporting and is far more supportive of the idea that CoronaVac works well in reducing Covid-19 mortality than doesn’t.
On June 5, Joe Biden wrote an editorial in the Washington Post in which he reiterated what has long been apparent: that Washington regards China as an enemy. 
Biden says China’s enemy status is based on Beijing’s rejection of “market democracy” and adoption of what he calls ‘authoritarianism.’ But this can’t be true.
The United States counts a number of ‘authoritarian’ governments among its most cherished allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, and so on).
Washington was quite willing to pursue amicable relations with China for many years, from the point Beijing opened the country to US trade and investment and became a cornucopia of profits for corporate USA, until Chinese capitalism became a rival to, rather than a prop for, US capitalism. During this period, Washington had no trouble befriending China despite Beijing’s authoritarianism.
What has changed is that China has rejected its place in the global economy as a low-wage manufacturing appendage of the US economy. In pursuit of its goal of building a prosperous, independent, China, the Communist Party has presided over a mixed economy and dirigiste capitalism which has come to challenge Wall Street’s primacy. That’s the source of Washington’s hostility.
There are other reasons for Washington to take an inimical stance to China. Not only does corporate USA face stiff competition from the East Asian giant, but a Communist-led China is challenging Washington in other ways, too.
Beijing has lifted countless millions out of poverty, and Chinese citizens face the future with optimism, expecting their standard of living to continue to rise. Meanwhile, US citizens are pessimistic, as US capitalism leaves millions behind, in low-wage, precarious work, with little hope for a bright future.
What’s more, Washington’s self-proclaimed leadership role in the world has been badly damaged by its failure to deal competently with the Covid-19 pandemic. While US newspapers hubristically declare that, with the roll out of vaccines, the end of the pandemic is imminent, in terms of Covid-19 deaths per million, the United States has only gone from being a failed state to no better than the rest of the world.
In contrast, China acted swiftly and decisively to eliminate community transmission of the virus, allowing Beijing to reopen its economy quickly. As an article in the medical journal The Lancet concluded, the model pursued by China has been superior to the model of inaction and privileging profits over public health favored by US authorities. The model’s superiority is evident in better health and economic outcomes, and (because the Chinese approach allowed the country to reopen quickly) better civil liberty outcomes.  Had Washington emulated China, it would have prevented over 550,000 Covid-19 deaths.  A government that caters to business interests before public health hardly has the moral standing to claim world leadership.
Even on the matter of vaccines, on which the United States professes leadership, it has produced fewer doses than China, and exported fewer to other countries. 
Clearly, if Washington wants to claim global leadership in the face of its own failures and China’s undeniable successes, it is going to have to turn the tables on China.
Part of the fight back is positive. The Biden administration plans to emulate China through a program of industrial planning and major investments in infrastructure to “deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world.”  The program might be called Meeting the China Challenge.
Another part is negative. It involves efforts to undermine China’s economic growth through tariffs, target Chinese companies like Huawei for destruction, block Chinese investors from buying Western economic assets, and prevent Western investors from investing in a number of Chinese firms.
Additionally, Washington seeks to discredit China. One way to do so is to blame Beijing for the pandemic. Trump made early efforts in this direction, referring to Covid-19 as the Wuhan flu, the kung flu, and the China virus. His state department insinuated that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab. Biden—different from Trump in style but largely continuous with the previous administration on foreign policy—has resurrected Trump’s lab leak theory.
Insight into Washington’s playbook on discrediting China may have been provided by Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote an editorial in The Washington Post on June 4. It was titled “China could pay if nations come to believe the virus leaked from a lab.” 
The Council on Foreign Relations is a Wall Street funded and directed think tank that provides policy advice to the State Department. It is firmly interlocked with the US foreign policy establishment and the Biden administration. Typically, members of the council fill top cabinet positions. The current secretaries of state, treasury, defense, and commerce are members of the council, as are the UN ambassador, the national security advisor, CIA director, Indo-Pacific czar, and chief of staff, among others.  As A.B. Abrams explained in Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power (Clarity Press, 2020, p. 453)
The CFR’s members were described by the Washington Post as ‘the nearest thing we have to a ruling establishment in the United States’ and includes almost all CIA Directors, National Security Advisors, UN Ambassadors, Federal Reserve Chairs, World Bank Presidents, and Directors of the National Economic Council, several presidents and vice-presidents, the majority of state secretaries … and many high ranking NATO and military commanders. According to the Post, the council members were part of a foreign policy establishment with shared values and world views, whose role was not limited to analyzing foreign policy but also included taking an active hand in shaping it. … Stephen F. Cohen [himself once a member] described the council as ‘America’s single most important non-governmental foreign policy organization,’ with the power to ‘define the accepted, legitimate, orthodox parameters of discussion.’
