China’s Costly Exceptionalism

The country’s recent experience should wake its leaders to the potential pitfalls of “zero COVID.”

Medical workers put on protective suits.
Yin Liqin / China News Service / Getty

America has long thought itself exceptional, a blessed place destined to bring freedom to the world. China has an even longer history of self-proclaimed exceptionalism and, spurred by its many modern achievements, is more assertively promoting its brand of governance as a model for the world. The widening confrontation between the United States and China is thus becoming a “clash of exceptionalisms.”

From the Chinese viewpoint, the country’s successful containment of the coronavirus over the past two years is incontrovertible evidence of its system’s superiority, especially when compared with the performance of its democratic rival. While wave after wave of the virus has pummeled the U.S. and other open societies, claiming millions of lives, China’s authoritarian state has kept cases at or near zero, ensuring its 1.4 billion people have been safe, sound, and employed. This “zero COVID” policy has become a slogan for China’s emerging greatness. The higher the death toll has risen in the U.S., the more capable—even caring—the Communist regime can be portrayed as.

It’s a good story, told again and again by China’s propaganda machine. And the zero-COVID policy has undoubtedly saved countless lives. Yet with China now gripped by its worst-ever COVID outbreak, that narrative—and the country’s political and economic system—is coming under severe strain.

Shanghai, China’s financial capital, has been largely locked down for more than two weeks, and residents have struggled to procure food. In Guangzhou, a major business hub in the country’s south, local officials are converting a convention center that is home to the famous Canton Fair into an emergency COVID hospital. Across the country, cities are imposing anti-epidemic restrictions, and households are hoarding supplies, fearing they will be locked down next. In Wuhan, the pandemic’s original epicenter, residents are required to have a negative COVID test to ride the subway.

China’s latest COVID crisis still makes the country exceptional, but in the sense of being an outlier. While much of the rest of the world has learned to live with the coronavirus—for good or ill—Chinese officials are still locking down cities, testing tens of millions of residents, and chasing down case after individual case, as they were two years ago. Somehow China will have to find new ways to cope, like everybody else. Rather than a mark of authoritarian superiority, Beijing’s zero-COVID policy is becoming a test of the Communist Party’s competence and confidence in the face of the pandemic’s changing reality.

“Zero COVID” may ultimately serve as a lesson for Beijing in the perils of exceptionalism. Americans have come to realize that their own belief in their nation’s mission comes with great cost in lives, money, and reputation; for many, failed wars and heavy burdens abroad have come to outweigh the benefits of upholding democratic values and global interests. China’s recent COVID experience should wake its leaders to the potential pitfalls of exceptionalism, because their country, too, is paying the price of self-promotion.

The Chinese have defined themselves as special people from the earliest days of their recorded history. Already in deep antiquity, the Chinese perceived their civilization as superior to all others. In their view, Chinese civilization was civilization; those who failed to appreciate this simple truth were “barbarians.” That self-assertion filtered into China’s foreign affairs for 2,000 years. The imperial dynasties viewed the world as a hierarchy of peoples and states, with China at its apex. The emperors had no equals—all other rulers were subordinates, or “vassals,” and were expected to acknowledge the superiority of China and its civilization (at least ceremonially) through “tribute missions.”

This Chinese worldview crumbled in the late 19th century. In a disastrous confrontation with Western powers, Chinese leaders came to doubt not just their civilization’s superiority but its very value in the modern world. For a century, they borrowed ideas from abroad—communism, capitalism, constitutions—in a quest to restore lost power.

Now, with the Chinese rebuilding their wealth and influence, that age-old self-perception of exceptionalism is resurfacing. Xi Jinping’s regime actively promotes its autocratic political, social, and economic system as a better form of governance for other countries. And Beijing can make a pretty good case, with its stellar record of economic development. As democracies in the West have become paralyzed by polarization, China’s system has often appeared more efficient, effective, and strategic. President Joe Biden can barely squeeze legislation through Congress; Xi is busily planning for decades to come.

The success of zero-COVID fits neatly into this narrative. The numbers speak for themselves. Almost 1 million Americans have been reported to have died from COVID-19 compared with only 4,641 Chinese, according to Beijing's official count, though that figure has generated suspicion the government is not fully reporting deaths. Officials have just reported the first COVID deaths in Shanghai since the start of that city's pandemic. Beijing’s recipe of quick quarantines, mass testing, and high-tech tracking has shown off capabilities other governments can’t hope to match.

This has been a regular feature of Beijing’s messaging to the world, as China’s officials, media, and proponents launched a campaign to capitalize on the success of zero-COVID to characterize the Communist government as a responsible great power that cares for its people and the global community, much more than those self-righteous democracies. Hu Xijin, then editor of the Communist Party–run Global Times, proclaimed in mid-2021 that the normalcy of life in China amid the pandemic was “a display of the competitiveness of China’s approach of governance.” The financier Eric Li, in a December essay, compared COVID death totals between China and major democracies to contend that the Chinese governance system—which he characterized as a “socialist democracy”—is a better form of democracy than what the liberal West offers. “What kind of democracy would sacrifice millions of lives for some individuals’ freedom not to wear masks?” he wrote. “It is precisely in this way that liberal democracy is failing its citizens.”

