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China: Guns, Germs, and Steel

Written By: - Date published: 8:00 am, February 14th, 2020 - 34 comments
Categories: China, Deep stuff, Economy, Free Trade, trade - Tags: ,

The coronavirus outbreak that exploded three weeks ago in the central Chinese city of Wuhan has prompted the most severe Chinese government actions in three decades. Cities are closed down, transport links broken, and tens of millions of people effectively quarantined.

At a time when the Chinese Communist Party and the leadership claim supremacy over every aspect of Chinese life, when President Xi Jinping has been styled as the “chairman of everything,” will China’s essential pact between lack of personal freedom and the gaining of prosperity start to crack?

What we are up against is a society running headlong into the effects of the truest autocracy the world currently has: China. In little old New Zealand, freedom of expression is the first cornerstone of a successful society (although there are still plenty around who can remember our cities shut off and ringed by armed guard in the early 1950s when the Polio epidemic struck us).

Even though the Articles 35 and 41 of the Chinese Constitution read almost like the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, violation of basic rights is a daily norm. People have been persuaded or forced to trade rights for fast economic development, based on the rubric of what is called “performance legitimacy.” But now, the general public is suffering an agonizing tragedy because critical information was suppressed and because doctors were silenced.

The outbreak will eventually be brought under control, but much of the world is going to respond in a few months with its patience truly running out with this incompetence. It’s already on track to kill more than Chernobyl.

Today, citizens across China are taking to social media, posting the anthem from the musical Les Misérables. “Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?” the posts demand. For the last year many in Hong Kong – still one of the most important cities in China – have been yelling their lungs out. The Corona Virus is now looking like the force majeur cover the most authoritarian extremists in China needed to punish and corral all those who resist. For Hong Kong they threaten to bring out the guns. For the Uighur they corral them with steel. Germs just don’t care about either.

An authoritarian state tends to do really badly in cases of civil emergency by its nature: it can’t follow any of the basic guidelines such as communicate quickly and frankly with the public; it can’t establish and maintain trust; and it can’t keep up. Since it can’t do those things, citizens won’t be inclined to cooperate. Coercion as the alternative is the least efficient form of changing mass behavior.

So instead the Chinese government favored censorship over action in the critical first month, thus allowing the virus to take firm hold in Hubei, around the country, and now around the world. The subsequent draconian measures, while costly by every measure, are largely a high-profile exercise in shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Authoritarian governments can be widely tolerated by their citizens as long as the alternative seems worse and they deliver at least some of what they promise to a substantial proportion of the population. In the case of the CCP, those promises include security, stability, and steadily rising prosperity. That compact is believable only as far as the administration is perceived to be both relatively honest and effective.

It’s not doing well.

The epidemic is far from over, and its secondary effects, including the economic and diplomatic impacts, will continue to develop. Having locked down substantial parts of the country, Beijing now faces the dilemma of deciding at what point to take the risk of declaring victory and beginning to get the economy going again. The Chinese government will go into debt through stimulus borrowing, as will the corporations.

The month of March, in the stately calendar of China’s symbolic politics, should celebrate the ritual of the lianghui—the annual convening in Beijing of two key national political bodies. That seems unlikely as things stand, and even if it goes ahead, some hasty rewriting of the speeches will be required.

Xi Jinping decided to make himself Chief Executive of everything, well, for that he gets to carry the can for everything.

So how far can the Xi Jinping administration continue to stretch the system before it snaps?

Since early 2013, Xi has overseen a relentless campaign to remake China’s party-state to better position it to face domestic and international challenges, as well as to eventually realize a vision of a rich, powerful, and rejuvenated Chinese nation.

Xi may currently be leader for life, but guns, germs and steel are starting to unravel even this most complete of modern autocrats.

34 comments on “China: Guns, Germs, and Steel ”

  1. Sanctuary 1

    China in it's current form is an Orwellian nightmare and an existential threat to all peoples who cherish their liberty and freedom. Simple as that.

    CORVID-19, the Taiwan election result, the Hong Kong rebellion – all are symptoms of a authoritarian system hopefully about to explode.

    • RedLogix 1.1

      Entirely agree. The problem for the world is that China is in no position to reshape it's society without substantial social disruption. They are by far the most crazily indebted country on earth and an economy highly vulnerable to external events. Combine this with the chronic underlying liability of a very low trust society and I there are multiple reasons to be very concerned.

      If you are close to anyone Chinese in your life, now is the time to be connected and kind; many will be going through a difficult and worrisome time.

  2. RedLogix 2

    I linked to this latest Zeihan talk last night, it does have some considerable relevance. I realise his perspective and background does not make him a good leftie, or popular here. Nor do you have to agree with all of his analysis … but you don't learn by listening only to people you already agree with.

    While the core is his boilerplate talk, this one is quite recent and includes new material particularly on energy, renewables and especially China. The big takeaway is just how much credit the CCP have printed (hypersubsidisation) in order to keep stimulating their economy. If the law of gravity applies then an unthinkably large correction is going to happen.

