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Has China won by beating coronavirus?

About three weeks ago the Chinese reported a few instances of community spread in Qingdao. Five days ago a story broke that there were now 13 individuals. The government said they would perform 9 million tests.

Today the results came back on 7 million tests. None of them were positive. It turns out that the 13 positive individuals were traced back to a hospital that quarantined people who had tested positive abroad. Ultimately there was “less to see” here than we originally thought since it is reasonable that now and then COVID-19 might leak out of the quarantine hospitals.

In February I was doing some “back-of-the-envelope” calculations and they suggested that a bad-case (but not worst-case) scenario was 250,000 deaths in the USA. We are probably already there in terms of excess deaths. I wasn’t pessimistic enough. It is not implausible that we’ll reach 500,000 deaths, though the combination of social distancing, monoclonal antibodies, and infections of those at lower risk first before herd immunity, and probably next year vaccination, will mean we’ll be in the 300,000-400,000 range of excess mortalities.

The situation in China is different. And surprisingly so. It seems that the 1.4 billion Chinese have successfully implemented the “contain and crush” strategy. They crushed the virus in Wuhan. But then they also crushed the virus when it resurged in Manchuria and a district of Beijing. All the powers of an authoritarian state were brought to bear, but it seems likely that the public has a high degree of compliance in China.

Of course, this elicits the standard skepticism of China’s numbers, which I initially shared. The reason I believe that the Chinese have contained COVID-19 is that the people in China themselves seem to think it is contained. You can watch how “normal” people behave in public. You can contact ex-pats who live in China. Life is back to where it was.

Then there are stories like this, China Box Office Poised to Surpass U.S. as World’s Largest Moviegoing Market Amid Pandemic. There is enough economic data to suggest that China is “back to normal” in terms of exports and imports. Yes, perhaps they are lying about their data as they were before, but it is as if they are in “before-times.”

Finally, is there a moral to this story? You can draw your own conclusions in terms of comparisons. I’m happy that the Chinese seem to have COVID-19 under control, but I’m worried about America’s comparative state and social capacity…


17 thoughts on “Has China won by beating coronavirus?

  1. I’m one of those American expats living in China. We’re totally back to normal (in Chengdu). Sole difference is you have to wear a mask on the subway.

  2. Long Comment: I’m still a bit unsure if China – at its level of development and the levels of age-adjusted mortality – actually wins by fighting coronavirus by using strong suppression measures that suppress its economic activity, in the longer term (is the lost growth from additional suppression in this year of peak working age population really worth it?), but… Without having access to an economy history printed in 2050 and within the confines of evaluating success by “fighting the virus”, then… yeah?

    One tenative take: The Hukou has worked really well in their favour here?

    My general suspicion in this pandemic (informed by my prior biases of course) is that *anything* that serves as a break on the dispersal of chance superspreader events through a region or country helps. That can be having a limited services economy which limits numbers of job related person-to-person interactions, a low level of contacts per person (low relational mobility and low social openness), a low level of dependence on consumption in bars and restaurants, a low level of international travel and “Freedom of Movement”, and limited and centralized infrastructure for travel within a country.

    Particularly if those breaks are amped up very early (which we in US and UK absolutely failed on, and can be at best be said to have not failed as badly to implement travel restrictions as we could under other imaginable governments).

    Some significant ability to actually put into play an internal barriers system through having something like the Hukou already in place might be part of that.

    Developed Western countries and Middle-Income countries which are culturally close like in Latin America have been leaning further in towards these trends high mobility, and high openness, and high throughput services to increase economic productivity for a long time now… (And as we know the social ideals and “high status social values” move in correlation, follows or leads this, as can be debated).

    (One particularly amusing thought that strikes me on this is how this social evolution maps to how “virality” and “disruptive” have developed positive contexts in Western societies!)

    I thought at some point by now it would spread through China, reasoning on from some reports of what’s been happened with HIV in male migrant workers from the countryside, that there would just be too much unregistered mobility in China compared to what the state could do. But I was wrong.

