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The strange docility of the Chinese

A single Covid case in China means the lockdown of entire cities. Two and a half years into the pandemic, the number of severe COVID-19 cases and deaths in the country is as about as low as in the rest of the world. Beijing, however, remains obsessed with its zero-Covid policy.

A Chinese lockdown is much stricter than the “hard” lockdown imposed, for example, in Germany at the very beginning of the pandemic in 2020. In the Chinese version, people are not allowed to leave their homes at all, not even for funerals, harvest work, grocery shopping, or walking the dog. Urgent medical treatments are often postponed. Deaths caused by this brutal policy are commonplace.

How can 1.4 billion people be so docile as to accept the unjustified restrictions of personal liberties for so long?

A complex answer

First of all, propaganda and misinformation are used to exaggerate the severity of the disease. Western governments’ casual handling of the pandemic (as well as their actual mistakes) are labeled as indifference to human lives, like in the handy example of the United States under former President Donald Trump. Beijing’s propaganda has very effectively used people’s fear to persuade them to cooperate.

After the population gradually began to notice the decreasing number of Covid deaths, the authorities took advantage of the general obedience of the Chinese population to the government to continue their strict measures.

The Chinese population is trained throughout their lives to obey orders from the authorities, from kindergarten to professional life.

I lived in Beijing for a long time. In my neighborhood, there was a kindergarten, an elementary school and a high school. From my kitchen window, I could see directly into the schoolyard. On school days, all the students, about 200 of them, gathered there every day at around ten in the morning and always went through the same routine.

Raised to obedience

The first part is a military-style formation drill. Everyone follows the commands of a male, authoritative voice from a loudspeaker. The second part is stretching exercises in which everyone performs the same movements simultaneously to accompanying music and on command. In the final part, a teacher, or occasionally a student of a senior class, also through a loudspeaker, presented the result of the so-called “discipline inspection,” praising the good and harshly criticizing the bad. The elementary school did the same thing; as did kindergarten, but in a shorter, softer way. 

It has been almost always like this since the founding of the people’s republic, and it’s more or like the same everywhere in China. 

The stretching exercise has its merits, it’s good for the body and health, even if doing the same exercise day in and day out is pretty dull. But the other two elements are basically all about discipline and following instructions.

This kind of obedience training is just one example that is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and perfectly used by the totalitarian regime for its purposes. They serve to wipe out idiosyncrasies and create a homogeneous collective body. In fact, “collective interest” is a term frequently used by those in power at various levels in China.

The collective interests are of course definitely exclusively by these people. More often than not, the “collective interests”, real or fake, are achieved at the expense of the rights of individuals, and at times, of their lives. Chinese people’s awareness of their rights has always been low, due to a lack of education in this regard. There had been some improvements in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, but the situation has deteriorated again during the past ten years. “Rights” is close to a taboo word in today’s China, especially when you demand them or cite them to defend yourself against the government, be it workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, rights of speech, rights of union and protest. Comments promoting rights are censored, social media accounts are deleted, organizations working in these areas are shut down, and lawyers and activists are harassed and arrested.

Fear fueled by the government

As for Covid, President Xi Jinping has been unswervingly promoting his zero-Covid policy. Officials at different levels are fully aware that their choice is only to at least duly implement it, if not overdo it, to show their loyalty. Otherwise, they will be held accountable, and their career is over. The citizens also know that when the political will is expressed so clearly, they can only comply. Otherwise, various punishments await them.

The key word is fear. There are certainly brave souls who try to mobilize others to resist, for example, the unreasonably harsh Covid measures. However, such attempts are quickly exposed by the ubiquitous security cameras in the real world, and by an elaborate censorship system and a huge army of human censors policing the virtual world. The challenges posed by the dissenting few will be crushed swiftly and unnoticed by the vast majority. Any information about them, if there is any, will be quickly deleted to avoid any inspiration for the others.

People conducting the surveillance and crackdown represent, in the words of Hannah Arendt, the banal evil. Some of them may even truly believe they are doing good for the country. 

A trial run for more surveillance?

But where does Beijing’s obsession with zero Covid come from? The most likely reason is Xi’s concern about social unrest ahead of the 20th Party Congress, when he is expected to break the two-term convention to start his third term as party head and president. He considers it his personal success that China initially had better control of the Covid situation than the rest of the world, and is keen to safeguard this asset until securing his third term.

Another hypothesis floated is that the government intends to use all the anti-Covid measures as an experiment for more rigid social control. This guess can’t be adequately substantiated. But even if the government didn’t set out with this intention, what they learned in social control in Covid times will surely be used in the future.

As for the question of why all the other top officials and policymakers buy into Xi’s decision. In short, that can be attributed to Xi’s brilliant skills for party infights. But that is another story.


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