When I speak with U.S. Americans about China’s commitment to zero-Covid, I find myself comparing it to north American support for second amendment rights. We are no longer talking about a policy that is or is not working, but rather about a belief that the country itself is in danger. In China, the central government is acting as if any form of living with Covid will harm the country more than disrupting daily life for millions of people; and many agree. Similarly, the NRA acts as if the foundations of U.S. American democracy will be permanently damaged by background checks on people who want to purchase guns; and many agree. In both cases, what seems from the outside as an irrational escalation of commitment to an outdated policy, from the inside looks like a fight to maintain an imperiled way of life.
Yesterday, for example, Shanghai reported its first three Covid-19 deaths. However, even before these deaths were confirmed, a memorial was circulating on WeChat for the city of Shanghai and (at the time) over 155 people who had died because of zero-Covid policies. Moreover, there are indications that elderly people, who are most vulnerable to infection are being forcibly removed from their homes and caregivers to be placed in centralized holding facilities (方舱). Clearly, if we look at how zero-Covid is being enforced, escalated commitment to this policy is making the situation worse. Likewise, just yesterday there were three mass shootings in the U.S. These reports have not caused the NRA to reconsider their position on regulating gun and ammunition purchases. Instead, the NRA continues to wield influence over US American society despite thousands of gun-related deaths, including suicide, every year (45,222 in 2020).
Thought du jour: I know that there are all sorts of historical, political and economic differences between zero-Covid in China and gun rights in the U.S. That’s not the point. The point is that proponents of both zero-Covid in China and gun rights in the U.S. share the very human capacity to escalate commitment to a preselected action, even when, by all indications, they should change course. We may escalate commitment because we only look for evidence that confirms the wisdom of our original choice (confirmation bias); we may do it in order to save face; we may be throwing good money after bad, and; we may even do it because we never shit and get off the pot. But that’s the point. We continue to repeat the same action over and over and over again until (to use the words popularized by AA), we hit rock bottom, despite the obvious (to everyone but ourselves) consequences of our actions. And yes, it’s scary enough when an individual flounders in an irrational spiral, but it’s absolutely terrifying when groups of people escalate together and there’s nothing in place to stop them.
So that’s the crazy. It’s not China’s zero-Covid policy, which was actually quite effective in 2020. Nor is it the second amendment, which did help some colonists achieve independence, circa 1776. The crazy is thinking that what worked then, still works now. We’re caught up in irrational feedback loops, as if the world and our cultures and our understanding of Covid-19 and political freedom haven’t already changed. We’re still thinking and making strategic decisions and investments on an outdated model. We’re still giving ourselves and our lives to achieve that earlier goal–national health and independence, respectively. We’re still trying to be the best Chinese and U.S. Americans that we can be. But that was then.
When unchecked, our irrational commitments do (and will continue to) cause increased suffering and death despite our best intentions. And that’s a sobering thought because we-here and us-there are not only committed to one irrational project, but also to all sorts of global and national and regional and local agendas. It’s just that today, chez China, we’re escalating our commitment to zero-Covid.