    Perhaps when they want to crack down, they actually can put controls in play to stop spread through a country. Thus in the US, New York basically seeds everywhere else, or in the UK, London basically seeds everywhere else (both seeded by Italy), while in China, Wuhan does not?

    Then the big problem in the US and UK that compounds this is that it seemed to me that there are no real internal barriers, so you have places where there is a strong outbreak changing behaviour (whether mostly voluntarily or mostly due to order, as to be debated), but because the infection is being seeded out to places where people aren’t changing behaviour very strongly, it can recover (e.g. North of England in UK, Sunbelt in US).

    To contrast, like, if we had goverments as authoritarian as China’s in the English speaking countries, at this point, they’d probably be ideologically Progressive. And our Progressives are great barrier deconstructors – if there’s anything keeping people apart or in some particular place and especially if its not based on “merit” (i.e. pretty much equated with education), they don’t like it. They’re generally in favour of things that break down barriers and bring peoples together – “One Billion Americans!”, “Lots more trains and roads!”, “High density housing!”, etc. They’d probably be more likely to give medicine and public health lots of money and rather authoritarian essentially universal surveillance and punishment powers, because medicine is “progressive” and giving money rewards those with “merit”, and generally trust “merit” aligned experts with any sort of powers… But if I’m right, this might not help with this pandemic (this particular sort of virus) as much as having lower mobility and the ability and willingness to use barriers for containment.

    So to get back to OP, I’d guess Progressives, if they had free reign to rebuild the state in US, would intensify internal “state capacity”(the ability and actuality of the state to intervene constantly in the economy and life, as distinct from foreign facing international state capacity, where they’d do absolutely nothing positive), but build probably exactly the sort of ultra high mobility and barrier-resistant states that would worsen a pandemic with this particular virus.

    (OTOH, when it comes to English speaking countries, Canada, Australia and NZ have done OK? In the case of the latter two, probably explained a fair bit by distance to other places, mind, and unusually early restrictions on travel in Aus and NZ. I’d note on those latter two, the distinction maybe seems to map less to “populism” than British and American commentators think, when proposing that “populist” governments are the downfall of Britain and America – Australia’s ScoMo government was debatably rather propelled to a win by “populism” and NZ’s government is a coalition involving the “New Zealand First” party…)

  3. Australia’s internal borders have shut down. Ironically the federal government was basically worthless but the state government’s took charge, shuting borders and so on. So some states where fortunate enough to close early that they mimic NZ. NSW the state which Sydney is in currently at stable cases and contact tracing is detecting as cases occur so likely supressing the virus without a lockdown or mask mandate. My home state and city Victoria and Melbourne is where the largest outbreaks have occured and is currently under lockdown, the premier Dan Andrews is facing massive hostility from federal government and Murdoch media due to his 2nd lockdown. Andrews got close to supression after the 1st lockdown but then quarentine breaches occured and the state was locked down a second time now with mask mandate. Morrison wants to reopen and is not offering any exta assistance to Vic which would have likely reignited the outbreaks in Vic. Australia would make a interesting case for you to exam due to state and federal bickering like US and elimination, suppression and long lockdowns currently co-occuring.

  4. Perhaps the high degree of conformism in East Asia was selected for a reason!

    I read a newspaper article about disruptions to the au pair program recently, and what struck me was how much “the faith in America” was shaken among the foreign au pairs who were heading back home (where the impact of the pandemic was less pronounced.

    One European said, “There is no advantage to being in America now.” Another said, “They [Americans] were unprepared. They don’t know what to do.”

  5. Two big reasons for American looseness apart from tradition and the idiosyncrasies of various demographics

    1: Democrats want the ability to cheat elections.
    2: Republicans suspect a Democrat totalitarian state

    The Chinese Communists have long boasted that they brought fine grained control down to the village level in China, unprecedented since the Qin and Han dynasties.