    Zeihan has repeatedly said that he does not think China will exist as a unified nation inside 10 years.

    • lprent 2.1

      Good presentation. I disagree with some of the bits. But he deals with the basics. Demographics, energy, security of trade, capital, innovation, and the implications of doing a transition to a more sustainable economy

  3. barry 3

    It is easy to criticise China & its government for the reaction, but I wonder how any other country would have reacted. As a thought exercise I could imagine many doing a lot worse.

    Of course mistakes were made, and the local officials resorted to the old habits of covering it up to start with. However subsequently there has been an unprecedented sharing of information. It is not helped by the sharing of rumours and conspiracy theories.

    Basically the people of Wuhan in particular are having to make huge sacrifices to try to contain this virus so we, in New Zealand, can sit here in comfort and snipe from a distance.


    • aj 3.1

      It's hard to imagine two things. The USA putting cities with large population into lockdown for weeks on end. And the reaction by a well-armed and politically divided population.

    • RedLogix 3.2

      My Chinese sources were adamant for the past week that the CCP was not releasing the true figures. Now in one day the numbers soar .

      Chinese politics lecturer at the University of California San Diego Victor Shih told Reuters the revised figures proved China had been keeping “two sets of numbers for confirmed infected all along”.

      “If that were not the case, the government could not have added so many new cases in one day,” he said.

      I have to agree that probably no nation on earth would respond 'perfectly' to an awful challenge like this; but political chicanery of this magnitude heavily underscorces the lack of trust in the CCP.

      • aom 3.2.1

        Yeah – and you believe everything that you read is the gospel truth as long as it suits your way of thinking?

        • RedLogix

          and you believe everything that you read is the gospel truth as long as it suits your way of thinking?

          What part of the above quote and it's reasoning are you disputing?

          • aom

            …. and what evidence do you have that anything or everything claimed in your quotes is factual?

            • RedLogix

              Here are the officially reported numbers.

              • aom

                What's that got to do with where you started and the responses?

                • RedLogix

                  Unless you can be bothered to make an effort to explain yourself better I'm inclined to leave this here.

                  • aom

                    Since you sprayed shit around rather than establish the credibility of the source you originally quoted, a source with a questionable track record, there is no point in furthering the discussion.

                    • RedLogix

                      I produced an authoritative reference to the official numbers which show the obvious discrepancy that occurred yesterday. This discrepancy is what my original linked article is referring to.

                      Do you have an alternative source of data that shows different numbers and no massive jump in cases yesterday?

  4. Bob James 4

    I have no love for the totalitarian Chinese government, but to be honest, I think they have been reasonably transparent in handling this episode. Most governments would probably wait for a month or so before announcing something like this —there is always a tricky balancing act on the one hand of overreacting too early and causing disruption, or on the other hand, allowing something to get out of hand.

    One simply has to look at the disastrous way the British govt handled mad cow disease.

    While we cannot be sure about the numbers within China, the fact that overseas cases remain relatively stable, with only 3 deaths out of hundreds infected (2 of them of Chinese citizens travelling from China), would lead one to believe that the measures taken within China are relatively successful.

    Furthermore the hike in numbers yesterday, was based, believably on a different criteria over who has the virus —-they are going for a wider definition. This, I thought would have been interpreted as a move towards greater transparency, rather than the other way round.

    • RedLogix 4.1

      This, I thought would have been interpreted as a move towards greater transparency, rather than the other way round.

      Indeed, but of course it could also coincide with the recent arrival of overseas WHO experts on the ground. It also aligns with reports on Chinese social media for the past few weeks that the real numbers were much higher than being officially counted.

      Look at it this way … it's highly unlikely the Chinese medical authorities were able to accurately test for that many new cases in one day. In order for this new much higher number to make any sense, it is entirely reasonable to assume they had been collecting this data all along, but were massaging the public numbers much lower for political reasons.

      If you have any other logical explanation I'd love to hear it.

  5. Bob James 5

    "In order for this new much higher number to make any sense, it is entirely reasonable to assume they had been collecting this data all along, but were massaging the public numbers much lower for political reasons. "

    Agree they have these numbers all along. But not sure about the 'massaging'.

    The numbers provided previously were those confirmed to have coronavirus through testing. They have widened the criteria to include those who have pneumonia and lung scans – i.e they are including 'likely' cases in the figures, and not just cases confirmed by testing.

    So the numbers before simply reflect those tested, now they reflect those tested and likely to have the disease through the type of pneumonia they have.

    • RedLogix 5.1

      So the numbers before simply reflect those tested, now they reflect those tested and likely to have the disease through the type of pneumonia they have.

      Exactly. But because they are only able to do a limited number of nucleic genetic tests daily, they must have known the figures being reported up until yesterday that relied only on these tests were completely bogus.

      A ten year old child can grasp this logic.

