The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As covid evolves, China’s obstinacy grows — at huge economic cost

Shanghai's nearly empty roads during a covid lockdown on Thursday. (Bloomberg)
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Folks who don’t believe in evolution have never met the virus that causes covid-19. Because viruses replicate by the billions daily, they reveal the processes of random genetic variation and natural selection with all the immediacy of a time-lapse film. The virus we met more than two years ago is not the same devil driving infections in the wrong direction today.

Humans evolve far more slowly than viruses do. But we, too, have a gift for survival. It’s called learning. And it bears some important similarities to physical evolution. New ideas are like genetic mutations, and the open exchange — the testing and probing — of new ideas is analogous to natural selection.

Both operations thrive on volume. More strains of virus inevitably produce more mutations, increasing the chance that a variant will prove superior in some way to the existing strain. Likewise, an open system of inquiry inevitably produces a wider variety of ideas, increasing the chance that one of them will blossom into discovery or understanding.

This is one way of thinking about the pandemic. In the last weeks of 2019, there was one version of the novel virus and essentially zero human knowledge about it. A race between viral evolution and human learning has brought us, in spring 2022, to a very different place. We now know a lot about a virus that adapts rapidly to our best efforts. Vaccines and antiviral drugs, discovered through open, dynamic inquiry, have made covid-19 a far less deadly disease — even as evolution has made the underlying virus more contagious.

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Unfortunately, there is another pandemic story, and it threatens to disrupt the world economy, perhaps permanently. China’s largest city and busiest trading hub, Shanghai, has been locked down tight for about a month to fight a relative handful of infections. Despite severe government censorship, horror stories have spread of severe food shortages and squalid quarantine centers in this wealthy and modern city of more than 25 million people. Meanwhile, the slowdown at the port has thrown another wrench into the $22 trillion flow of international trade.

Other large cities in China are locked down as well, affecting some 373 million people in all, more than the entire population of the United States. Together, the idled areas generate 40 percent of China’s economic output. To all the other storms buffeting the world’s vitality — the Ukraine crisis, U.S. inflation, sky-high fuel costs — add the likelihood that China is sending itself into a recession.

Speculation that Beijing will be next to shut down has sent inhabitants of the Chinese capital on a fevered hunt for scarce supplies. Grocery stores are being stripped as quickly as they can be restocked. Millions of residents have waited in long lines for mandatory testing.

The virus has evolved, but China appears to have learned nothing from the world’s fight against covid. In pursuit of the impossible goal of “zero covid,” leader Xi Jinping commands a rigid, top-down approach to the disease.

Keen observers, such as Eyck Freymann writing in the Wall Street Journal, worry that draconian measures will continue indefinitely, at great cost to China and the world, because Xi cannot afford to change his mind. To abandon the zero covid policy “would require the Communist Party to countermand an order that it has repeatedly and unequivocally given for more than two years,” Freymann wrote. “This not only would be an admission of failure, it would badly delegitimize Mr. Xi’s carefully constructed hero-cult.”

We see something tragically similar in Russia. There, President Vladimir Putin persists in his bloody, costly attempt to crush independent Ukraine, unable to countenance fresh thinking that might limit the self-inflicted damage.

Authoritarian governments look strong from the outside, unburdened by the noise and mess of partisan competition and free enterprise. But, eventually, they fall prey to this inherent weakness: By centralizing decisions and cutting off debate, they render themselves unable to learn and grow. Ideas come from a single source, the leader, rather than bubbling up from the wisdom of the crowd. Once spoken, the fiats cannot change without wounding the leader’s credibility. Authorities confuse the silence of stifled dissent for confirmation that they are correct.

One challenge for the United States and allied democracies is to appreciate the dynamic power in our often unruly debates. By dissenting from authority, by questioning established dogma, by challenging expert opinions, we foster the creation of ideas and test those ideas to find the strongest ones.

Xi’s declared purpose in pursuing his “zero covid” policies is to prove that China’s one-party, all-powerful surveillance state is superior to Western models based on human rights. But he is fighting the 2022 virus with early 2020 techniques, which is likely to be an expensive failure. If this sounds like another version of the same old totalitarian tale — well, there’s a reason.

Some people never learn.

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