The Morning Dispatch: The Shanghai Time Capsule
China’s draconian COVID restrictions hearken back to the earliest days of the pandemic.
Happy Friday! On this day in 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to curb inflation by freezing prices, limiting pay raises, and banning people from switching jobs unless it would help the war effort. Don’t get any ideas, Joe.
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
The Senate voted 53-47 on Thursday to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, with three Republicans—Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney—joining all 50 Democrats in support. She won’t be formally sworn in until Justice Stephen Breyer retires this summer, but will then become the 116th justice and first black woman to serve on the court.
The Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus and ban oil and gas imports from Russia, sending the measures to President Joe Biden’s desk. Biden had already issued an executive order banning Russian energy imports, but suspending normal trade relations and another measure in the bill reauthorizing human rights-based sanctions powers will free the United States to raise tariffs on Russian products and issue still more sanctions.
The United Nations General Assembly voted 93-24—with 58 countries abstaining—to suspend Russia from its Human Rights Council in response to reports Russian soldiers committed war crimes in Bucha. Russia—which subsequently said it is quitting the council—is the first permanent U.N. Security Council member to lose membership in any U.N. body.
Yemen’s president stepped down on Thursday, handing power to a transitional governing council in a move aimed at encouraging peace between the Saudi-led coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have been fighting since 2015. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also pledged a combined $3 billion in economic support for Yemen, with Saudi Arabia chipping in an additional $300 million for the United Nations’ humanitarian aid.
An attacker—who is still at large—killed at least two people and wounded seven others in a Tel Aviv bar on Thursday, the fourth such shooting in Israel over the past three weeks in the lead up to Ramadan. A Hamas spokesman praised the attack as “heroic,” saying it “struck the Zionist security system and proved our people’s ability to hurt the occupation.”
Four U.S. soldiers were evaluated for traumatic brain injuries on Thursday after shelling targeted bases occupied by the American-led military coalition in northeastern Syria, U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack—and the United States hasn’t publicly named a suspected culprit—but Iran has been behind similar strikes in the past.
The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari reportedly had damaging information about the agency’s law enforcement officers—including allegations of domestic violence and sexual misconduct—removed from investigation reports, according to documents obtained by Project on Government Oversight.
The average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage hit 4.72 percent this week according to Freddie Mac data, the highest figure since late 2018 and the fastest three-month rate of increase in 28 years.
The average number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States has essentially plateaued, decreasing just 0.4 percent over the past two weeks—though still near the lowest level since July 2021. Daily COVID-19 deaths, meanwhile, have fallen 34 percent over the same time period.
It’s Still March 2020 in Shanghai
Remember COVID-19? It was a pretty big deal for a while there. But these days you don’t hear too much about the once-in-a-century pandemic that upended billions of lives—other than seemingly every Cabinet member, White House staffer, and congressional Democrat contracting a mild case of it this week. Yes, you still have to wear a mask on airplanes—for at least a few more weeks—and yes, some businesses and institutions are still checking vaccine cards. But with caseloads at their lowest levels since last July, vaccines and boosters easily available to all who want them, and the Omicron variant proven to be less deadly than its predecessors, even the bluest states have now done away with just about every last COVID-era restriction. Life is finally resembling normalcy once again.
That is … not the case in Shanghai, where public health workers are beating pet dogs to death, drones equipped with loudspeakers are instructing residents who leave their homes to “control [their] soul’s desire for freedom,” and 25 million people are facing food and medicine shortages while under lockdown orders stricter than anything Americans experienced even two years ago. Why? Because the country of 1.4 billion people is reporting about 25,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, about 8,000 fewer than the United States did on Thursday.
To be fair, China’s official figures are probably nonsense. “There’s never been a point where they’ve told the truth about the number of cases,” American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Derek Scissors says of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), arguing it’s the trendline that’s actually worth paying attention to. “The [25,000] cases, honestly, it’s at least 10 times that much, probably more. But they’re never going to report that, because it’s destabilizing. They will never report that the Party has lost control of an important situation.”
But that’s exactly what’s happened. Since the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, the CCP has pursued a zero-COVID—or “dynamic clearance”—policy, aimed at using stringent testing and isolation to stamp out any outbreaks before they can begin. It’s unclear how effective the strategy has actually been, as the Party’s official line is that no one (literally no one) in China died of COVID-19 between January 25, 2021 and March 19, 2022. Other countries sought (unsuccessfully) to emulate the approach in the pandemic’s earliest days, but vanishingly few are still employing it today, with vaccines plentiful and Omicron—especially the BA.2 subvariant—essentially too transmissible to contain.