    Something that the Republic or the Japanese or any other regime could not do. Theoretically, up through the Tang dynasty the government directly controlled and apportioned all land, but not afterward

  6. I wonder how much of this is culture and how much is state competence. The other sinosphere countries seem to have done a pretty good job at dealing with coronavirus.

    Perhaps the American cultural value of individual liberty hurt it’s ability / willingness to implement measures to contain the virus ?

  7. I don’t believe the Chinese regime. Everything they say is a lie.

    My guess is that they decided that a disease that preferentially killed old folks was a feature not a bug, and that they just let it rip.

  8. fine grained control down to the village level

    And by this is meant direct “central” government control, as opposed to local strongmen and elites or even city governments stepping in to fill the void

    Post classical dynasties had an increasingly higher population to formal government official ratio, somewhat analogous to the developing situation with our House of Representatives

    Contrast this central bureaucratic control down to the village level with another of my favorite entities, the Seleucid Empire. Vast regions were left to satraps and local greco-Macedonian settlers, and the Seleucids early on committed to the idea of free Greek cities, self ruling, in the historical Greek sphere

    If the Seleucids had had a more robust state they could certainly have survived far longer, and fight wars more like Rome

  9. It is a fact that China has coped better with the virus than Europe and the United States. Just like the whole of East Asia. At what price, this is another question. However, China still has to answer to the world.

  10. Speaking only for myself and my colleagues (at our Internal Medicine residency): as Coronavirus descended, the prevailing mentality was one of exasperation and demoralization. I remember the shock we felt when we (in America!) found out that we would be rationing masks and PPE. I became increasingly frustrated with how incompetent and rudderless American policy was, torpedoing the economy with lockdowns and then not building any test-and-trace apparatus worth a damn to get us safely out of it. I was again annoyed (but not surprised, because I’ve worked with that crowd and know where their biases lie) when the public health crowd abandoned their hardline views as soon as they saw a protest they liked.

    And finally, I became frustrated with my old friends, who get boozed in an upscale part of our hometown every few days, while I don a N95 and face shield and coveralls just to round on the Coronavirus section of my list.

    Bottom line is that America looks terrible. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, from government incompetence to political polarization, and in a uniquely American way. I would agree that China won this round resoundingly, I’m not sure I can argue with a straight face that America has the wherewithal to be “great.” For now, I’d say managed decline is the best we can hope for, but at least I’ll live comfortably, assuming I’m still alive at the end of this.

  11. In my home state of Western Australia, there has been no community transmission for the past 6 months (i.e. only imported cases – cargo ships’ crews, and ethics require that those people are allowed to land and be treated). The borders are all still closed, including the land border with the rest of Australia (much to their irritation). They are exporting more iron ore to China now than they ever did (because other suppliers like Brazil are in a state of total chaos), so ironically the state economy is currently booming on the back of that. (There are ominous signs that might not last, but I will resist my Obsish inclinations and won’t expound on it here.) The island state of Tasmania is clear, but their economy is totally screwed.

    The Australian Prime Minister is a waste of oxygen; he has been worse than useless. How well you consider the respective state leaders have done depends at least in part on your politics. Victoria is a disaster zone compared to the rest of the country – I’m not going to get into a fight with Yodel over whose fault that is; I don’t have any politics, but I’ll agree with him that the federal government certainly have not helped.

    @Matt: “I thought at some point by now it would spread through China…just be too much unregistered mobility in China compared to what the state could do.” Roadblocks everywhere, and they shut down all of the public transport, so no one could go anywhere. All open now, but if there is an outbreak, e.g. Beijing or Qingdao, they have locked it down, no one in or out, until the outbreak has been contained.

    Has it been worth it? Unqualified yes – they crushed it fast, Draconian, compliant population, the economy took a very big hit, but it is now recovering a lot faster than anyone expected.

    They are about to start a pilot trial with vaccinating everyone in Zhejiang Province, so they are in a real hurry to try to implement mass vaxx. Massive irony – more than 50% of Chinese say they don’t want vaxx because they don’t need it, because they think the virus has been eliminated from China, and they don’t trust Chinese vaccines because of some bad case histories. They can come and vaxx me right now – I’m up for it.

