COVID-19 is ravaging China.
The Delta variant is spreading across the country fast, and Beijing has no answer to the new strain other than draconian, totalitarian brute-force measures—and blaming foreigners.
Millions of Chinese residents are now in various forms of lockdown. The recent infections constitute the most widespread coronavirus outbreak since the disease first hit China, sometime in late 2019.
The new flare-up, which quickly slipped beyond the control of the authorities, is undermining core Communist Party propaganda narratives.
Chinese authorities trace the latest series of infections to a flight landing at the Nanjing Lukou International Airport from Russia on July 20. Nine Chinese airport workers tested positive after cleaning the plane.
Since then, the disease has ripped through China, infecting people in almost half of the country’s 33 provinces and provincial-level cities and regions. “Delta has broken through the country’s virus defenses, which are some of the strictest in the world,” notes Bloomberg News.
Delta is now appearing in places with no reported cases for months. Of particular concern for the regime is the cluster in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the disease. The city’s infection-free status has been, as Bloomberg reports, “a source of pride in China.”
Covid has also reached Beijing, the heart of Chinese power. There, travel restrictions are strict. Tourists are now not admitted to the city. Only “essential travelers” are allowed in, but only if they produce negative Covid tests. Government and state enterprise employees may not leave the city. Beijing residents have been told not to travel elsewhere “unless necessary.”
There have been more than 30 outbreaks around China after the initial cases in Wuhan of last year, including a particularly devastating flare-up hitting Guangdong province ports beginning in late May. Draconian measures were seemingly successful in isolating China’s COVID-19 cases, however. The Party, beginning early last year, used its handling of the virus as proof of the superiority of its system over, among others, “Western democracy.”
Totalitarian-style tactics, unfortunately for China’s rulers, have not worked with the hardy Delta variant.
The coronavirus, unlike other pathogens, has become more transmissible and more virulent over time. Delta, as a result, is now killing off the triumphalism of the Communist Party.
Therefore, a nationwide spread of the disease is a potentially existential threat to the Party. At the moment, Delta is running through many societies around the world, but China appears to be the only one where the variant could end the ruling group’s tenure.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that Party propagandists went berserk for a few days last month when Bloomberg named the U.S. No. 1 in the world in its “Covid Resilience Ranking.” “What a joke,” People’s Daily, the most authoritative publication in China, remarked.
Denigration of the U.S. cannot solve the Party’s main problem, however. None of China’s five coronavirus vaccines are particularly effective.
Beijing, claiming to have administered more than 1.5 billion doses of its vaccines in China, reports 40% of Chinese citizens are fully vaccinated. China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention says Chinese vaccines “can still have good preventative and protective effects” against the Delta strain, but that seems unlikely as countries turn their backs on the Chinese jabs if they have an alternative. Most of the new cases in Nanjing were vaccinated.
No society will fully recover from this disease until it has an effective and safe vaccine, and Beijing is a long way off from developing one of them, even though its researchers had months of head start in coming up with a good jab.
Until China can administer an effective vaccine across the country, its regime will have no choice but to fall back on propaganda. Narrative control has been key from the very beginning of the epidemic. This became clear when the Communist Party on January 26 of last year announced the formation of its Central Leading Small Group for Work to Counter the New Coronavirus Infection Pneumonia Epidemic, China’s task force. There was only one public health official on the nine-person roster, which was heavy with political hacks and propaganda officials. The Party’s propaganda czar, Wang Huning, was vice-chair. Maintaining control of the narrative and Xi Jinping’s dictatorial rule were—and remain—the Leading Group’s primary goals.
A Chinese soldier guarding the southern entrance of the Forbidden City in Beijing, dominated by a giant portrait of Mao Zedong.
The Party’s propagandists evidently believe blaming foreigners for the Delta outbreak is good politics. They were quick to say the origin of the most recent contagion was passengers on the plane from Russia to Nanjing, for instance, implying Russia was the source. Media also attributes a cluster of cases in Zhengzhou to two hospital cleaners in contact with patients from abroad.
In the most irresponsible move of all, China’s foreign ministry in March of last year publicly maintained that the global coronavirus pandemic started in the United States. Since then, Chinese propagandists have continually pushed the notion that the coronavirus was hatched in Frederick, Maryland, in the U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick.
China’s rulers have run out of options when it comes to the uncontrolled—and perhaps uncontrollable—spread of the newest variant of COVID-19.
Is their fate now in the hands of a virus named “Delta”?
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Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and The Great U.S.-China Tech War. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.