However, the recent outbreaks, and the government’s stumbles in handling them, paint a different picture: of an incapable and uncaring regime. COVID cases have erupted across the country, from the tech hub of Shenzhen in the far south to Jilin province on the northeast border with North Korea. Hardest hit has been Shanghai, where the number of confirmed cases has surpassed that of the original outbreak in Wuhan. The government has trotted out its usual COVID-busting formula—locking residents into their homes, testing them repetitively, and isolating each positive case. So far, these tactics have not stemmed the surge, but they have succeeded in depriving many of the city’s 25 million residents of food. Because people are unable to leave their apartments or receive regular deliveries, the longer the lockdown has been extended, the hungrier the city has grown. “You cannot get food, at all,” a Shanghai lawyer tweeted in early April. “No vegetables No fruit No rice No bread Nothing.”

The proud people of Shanghai are not taking this lying down (or locked in). They have vented an unusual level of anger toward the Communist government, and especially toward inhumane aspects of the zero-tolerance approach. Protesters have demanded food and freedom, defiantly posting their confrontations with authorities on social media. Some have resorted to screaming out of their windows. A special target is the government’s practice of separating COVID-positive children from their parents. Widely circulated stories of elderly and sick people dying in their apartments because they were unable to get an ambulance or medical care have generated sympathy and anger.

Shanghai authorities, not totally immune to public criticism, have scrambled to assuage the growing discontent by permitting more food deliveries and announcing exceptions to family separations. But for the most part, the government has become more draconian in imposing its strictures. Even as conditions in Shanghai deteriorated, Xi Jinping said in mid-April China must stick to the zero-COVID policy and pandemic controls would not be relaxed.

That the Communist Party is willing to cause a humanitarian crisis in the name of preventing a humanitarian crisis says a lot about the motivations behind its zero-COVID policy. The fact is, the government has real and legitimate concerns about what might happen without it. China still has more than 50 million residents over 60 who are not fully vaccinated and are therefore especially vulnerable in an uncontrolled outbreak. Loosening up would risk quickly overwhelming the health-care system, which is ill-equipped for a raging pandemic: China has only one-sixth the intensive-care-unit capacity of the U.S. and less than one-fifth the number of nurses on a per-capita basis, according to a January report by Morgan Stanley. Signs of strain are apparent in Shanghai. Videos purportedly of a children’s COVID ward that emerged on Chinese social media showed sick babies stacked up in cribs with a handful of obviously harried adults attempting to care for them. Under such conditions, the possibility that COVID, if unchecked, could kill millions in China is very real.

Xi compounded this already grim situation with his pursuit of Chinese exceptionalism. To promote China’s technology, and along with it global influence, Beijing chose to vaccinate its population with only homemade jabs. The Chinese vaccines are based on older technology than Western competitors’ and are known to be less effective, especially against the more recent coronavirus variants. A study by two Hong Kong universities released in December showed that even three shots of China’s popular Sinovac vaccine were insufficient to protect against the Omicron variant. Xi thus left his population undervaccinated and vulnerable, and it was clearly political. Fosun Pharma, a major Chinese drugmaker, could have manufactured the more effective BioNTech vaccine for China as part of a partnership with the German firm, and planned to build a factory large enough to churn out 1 billion doses annually. Fosun distributed the BioNTech vaccine in Hong Kong, but Beijing’s regulators never approved it for use on the mainland.

Vaccines are not a cure-all, as we’ve seen around the world. But a better-vaccinated populace might have allowed Xi more flexibility on managing COVID policy. Instead, he finds himself shutting down major business and industrial centers in an already sagging economy. No less a figure than the premier, Li Keqiang, has issued repeated warnings about the risks to economic growth in recent days. Political threats lurk here too. Economic-growth rates are a statistic often touted by Beijing as proof of Communist competence. The party has traditionally worried that downturns could be dangerous.

But so are rising COVID case totals. In a sense, Xi is boxed in by the way the party justifies its rule: Meeting numerical targets it can brag about. Having boasted about zero COVID as a mark of Chinese superiority, both at home and abroad, Xi might see the policy’s demise, or even softening, as a political and diplomatic embarrassment. Xi, as the country’s dominant political figure, has also been intimately connected to zero COVID, so an uncontrolled outbreak could tarnish him politically and personally. The current turmoil comes at an especially sensitive political moment. This fall, at a major Communist Party congress, he will attempt to break with modern precedent and claim a third term in power. Rising COVID cases, faltering economic growth, and resentful cities are bad news for any politician, even an unelected one.

The leadership realizes it needs to chart a way out, but it hasn’t yet found one. Xi has looked to limit the impact of his zero-COVID mandate in the hope of meeting his lofty economic-growth targets, yet he and his team are leaving no doubt that zero COVID remains the priority. In early April, three Shanghai officials were sacked for an overly lax attitude toward COVID control. That will hardly create an environment that encourages moderation or experimentation.

It's not clear at the moment whether China’s government will be able to manage the latest outbreaks. Its measures are so strict that, given more time, they may be successful. There is also a chance that the zero-COVID policy remains in force officially while, on the ground, the Communist Party fights a losing battle with Mother Nature. Either way, the zero-COVID policy is transforming China from a paragon to a prison. China is stuck in the pandemic’s past, its people still locked down within both their homes and their borders.

The Chinese believe the U.S. botched its pandemic response by placing politics and ideology over saving lives. But Xi Jinping has been guilty of much the same, choosing his political ambitions at home and abroad over the public welfare. In that, China is certainly no exception.