    @HMB: I’m repeatedly surprised that (many? most?) Americans see this as some kind of competition, like “China has won and we lost” – I don’t mean to be rude or provocative and sorry if I offend, but to me that is frankly bizarre, and it is very unhelpful to global recovery. I don’t think the Chinese see it that way – I see a lot of expressions of shock and dismay at what is happening in the USA, and no small amount of sympathy; a lot of Chinese have relatives in the States, so they have skin in the game. Plus the economies are entwined, so impacts on the American economy adversely affect China. I also know that high level medical personnel in China are in frequent contact with their opposite numbers, e.g. Fauci in America, you just maybe don’t hear about that in the USA, but I pick up on that happening from the Chinese side.

    Demonstrably, the Chinese do not think they have the coronavirus beaten, not yet – witness their vigilance and speed of reaction to any outbreak, and their massive response, e.g. Qingdao, 13 people infected, whole prefecture shut down and whole population of 9 million people tested. And I don’t see any expression anywhere that they think they have won anything. What have they won? What I see is that they are appalled and dismayed at what is happening in the USA, UK, EU, Russia, Middle East, Pakistan, India, Indonesia and South America – virtually everywhere. African countries have surprised everyone with how well they have done – that’s another discussion.

    The Chinese economy has rebounded surprisingly quickly, but it is far from fully recovered, and it can’t be with most of the rest of the world so badly affected. Xi Jinping was in Shenzhen 3 days ago to celebrate its 40th anniversary of becoming a Special Economic Zone, and during his admirably brief 50 minute speech, he exhorted Shenzhen to lead the recovery of the Chinese economy. So, the Big Boss is not trying to fool anyone that the Chinese economy is anywhere close to full recovery.

    @Walter Sobchak: If that had happened, I have easily enough close friends/contacts in the Mainland to know about it, and it didn’t.

    My daughter is back working in the Mainland. She worked from home since January 25, but went back there in August, got her negative test results to cross the border, did her quarantine, and now life there is pretty normal for her – she’s planning to go swimming with local friends today (Saturday here) but might be too drowned with work to go. No masks – she has plenty, but doesn’t need them. But, and it’s a big but, most of her work colleagues are expats, and most of them are still stuck in their countries of origin or wherever they went to for the Chinese New Year holiday starting January 25, still trying to get back into China and working from home, wherever home is. So my daughter is one of a small number of staff holding the fort, as it were, including a colleague from Oregon and a few others, and that’s a bit of a struggle for her. Also, the border is still closed, so she can’t come home for visits (2 weeks quarantine when she comes back here, and then another 2 weeks quarantine when she goes back there again, just not feasible or tolerable), and it’s killing me that I can’t see her. Vaxx me now, you bastards. I’m not scared of dying, but I want to go and see my daughter.

  12. I guess to get political again, “State Capacity” discussion is fine, but I guess I am very suspicious that discussions of state capacity kind of seem to lean in a bit to the memes of a lot of US+UK Progressive types.

    The specific meme and narrative, roughly: “The state has been systematically defunded by a self-dealing rich elite that holds a “libertarian” ideology of zero government (out of a mix of decadence and self-interest), which uses populist, “anti-expert” appeals to a stupid public to maintain power, and where if it must function as a government, privatizes and contracts out its responsibilities at high cost, to crony carpet-baggers. This crisis is a prime example of this!

    Accordingly, we must solve this by putting all these Progressive candidates and experts who “believe in government” and who “are competent” into power, not questioning them, and generally giving them lots of money. Our virtuous reward will then be Good Government(tm)”.

    But I guess this seems less than likely to me that this is a good diagnosis of this crisis (leaving aside its generally accuracy about the state of society in even US and UK, about which I’d be not too flattering).