      • Bob James 5.1.1

        "Exactly. But because they are only able to do a limited number of nucleic genetic tests daily, they must have known the figures being reported up until yesterday that relied only on these tests were completely bogus."

        Not bogus. Unproven. Its no different from what's happening in the rest of the world, including the US, Australia, and New Zealand. We are also only reporting cases that are proven as such through testing. There could indeed be other cases we are unaware of. So the previous criteria used by the Chinese is exactly the same as that used by other countries.

        I think the Chinese adjusted their methodology of recording cases, in acknowledgement that the tested cases did not reflect the facts on the ground. Its not necessarily dishonest, but a response to an evolving situation.

        • RedLogix

          If your testing methodology is limited to say performing 2000 tests a day, then reporting that number when you know damn well there are far more cases is bogus.

          I recall the Soviets doing the same thing at Chernobyl, for about a week they reported back to Moscow the full scale number of the instrument when in reality the actual radiation levels were far higher.

          • Bob James

            If one provides numbers and makes clears that the numbers represent those who have been tested and shown to have the virus, then that is not dishonest. Did they say that the figures they had before unequivocally represented all people who had the illness? Of did they simply say, these are the people we have tested positive for the coronavirus. If the latter, then that is not being dishonest.

            In science as long as you are clear what your criteria are, when displaying a trend or figures, that is not misrepresentation.

            A ten year old child can grasp this logic.

            • RedLogix

              It was an obvious misrepresentation. I'd say you've earned your 10 cents now …

              • Bob James

                It was an obvious misrepresentation.

                Only in your mind.

                If it was they would not be so obvious about it.

                • RedLogix

                  You avoid the obvious point; in order to report a second much higher number yesterday … in order for that new number to have any accuracy at all then it is logically necessary to have been recording the correct type of clinical pneumonia cases all along. These I understand are from CT scans.

                  To have this data and not include it, when any competent clinician must know it is relevant, is blatant misrepresentation by omission.

                  • Bob James

                    "in order for that new number to have any accuracy at all then it is logically necessary to have been recording the correct type of clinical pneumonia cases all along"

                    Agree. In fact I already agree with you on this point from above. Its not blatant mispresentation though because they did say the numbers previously reported were those tested to have the virus. If they had actually tested a shit-load more people for the virus, but reported lower figures for that, then that would be misrepresentation.

                    Only China is reporting pneumonia cases as coronavirus. No other place in the world is doing so. So their criteria is now wider than what the rest of the world is using. This is to facilitate more rapid care of people who have not yet been proven to have the virus. That is enhanced transparency. Not reduced.

                    “To have this data and not include it, when any competent clinician must know it is relevant, is blatant misrepresentation by omission. “

                    They must have seen that the likely actual cases were getting ahead of the tested. They then made the decision to change the reporting criteria in response to an evolving situation. This may have happened in only the past week or past couple of weeks. That is a pretty quick response.

                    • RedLogix

                      Its not blatant mispresentation though because they did say the numbers previously reported were those tested to have the virus.

                      Nah … they were clearly representing these test results as the real number.

                      Actual transparency would have looked like " We have been able to do a limited number (x) of genetic tests and returned (y) positives. In addition we have (z) chest scans that we are evaluating, that will likely indicate a much larger number of cases. This means the data we are reporting today is preliminary and very likely to be revised upward."

                      Or something like that.

          • McFlock

            We-ell it could all be that, but it's not like pneumonia in old people stands out like dogs' bollocks. It could also be a diagnostic procedural shift after someone noticed a boost in "late winter old people with pneumonia" incidence, sort of thing, and it turned out to be C-19. It does happen in NZ, too. It's usually just hyper-specialised stuff when someone bungs out a change in diagnostic pathways or whatever the doctor cheatsheets are called (can't remember the name atm – flowcharts to help figure out wtf is going on).

            • RedLogix

              Nah … on Monday the outside WHO people get to see what is happening on the ground and by Wednesday they insist the numbers are reported correctly.

              • McFlock

                Possibly – or the extra advice is why WHO are there…

                Either way, more accurate data is always best. I wouldn't be surprised if the CCP end up shooting a few hospital directors for corruption or incompetence when the worst of it is over, just to claw back some faith from the populace. Like they do to generals every so often.

                • RedLogix

                  Yes … as with all authoritarian tyrannies, the first instinct is to blame the people at the coal face, and defend the corrupt system at all costs. This is precisely the Chernobyl effect all over again.

  6. Josh 6

    Can't see democracies handling this situation any better. After all the US let the 2009 influenza epidemic get out of hand and it went on to kill around 200,000 people world wide.

    New Zealand stuffed up their handling of measles, and allowed it to be exported to Samoa where it killed 80 babies (equivalent of about 1600 deaths in NZ, proportionately)

    So we can't get too self-righteous about the way the Chinese are handling this epidemic. They do need to crack down on the wildlife trade though and wet markets –that is a cultural problem.

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