But that hasn’t stopped China from trying to superimpose a March 2020 blueprint onto a March 2022 world. Tightened restrictions were implemented in multiple provinces last month as China’s reported COVID numbers reached their highest levels since the original Wuhan outbreak, but the spread in Shanghai—the country’s largest city—has proven most difficult to tame, accounting for about 85 percent of the entire country’s reported new cases. Days after denying rumors on March 23 that a city-wide lockdown was imminent, Shanghai officials reversed course: Half the city would shut down for five days beginning on March 28 to conduct testing and contact tracing, then it’d be the other half’s turn. The budding outbreak would be nipped in the bud, and people could move on with their lives.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. The lockdown in the eastern half of Shanghai wasn’t lifted when the western half’s began, and both were extended indefinitely on Tuesday. More than 12,000 healthcare workers and military medics have reportedly been dispatched to the city to test all 25 million residents every few days, and the situation is grim. Certain factory laborers and financial services workers are sleeping at work every night, while most people can only leave their homes to get tested. Those who come back positive—and those determined to have been in contact with a positive person—are whisked away to pop-up isolation camps in converted gyms, stadiums, and convention centers. Children are separated from their parents—unless, as of Wednesday, the child has “special needs”—and many of those required to quarantine are faced with a difficult choice: Release their pet in the hopes it can fend for itself, or leave it home alone where it may starve to death.
That latter risk is becoming real for humans in Shanghai, too. With grocery stores closed, most delivery workers sidelined, and many neighborhoods not allowing third-party deliveries, residents are struggling to secure enough food to last them through the lockdown of yet-to-be-determined length. One worker told The Wall Street Journal he and his brother received one food shipment from the government on April 1, featuring a bag of bok choy, three tomatoes, one lotus root, and one onion for the two of them to share. Those who can receive deliveries have to wake up at odd hours of the morning to compete for extremely limited supplies. In a rare bending to reality, Shanghai’s vice mayor Chen Tong said yesterday that more markets could reopen and delivery people return to work.
But the broader lockdown isn’t going anywhere fast, with CCP officials rigidly sticking to their zero-COVID approach despite growing discontent. One of the most prominent state-run newspapers in the country—People’s Daily—ran a front-page editorial earlier this morning defending the stance. “China’s territory is vast, and the medical and health conditions vary from place to place,” it read. “There is an imbalance between different groups of people in vaccination. At the same time, the base of the elderly population is large. Under this background, ‘dynamic zero clearance’ is the best choice based on China’s current epidemic situation at this stage. Strive to achieve ‘dynamic zero clearance’ in a short time is the most economical and effective epidemic prevention and control strategy.”
China claims nearly 90 percent of its population is fully vaccinated, but it spurned Western mRNA vaccines in favor of its own—Sinovac—that has been found to provide inferior protection. Worse yet, uptake is dramatically lower among the population most vulnerable to severe disease, with just 51 percent of Chinese people over 80 receiving the requisite two doses as of mid-March. The main reason the CCP hasn’t budged from “dynamic clearance,” however, is that it knows its healthcare system couldn’t handle a surge comparable to what other countries have dealt with.
“They just don’t have the facilities to serve 500 to 600 million people,” Scissors said. “Urban healthcare is okay, it’s not great. But rural healthcare is [very poor], and they know that. When we think of COVID, as bad as it’s been here, it’d be much worse in rural China—and probably was in 2020, they just didn’t admit it. So they have very good reasons in theory—and I think in practice—to say, ‘We can’t just let this burn itself out. We have to have an iron hand here.’”
This reality is probably why—until now—the Chinese have generally approved of (or not complained about) the harsh restrictions. “People understand that the health care system is underfunded; they see it every time they go to the hospital,” said Andrew Mertha, director of the China Global Research Center at Johns Hopkins University. “Mobilizing masses of people to meet a challenge is something that the Chinese Communist Party does very well, as they’ve been perfecting this since the 1930s. The Party is built to do exactly that. It is not at all surprising that it is undertaking this type of policy to combat COVID.”