    The specific problems had, rather than general “state capacity”, across Europe and US, seem that there was not much precaution at the beginning (failure of WHO?), reluctance to use borders early on and maintain them through the crisis, perhaps barriers to monitoring personal data for contact tracing, and a lack of capability in redundant localized capacity for testing at scale at the start, and in general a lack of built in technical capabilities for testing and PPE (e.g. Germany, South Korea, stereotypically economies with strong production base and technical culture did better on such things?).

    (None of that seems anything that our US+UK Progressives were really particularly prescient on (and I don’t have to link the headlines back in Jan and Feb to begin to demonstrate on it, which we all know by now); they weren’t more cautious initially, they weren’t generally more keen to impose border restrictions against WHO guidance, they’ve not argued for less caution, scrutiny and restriction on the use of personal data by governments, and they haven’t really been arguing that hollowed out and offshored production and trade imposing could be problems imposing sharp constraints on resources at times of crisis (our “Just In Time” world).)

    As a general illustration – ; conventional measures of state capacity, size, taxation, austerity… don’t have a clear relationship with Covid mortality (at the point of him writing that post, for that sample of countries). Perhaps measures of the capacity of the state are systematically wrong in a way that is only revealed by Covid19, but in the absence of that… (Tweet generally discussed the sort of trend of using Covid19 and State Capacity as an excuse for changes in social and economic structure, that I’m wary of).

    It seems maybe, tentatively, more about self imposed choices about how we run our states, rather than a general lack of capacity. We’ve chosen to restrict our states’ ability to constrain and monitor our movements, relative to where it could be (where it’s technologically possible), and how much we do our production locally rather than offshore it and trade specialised services for it and make gains from trade, and at the same time, increased the pace with which people circulate through and mix in our societies. There’s an argument for all that, but as much as we’d have preferred there’s no tradeoff, perhaps there is? There are perhaps things we can do to make our economies more resistent to this sort of pandemic, but feel very wary right now of people trying to sell large and very general changes in tax, state funding on basis that Covid19 has revealed “the error of our ways”.

    (On greater connectivity, the always good Random Critical Analysis on raw air connectivity 2007 and deaths:

    Random Critical Analysis reruns “state capacity” vs deaths from above tweet with a larger sample set, for the lols:

  13. Tbh I was not surprised by America and expected it, and posted about it. Time to make millions!

    It is interesting however that this seemingly hapless laxity continues even until this day.
    Two reasons I previously gave for ineffective state control are illustrative microcosms: Democrats want to be able to cheat, Republicans don’t want to be oppressed by a Democrat totalitarian state

    There is a fundamental independence and freedom at the heart of it as well, the politicians don’t want to scare off votes, the media is too powerful. In this technological age “democracy” just means rule by whomever controls the media and the schools

    It is precisely because of these and other circumstances that America needed, and needs, to be made great again

  14. Update on Qingdao: It looks at least feasible that the outbreak there started because two dock workers might have got infected from live virus on frozen food packaging (imported cod, but they haven’t said from where – not that it matters much, could be from just about anywhere). Fact – live virus was detected on the outside of the packaging.

    Surfaces are still not a major source of infection, but if the national target is zero cases, then two cases infecting some others matter. In most countries, worrying about how two guys got infected probably seems like a sick joke.

  15. Mmmph – sorry, serial posting. I don’t think the outbreak they had in Auckland after NZ had eliminated the virus was ever conclusively explained, but there again the suspicion was live virus on the outside of imported cargo.

    So, when you have got down to really low numbers and are trying for elimination, then fomites start to become important, because the coronavirus has been found to survive on surfaces for a very long time, except at high temperatures (40C) or exposed to enough sunlight.

    And my thought is that if you don’t achieve elimination, then your economy will not recover. The idea of balancing low levels of infection against economic interests just doesn’t work, because low levels will not stay low. That is what Hong Kong is trying to do, and it’s not working/is not going to work. You have to take the big economic hit and try for zero, get it over fast (in the immortal words of the goddess Jacinda “Go hard and go early”) because your economy is going to get a big hit either way.

  16. If totalitarianism is required for success in the future, maybe the coming totalitarian rule of the woke will allow us to “compete” with the Chinese.

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