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Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

Last month, when the COVID-19 death toll in the United States reached a million, China’s government and state media took delight in mocking and shaming America in its moment of national grief.

After offering “deep grief for the tragic loss of one million lives,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian extolled the virtues of China’s handling of COVID-19, saying that Beijing’s policy – dubbed “dynamic zero-COVID” – “gives priority to people’s life, safety and health.” Under this policy, China has locked down large areas, including entire cities, to stop the virus from spreading. Beijing claims that from the beginning of 2020 to June, 2022, the loss of life had been capped at a little over 5,200.

The official government-owned China Daily newspaper, meanwhile, was only too happy to remind people that the U.S.’s death toll was “the highest number of deaths in the world,” and that the number of infections, exceeding 80 million, was “also the highest number worldwide.” “These stark and sad statistics shame the U.S., as it boasts the strongest medical resources in the world, as well as the most advanced technology in medical science,” the paper commented. And the Global Times, another state-run newspaper, ran the headline “Freedom to Die” over its story on the U.S. death toll.

The purpose of such commentaries was to depict the U.S. as a country whose leaders care more about politics than the lives of their citizens.

From China’s standpoint, the COVID-19 crisis isn’t so much about which country is coping better with the virus. Rather, the Communist Party sees it as posing a broader question about which system is superior: Beijing’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” or capitalism, of which the United States is the unquestioned standard-bearer. The idea of “the eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism” has even been part of the thinking of Chinese President Xi Jinping since his early days in power. And so while on the surface the response to the pandemic may appear to be “a battle of ideas, strategies and methods of fighting the epidemic,” an April article in the Shenzhen Economic Zone Post explained, in essence it is “a battle of systems, national strength, governance capabilities, and even civilizations.”

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But ironically, on May 13, when the United States announced its grim death toll, China was in the midst of a COVID-19 crisis of its own. Shanghai’s 25 million people were in the second month of what was originally meant to be a four-day lockdown. According to Japanese financial services conglomerate Nomura Holdings, about 373 million people in 45 Chinese cities, accounting for 40 per cent of China’s GDP, were under some form of lockdown the month before. And in the week before the U.S.’s announcement, the party’s Politburo Standing Committee had insisted on continuing with the zero COVID-19 strategy, with Mr. Xi insisting that the policy “will stand the test of time,” even though the rest of the world had mostly moved on to a policy of coexisting with the virus.

On May 10, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization who had praised Beijing in the early stages of the pandemic, shocked China by calling on it to change its approach. “We don’t think that it is sustainable considering the behaviour of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future, and especially when we have now a good knowledge, understanding of the virus,” he said. “Transiting into another strategy will be very important.”

Indeed, looking at the Shanghai lockdown, it is difficult to describe Beijing’s policy as giving “priority to people’s life, safety and health.” Residents were effectively imprisoned inside their homes and allowed out only to receive nucleic acid tests. Food delivery was unreliable and hunger was reportedly widespread. Children were separated from their parents. The sick were often unable to receive medical care. There were numerous protests against COVID-19 enforcers, who wore white hazmat suits. This led some analysts to predict that there might even come a national crisis that could derail Mr. Xi’s plan for a third term as China’s leader when the 20th Party Congress is held in the autumn. Such drama is unlikely, but the economic price paid for Mr. Xi’s politicization of COVID-19 has been huge: The 5.5-per-cent growth target for the year announced in March now appears wildly unrealistic, and the Chinese economy has also suffered from his decision to prioritize state-owned enterprises, given that the private sector creates more jobs.

In the short term, Mr. Xi may be forced to adjust some of these decisions. But in the long run, he has his eye set firmly on the ideological struggle with the West and on “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

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