Huang’s editorial at the very least reflects the kind of thinking that takes place in US foreign policy circles and may in fact reveal a playbook the CFR-interlocked Biden administration is actually following to turn the tables on China.
Huang notes that “China has, until now, enjoyed prestige on the world stage for its containment of the pandemic, especially compared with many Western countries” but adds that “if missteps by Chinese scientists” were seen to be “the cause of that pandemic, such praise would quickly fade.”
“Even a belief in a coverup without firm evidence of wrongdoing would be damaging”, he says. Moreover, if US intelligence were seen as exposing a coverup, it could re-establish “America’s reputation for competence.”
Huang believes that fostering a belief in a Chinese coverup, even without firm evidence, would:
“Precipitate a free fall in China’s relationship with the outside world”;
Provide a pretext for the United States to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics;
Raise questions in China about whether the Communist Party is fit to rule;
Force China to close in on itself in a fit of angry isolation as it is shunned by the rest of the world.
In other words, there are strong reasons for Washington, which makes no secret about viewing China as an enemy to be contained and countered, to manufacture a belief in a coverup.
However, US intelligence is of the view that it is unlikely that firm evidence of a lab leak can be obtained . Accordingly, the pursuit of these policy benefits will depend on innuendo. Western journalists are working diligently to provide it, and, writing dozens of features in which, claiming powers of ratiocination equivalent to those of a Sherlock Holmes, they claim to have deduced Chinese culpability (see, for example, Nicholas Wade in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist.) Of course, all of this is nonsense. There is no evidence for a lab leak, and no matter how brilliant some journalists believe their powers of deduction are, their exercises in ratiocination remain pure speculation. Speculation is not evidence. Speculative arguments can also be constructed on the other side, and have been. 
The Wuhan lab leak theory has, within the context of US foreign policy, become the equivalent of the magician’s misdirection; it draws attention from the deception that the Western model works. The model, as it relates to the pandemic, has clearly failed.
It is clarifying to consider that in the rush to create a misdirection, two separate questions are being conflated:
Where did the virus come from?
How did the pandemic start?
We don’t know where the virus came from, and may never know. We still don’t know where the virus came from that killed tens of millions of people worldwide in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 to 1920 .
But we do know how the Covid-19 pandemic started, which is the more consequential question. The pandemic started when “Chinese doctors and scientists working in international collaborations,” provided information “showing a deadly virus had emerged that had no treatment and could be passed between people”, and the United States, Canada, and Europe did precious little with this information, failing to act, unwilling to disrupt business activity and the continued tranquil digestion of profits, as the Lancet’s editor Richard Horton has pointed out.  Had these countries acted as swiftly and decisively to eliminate community transmission as China did, not only would they have been able to safely open their own economies long ago, they would have spared the world a deadly pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of more than 3.7 million people, and will carry off many more.
Much as Washington professes to disdain conspiracy theories, it is one the world’s principal creators of them, and vehicles for their propagation, amply aided by the Western mass media. The paragon case is the Washington-manufactured conspiracy theory about Saddam Hussein covering up weapons of mass destruction. As the Council on Foreign Relation’s Yanzhong Huang makes clear, a lab leak conspiracy theory has the potential to pay substantial dividends to the US position in the world, one badly bruised by China’s successes and Washington’s abject failures.
 Joe Biden, “Joe Biden: My trip to Europe is about America rallying the world’s democracies,” The Washington Post, June 5, 2021
 With (a) a US population of 328.2 million and (b) 1,796.26 deaths per million to May 31, there were (a)/1,000,00 x (b) = 589,533 covid-19 deaths in the United States. If the fatality rate had been as low as that of China, there would have been (a)/1,000,00 x 3.221 = 1,057 covid-19 deaths, or 588,475 fewer.
 Yuka Hayashi, Sabrina Siddiqui, and Andrew Restuccia, “U.S. to Increase Covid-19 Vaccine Exports Amid Global Pressure,” The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2021
 Yanzhong Huang, “The origin of the virus is a scientific question — but one with huge political implications.” The Washington Post, June 4, 2021.
 See Laurence H. Shoup, “The Council on Foreign Relations, the Biden Team, and Key Policy Outcomes,” Monthly Review, May 2021.