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Good Medicine, Political Poison | Insight

China is starting to lock down again, because their vaccines don’t work. Why don’t they just buy better ones? The short answer: authoritarianism.

The Briefing: China begins new lockdowns

  • The major Chinese city of Shenzhen has just been locked down
    • Shenzhen is home to more than 17 million people and a host of important companies
    • Every person not employed in “critical” business has been ordered to work from home
    • The city sits on the border with Hong Kong, where a devastating Covid outbreak is underway
    • A lockdown of the 26 million residents of nearby Shanghai may soon follow
  • This, combined with Russian aggression in Ukraine, is an ominous sign for the American economy
    • If lockdowns spread, that would revive huge supply chain problems, exacerbating inflation
    • If you want the deep scoop, read Noah Smith’s post
  • A powerful Omicron wave could be especially devastating in China
    • It’s not clear China’s zero-Covid strategy will hold up against the hyper-contagious variant
    • If the Covid spike worsens, the Chinese vaccines are unlikely to meet the moment
    • The China-developed Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are only 50% and 79% effective, respectively
    • The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 95% effective against symptom development

The Big Question: Why is China sticking to its own bad vaccines and lockdowns?

Of course, they’re not bad, bad. They’re just obviously, glaringly worse than vaccines that utilize novel mRNA technology—like Pfizer/BioNTech’s—developed outside China.

What’s strange is that the Chinese government clearly lacks confidence in its own vaccines. For one, they’re still unsuccessfully pursuing a homegrown mRNA vaccine—which was promised to roll out over six months ago. For another, their reliance on lockdowns is proof enough that they don’t trust Sinovac and Sinopharm to adequately protect the population.

You might argue the government would rather lock down to minimize harm to the public, but in Britain, widespread vaccination has reduced the Covid fatality-rate below seasonal flu levels. Lockdowns were good in the past. Now, when you’ve got good vaccines, you don’t need lockdowns. Not to mention, they come with their own very real set of economic and psychological costs.

If the Chinese government’s top priority was minimizing death and harm, it would just purchase vaccines from abroad. It could probably afford it—last year the government spent $532 billion on social programs. At $19.50 per dose, China could acquire three billion Pfizer shots for $60 billion.

Yet the government won’t even approve the Pfizer shot. There are two possible explanations for this, as far as I can tell, and they boil down to the same political calculus from the Communist Party of China (CPC).

It could be a bad look for the government to reverse course, after embarking on an extensive misinformation campaign to discredit Western vaccines. (That’s right, your China-hating uncle who doesn’t trust the vaccines probably doesn't trust them because of online Chinese propaganda.) Or, it could be a bad look for the government to admit defeat by accepting that the capitalists of America and Europe did a better job on this one.

Either way, it seems the CPC has made a clear decision with the present lockdowns: to prioritize its image over the well-being of its citizens (subjects?).

The Theory: Because “techno-nationalism” is key.

Following economic reforms and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the CPC could no longer rely on communism to legitimize its rule over the Chinese people. The party, communist in name, no longer pursued communist policies, as it liberalized the country’s economy and paved the way for astounding economic growth.

As a result, it adopted a new strategy, according to scholar Zhao Suisheng: the twin pillars. Instead of appealing to the principles of communism, Jiang Zemin—and later, Hu Jintao—relied on an appeal to Chinese economic growth and Chinese nationalism to vindicate the party’s rule and stabilize its hold on power. The CPC had a right to rule because it was bringing the people out of poverty and protecting China from those who sought to destroy the country.

But Zhao wrote that in 1998. As economic growth in China has slowed in recent years, one of the twin pillars isn’t holding its own so well anymore. In 2020, another scholar, Xiaoguang Wang revised this understanding of party governing strategy. According to him, under Xi Jinping the old twin pillars have been replaced by “techno-nationalism.”

Under Xi, two key changes to China’s governing strategy have taken place. First, in the wake of diminishing economic growth, the government has ratcheted up rhetoric that casts China as under threat and the CPC as its sole protector. Second, to replace economic growth, the party now emphasizes the country’s technological innovations and improvements as vindication of its leadership.

As a result, to borrow from our recent contributor Angelica Oung, the Party just can’t let the West have this one. To use Western vaccines in China would threaten the Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy and even its hold on power.

The Implications: Accountability still matters—a lot.

It seems the CPC has settled on a strategy for maintaining power and legitimacy. Even if techno-nationalism ends up doing a lot more damage to the Chinese people—either in lives lost in the Omicron surge, in psychological harm sustained in the repeated lockdowns, or anything else—the party is going to stick to that strategy, as long as it finds it profitable.

This would be a strange political calculus in a democracy for one simple reason. Your political success is tied to your legitimacy, as determined by free and fair elections. The CPC cares about legitimacy, because it makes them more secure in the long run, but unlike in democracies, it can be disastrously wrong and stay in power through repression.

Systems of government in which leadership regularly faces public accountability are inclined to pursue policies which impose the lowest cost on the public. Someone who has to face re-election is more inclined than someone who doesn’t to try to minimize deaths.

You might think, China saw far fewer deaths in the course of the pandemic than democracies. The difference is that China’s authoritarian government has powers to lock down people’s lives in ways Western democracies did not. They could employ more “effective” solutions then, but now that an even better solution is available, they won’t embrace it.

Democracies will reliably do their best to protect people, but authoritarian regimes may well not.

However good the CPC may have been for the Chinese people materially over the past 30 years, there are no institutional methods to keep things that way. The Party does not answer to the people.

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