But the population’s patience may finally be wearing thin. Posts critical of the lockdowns are among the most popular on Weibo, the Chinese social media app, and one resident facing food shortages said her trust in the government has “eroded” over the course of the lockdown. That could have ramifications for the fall, when the CCP is set to meet for its Party Congress—held once every five years—where President Xi Jinping is expected to further consolidate his hold on power and secure a third term.
“The Party Congress is affecting every decision that is being made in China until it concludes,” Mertha argued. “But I think these decisions could potentially affect the Congress even more, especially if something goes badly wrong. Xi has been centralizing power for so long now that—while he may be celebrated for everything good that happens on his watch—he will also be held responsible for anything that goes wrong.”
Scissors concurred. “It looks bad [for Xi]. You’ve had two years to solve this problem, and you haven’t,” he told The Dispatch. “And now you’re six months away from being anointed leader for another five years—or indefinitely. There’s a question here of how bad can this year be—regardless of what they report—before somebody says to Xi Jinping, ‘I guess you’re going to be leader, but you need to make some concessions.’ When you’re the undisputed cult of personality dictator, there’s only one place to put the blame.”
Worth Your Time
Belarusian and Russian volunteers fighting alongside Ukraine’s military hope for freedom in their own countries, Isabel Coles and Yaroslav Trofimov report in The Wall Street Journal. “For Pavel Kulazhanka, just like many Belarusian and Russian fighters who have joined Ukraine’s military in recent weeks, the path to freedom at home runs through defeating the Russian army here first,” they write. “While the Belarusian opposition has long been inspired by Ukraine’s resistance to Russia and attempts to impose authoritarian rule, the arrival of Russians willing to fight against their own compatriots is relatively new.” A Russian opposition politician tells the Journal about the volunteers, “They represent the hope that, once the war is over, at least some conversation will become possible between us. Once it becomes known how the citizens of Russia helped Ukraine repel this aggressor, it will facilitate dialogue between Russians and Ukrainians in the future. And these people could become intermediaries.”
Researchers at a North Carolina company recently realized they could easily switch an AI model from generating possible therapeutic drugs to suggesting new toxic compounds. In Bloomberg, Lisa Jarvis argues it’s unlikely bad actors will soon use AI to help develop chemical weapons but advises caution. “The entire project was done in six hours on an old desktop Mac, using software designed to use publicly available databases of molecules,” Jarvis writes. “Already, a vast amount of information on machine learning in drug development is publicly available, and it won’t be possible to entirely close Pandora’s box. There’s no need to panic. But the public should be aware of the risks. And biotech companies, academic researchers and government agencies involved in monitoring chemical and biological weapons need to have more open discussions about those risks now.”
The Senate renewed the Magnitsky Act yesterday, legislation first passed in 2012 that authorizes the president to impose sanctions on individuals and entities in response to human rights violations. The act is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Ukrainian-born lawyer and tax advisor who died in prison after testifying about corruption in Russia. Today would’ve been his 50th birthday, so take a few minutes to read this 2015 piece from Bill Browder, one of Magnitsky’s clients who helped usher the eponymous act into law.
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Toeing the Company Line
In case you thought China was the only country interested in your juicy data, Klon Kitchen explains in this week’s edition of The Current (🔒) that the U.S. wants it, too, and takes a look at the role of all this data in national security. “Knowledge has always been a means to power,” he writes. “The more one knows, the better one can understand a situation, a challenge, an opportunity, or a risk. The gathering of knowledge, then, has always been a defining feature of American national security. After all, it’s very difficult to defend against threats or to seize opportunities if you do not know about them.”
In Thursday’s Stirewaltisms (🔒), Chris argues we’re returning to the 1970s in more ways than one—though he focuses on the baseball angle. “As if we were trying to relive all of the worst parts of the 1970s in the 2020s, today is the first time since its founding 146 years ago that baseball’s National League will excuse pitchers from having to go to bat in regular league play,” he writes. “Inflation, energy shortages, Russian invasions, cultural chaos, political failure, and, yes, the designated hitter rule: The ’70s are back, baby.”
On the latest episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah tackle a Supreme Court case everyone else is ignoring, discuss their favorite law school (Yale), and debut a revolutionary game show idea.
Let Us Know
In the pandemic’s earliest days, it was common for takesters to fret about whether democratic societies were as well-equipped to handle the global spread of a deadly disease as were authoritarian states like China that could simply order people to stay inside indefinitely to crush transmission. What do you make of that worry now?