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China’s COVID lockdowns are a symptom of deeper problems

What a difference a year makes. In the spring of 2021, China was reporting only a few dozen COVID cases each day and celebrating a return to steady economic growth. The United States, meanwhile, reeled from its worst death wave of the pandemic. 

Media outlets around the world, from the Chinese Ministry of Propaganda to the New York Times, were quick to declare that China had “won” the pandemic, having decisively defeated the virus and demonstrated the virtues of unbridled autocracy. Xi Jinping was set to use China’s apparent COVID success as a central argument for enshrining himself, at the upcoming Communist Party Congress in October 2022, as emperor-for-life.

Fast-forward to today. While most Americans travel mask-free around their country, several hundred million Chinese citizens are locked down in their apartments, many without reliable access to food or medical care. Reports of people dying at home of easily treatable ailments are proliferating, as are videos of desperate residents screaming for help and clashing with police. 

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With one out of every four Chinese citizens under lockdown and 87 of China’s 100 largest cities imposing some form of restriction on movement, supply chains have ground to a halt. Some leading economists think China could suffer zero growth or even an economic contraction this year—compounding what was already a decade-long trend of slowing growth, declining productivity, and surging debt.  

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China’s COVID debacle is a symptom of deeper problems. Under Xi, China’s already-autocratic system has veered toward a personalistic totalitarianism that makes it hard for the country to shift course when the supreme leader is committed to a bad idea—such as a “zero COVID” policy that has condemned the country to repeated, growth-killing lockdowns. Nor can China vaccinate its way out of the pandemic. Its biotech sector cannot match the West’s success in crafting mRNA-enabled wonder drugs, and Xi’s growing antagonism toward the outside world has made the idea of protecting the population with American or European vaccines a non-starter.

  • A health worker takes a throat swab from a Beijing man Image 1 of 3

    A health worker in protective suit takes a throat swab sample from a resident at a coronavirus testing site, Wednesday, April 6, 2022, in Beijing.  (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

  • People wearing masks cross a Beijing intersection Image 2 of 3

    People wearing face masks walk across an intersection during the evening rush hour in Beijing, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Shanghai allowed 4 million more people out of their homes Wednesday as anti-virus controls that shut down China’s biggest city eased, while the International Monetary Fund cut its forecast of Chinese economic growth and warned the global flow of industrial goods might be disrupted.  (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

  • A health worker walks by Beijing residents waiting for COVID-19 throat swabs Image 3 of 3

    A health worker wearing a protective suit walks by masked residents who wait in line to get their throat swab at a coronavirus testing site following a COVID-19 case was detected in a residential buildings, Wednesday, April 6, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

The pandemic, moreover, is accentuating the excruciating demographic crunch caused by China’s long-time one-child policy, bringing forward the date at which the country’s population will peak and then begin a catastrophic, productivity-crushing decline. 

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China’s predicament today is simply a preview of what it will face in the coming decade, as a host of long-building economic, political, and demographic bills come due.

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Some Americans might be tempted to gloat over China’s COVID woes, but they should resist the urge. Slowing growth and worsening societal problems lockdowns might make China a less competitive long-term rival to the United States: The odds of Beijing effortlessly displacing Washington as the world’s most powerful country are actually quite slim. Yet those same problems could also make China a more explosive near-term threat. 

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As we show in our forthcoming book, “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, the most dangerous countries are not rising powers but peaking powers: Countries that want to reorder the world but are losing confidence that time is on their side. 

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When once-rising powers run into persistent economic stagnation, they typically become more repressive at home and more repressive abroad. Japan, for instance, turned toward totalitarianism and began its military rampage across Asia after the economic crises of the 1920s and then the Great Depression ended its long run of prosperity. China seems to be headed down the same ugly path today.

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Since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago, slowing Chinese growth has gone hand-in-hand with efforts to dominate the resource-rich South China Sea, lock up markets and commodities through the Belt and Road Initiative, and carve out a technological sphere of influence encompassing much of the developing world. Since the onset of COVID, Beijing has become more belligerent still.

Xi’s government has conducted menacing military exercises near Taiwan, sparking a deadly border clash with India, and issuing chilling threats to use nuclear weapons against Japan. Even before Russia attacked Ukraine, U.S. military officials had begun to warn, publicly, that China could launch a major war in the Western Pacific—probably against Taiwan—in the next few years.

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Western observers have often interpreted growing Chinese assertiveness as a sign of growing Chinese confidence. But it may simply represent Xi’s increasing willingness to use coercion and force to secure China’s objectives, as he becomes less convinced that Beijing can peacefully overtake its rivals. 

More than two years into the pandemic, Americans should be thankful that they don’t live in a police state where the most heavy-handed COVID crackdowns appear likely to persist well into the future. But they should also be alert to the fact that the danger of war may increase, rather than decrease, as China peaks and begins to decline.

Hal Brands is Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael Beckley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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