We Should Applaud China’s Successful Pandemic Response — Not Condemn It

The United States and China have had vastly different responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Elias Khoury and Noah Streng argue that YDSA should not condemn the Chinese approach. 

It’s no secret that the United States bungled its pandemic response. The country’s laissez-faire approach, favored by capital, led to over 1.1 million deaths — the most of any nation. Meanwhile, a burgeoning power some thousands of miles away opted to deal with COVID in a much different fashion.

Amid criticism from Western governments and media outlets, China — until recently — followed a policy of trying to eliminate the virus wherever it arose. Many aptly dubbed this approach “zero-COVID.” It undoubtedly proved successful. Despite numerous hiccups along the way — no policy is perfect — China contained the virus better than just about anyone. Prior to abandoning the zero-COVID policy, the country of over 1.4 billion had recorded just 5,000 COVID deaths. That put China’s death rate at just 0.1% of that of the United States.

China achieved these amazing numbers through smart policy. The efficiency and scope of China’s national tracing system put those of European countries to shame. And let’s not even mention the United States, which lacked such a system altogether.

Furthermore, rather than letting the market decide their fate, China directed its productive forces to prioritize manufacturing protective equipment. This led to them quickly becoming the world’s largest producer of “masks, testing kits and other health gear.” That allowed China to protect their citizens and the citizens of other countries through generous exports and in-kind donations.

The vast gulf between Chinese and US COVID management outcomes follows from their respective governing logics. Whereas the United States emphasized the continuation of commerce, China prioritized public health and saving the greatest number of lives. In other words, the oft-demonized Communist Party of China (CPC) followed Y/DSA’s mantra and put people over profits. For that, we ought to applaud their efforts. Certainly, the Chinese approach to COVID is much closer to ideal socialist planning than anything Western countries attempted.

Zero-COVID, however, probably could not continue into perpetuity. Toward the end, the CPC was essentially playing a protracted game of Whac-A-Mole, locking down whenever there was an inevitable outbreak. While this was likely unsustainable in the long term, the solution isn’t simply to throw open the gates. Recent projections show that abandoning zero-COVID without a planned and careful transition could produce a massive death toll. Any government that cares for its people will understandably want to avoid this.

To that end, China is reopening gradually. Spring festivities threaten to incite waves of infections. Luckily, Chinese officials have developed and put in place rigorous preparations and contingency plans.

Nevertheless, some in China who protested zero-COVID called for its immediate end. This is reminiscent of the reactionary anti-lockdown, anti-mask, and anti-vaccine protests that happened in the United States. Reasonable people rightly condemned these demonstrations, which undermined and flouted necessary public health measures — often for absurd reasons such as wanting a haircut, with demonstrators showing zero regard whatsoever for who that might endanger during a deadly pandemic.

Despite the similarities between Chinese and US COVID protests, a recent piece in The Activist insists that they’re different. But is this true? Both sets of protesters had the same demand, with each seeking an immediate end to COVID restrictions. They also talk about the issue using virtually identical language. The Dove and Crane Collective, a diaspora group cited approvingly in the aforementioned article, calls zero-COVID “draconian.” That’s the exact word Republicans use to smear any measure meant to prevent or contain coronavirus.

How China transitions from zero-COVID is a messy issue. But “organizing against the Communist Party of China” — a party that has valiantly minimized cases and deaths — is almost certainly the wrong answer. Socialists must instead see anti-government protests in China for what they are. While Chinese leftists can and do demonstrate against their state, progressive critiques are far from the dominant tendency. Anti-CPC protests — particularly those in Hong Kong — are notoriously reactionary and sometimes openly call for neocolonialism. Y/DSA should therefore be exceedingly careful in extending its support to Chinese anti-government activists. While many are fighting a noble fight, others seek to strengthen the oppressive systems socialists hope to one day dismantle.

For almost a century, US-China relations have been one of the world’s thorniest geopolitical issues. But the fundamental dynamics haven’t changed much. While some allege we’ve entered a new era of great-power competition, the reality is perhaps even more desolate. Tensions between the United States and China remain a simple tale of imperialist aggression. As it has historically, the former is seeking to “dominate, shape and control” the latter “for its own benefit.”

From capitalizing on the Opium Wars to abetting the White Terror, the United States has long meddled in Chinese affairs. That meddling continues into the present, but has taken on different forms. These days, the United States frequently astroturfs counterrevolutionary protests in China as well as challenges the country’s territorial integrity.

Whatever flaws may exist within the CPC, socialists must take a firmly anti-imperialist line. Opposing American aggression against China is perhaps the key pillar of establishing and maintaining a more peaceful world order. Rather than join the chorus of odious anti-CPC voices, Y/DSA should be unequivocal in insisting that the United States and its lapdogs keep their hands off of China.