Home / Opinion / Columns /  A Chinese general secretary in his Shanghai labyrinth

One of the biggest cities in the world has been a prison camp for nearly two months now. The number of inmates: 27 million. What is happening in Shanghai under its covid lockdown would be inconceivable in any nation with the slightest modicum of democracy.

There are horrifying videos circulating on social media of Shanghai residents jumping off balconies and rooftops to kill themselves rather than live severely diminished lives under covid curbs. One need not believe all these videos. But one can speak to people in companies that have offices and colleagues in Shanghai. What they will tell you is beyond scary. Regardless of your income or societal stature, you cannot step out of your home and buy food—or even visit a hospital unless you are extremely sick. You and your children get to eat when the government’s hazmat-suited sepoys drop off some food at the gate of your home. But no government, however efficient, can supply three square meals a day efficiently to 27 million people.

Those who test positive are either locked up in their homes, the doors sealed with steel bars, or carted off to quarantine facilities with minimal hygiene and sanitation. If you happen to have any pets, they are killed. What China is going through is madness at an epic level.

Xi Jinping, who has ruled the country for nearly a decade, believes in a “zero-covid" policy. This is as ridiculous as a zero-common-cold policy. The covid virus has not heard of Xi and does not care. It follows the natural laws of evolution—it mutates to keep its brood alive and thriving. At every stage of mutation, it tries to be more contagious but less lethal. This is simple logic. If it kills its host, it dies too. A virus cannot survive and propagate without a host.

Xi seems to have taken the virus as a personal insult. He has spoken of China as a civilizational state—which is correct—that is superior to every other nation, which can be debated till kingdom come. He appears driven by both the memory of the “century of humiliation", the official Chinese term for the period of China’s subjugation by the West and Japan from 1839 to 1949, and the idea of a “100-year marathon" to make China the world’s leading power by 2049, to mark the centenary of Mao Zedong’s revolution. Xi’s thoughts and strategies may also have been influenced by the unusual history of epidemics in China.

China has probably suffered more epidemics—and exported them—than any other country in the world. Historians have identified 700 plagues that have scourged the country from the 7th century BCE to the end of the 20th century CE. That’s one epidemic every four years.

The Black Death that ravaged the world in the 14th century CE, claiming between 75 and 200 million lives, originated from China. The pandemic of 1957-1959, dubbed the “Asian flu" because it emerged in China, killed 2 million people worldwide. Even the 1918 “Spanish flu", which infected nearly 30% of the world’s population and killed 17-18 million in India alone, may have come from Chinese labourers working behind British and French lines in World War I.

Xi wants the covid virus extinguished fully, whatever the human cost of achieving that. He cannot acknowledge true death tolls—officially, China’s covid fatalities are less than 5,000—and cannot admit that Chinese vaccines are not very effective. So millions of people are half-starved and undergoing severe psychological trauma. And trade containers have piled up in what was the world’s busiest port, throwing global supply chains into disarray and threatening economies with serious inflation.

The past few months have held up a mirror to the world. The West, led by the US, has rejected universally accepted paradigms to punish Russia. It took such measures as freezing Moscow’s sovereign funds and seizing the property of persons believed to be close to Russian president Vladimir Putin. This seriously undermines faith in the global financial system.

At the same time, the West continues to finance Moscow’s military operations in Ukraine by importing more fuel from Russia than ever before. The American military-industrial complex needed a new war after the US hurriedly left Afghanistan last August, it would seem, and it has got one now. Special interests probably want to keep hostilities going as long as possible. Last week, the US announced another $40 billion in military aid to Ukraine. Meanwhile, its own economy is in a bizarre state. The price of petrol has risen more than 80% since Joe Biden checked into the White House 16 months ago. Inflation is at a 41-year high, and, among other things, the country is going through an unprecedented baby food shortage reminiscent of India in the 1960s and 1970s. The out-of-stock rate for baby food in American stores reached 43% last week.

Xi Jinping is looking for a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and is likely to get it, since he has packed the party’s echelons with his own people. But does the brutal Shanghai lockdown indicate some insecurity at the top? It is common for autocrats to double down on controversial policies when they begin to feel anxious about their efficacy, and that is what Xi seems to be doing. Like the great leader in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General in his Labyrinth, he may have built himself a trap that he cannot escape. He is also, along with the war in Ukraine, making the world a more unsettled place in many ways.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines 

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less

Recommended For You

Trending Stocks

Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout