An increasingly large percentage of new developments are coming from China and in particular from Shanghai. It seems sensible to post them on their own rather than waiting for Thursday.

When they locked down Shanghai by halves, it meant they did not have the resources to lock down Shanghai. Then they locked down Shanghai anyway, file under ‘how to quite possibly lose the mandate of heaven if you keep this up.’

Concretely, what is going on?

His speculation that the test are what is spreading Covid is interesting. This draconian level of restriction otherwise really should be enough to turn the tide within Shanghai while it is in place. Yet is seems even within Shanghai things continue to get steadily worse in terms of infections, while putting the citizens through hell.

If you think that all sounds bad, it’s worse. Quoting in full, seems important, remember this is the censored version. Not that it seems hard to tell what the real message is here.

Bloomberg’s account is that the government is doing a poor job of directly helping and delivery services are overwhelmed to the point of uselessness, but you can buy in bulk if you can make a deal with wholesalers and that still kind of works. Executives are spending their days arranging bread deliveries, but for them it can work. For those who don’t know how to work such systems, it is a lot harder.

Residents scream out of their windows after a week of not being allowed to leave their apartments for any reason. Cases continue rising.

Protests are being censored, never a good sign.

In the footage viewed and independently verified by Bloomberg News, dozens of residents behind the gates of the Jiangnan Xinyuan housing estate in Shanghai’s Minhang district chant phrases including “we want to eat,” “we want the right to know,” and “we want freedom.” People there have been confined to their homes since March 2 and residents have undergone more than 10 rounds of mass virus testing, according to official notices from the compound’s WeChat account. 

One could call those reasonable requests.

China claims that out of 130,000 cases in Shanghai, only one person is in serious condition. That is an odd combination of claims to make. Also highly impossible.

Meanwhile, every day somehow Shanghai, under strict lockdown, keeps being 95% of all known cases?

When the United States quite reasonably told its non-emergency workers that they could leave, citing these conditions, the Chinese expressed displeasure over this ‘groundless accusation.’

“China will uphold the Covid Zero strategy,” Liang said. “We still have the time window, including in Shanghai, as long as we persist.”

I thought China insisting on that was the accusation.

Also, it’s a lot more than Shanghai. This is from Friday.

This is from Monday.

Signs seen elsewhere.

Locking down a city, even a major city, is logistically possible. What China is trying to do now is beyond their powers. And a lot less than 95% of cases are in Shanghai.

So basically

And also this.

How does one look at this plan and think ‘that will work’?

Or look at this graph, which is a log scale?

A close up of the last two months is almost a pure straight line in log space.

You can see an attempt at a stopgap around mid-March, but it didn’t work.

The question is, what happens now. China can’t give up, and China can’t not give up, so what will finally end the charade? How much damage will get done before that happens, and then how much damage gets done after?

There is still some room for the ‘optimistic’ scenario where China turns out similar to what happened to India. Perhaps conditions in much of China are not that conducive to the spread of Covid, not even of Omicron. I am skeptical. The news from Taiwan and Hong Kong, the closest available parallels, is not good. The failure to contain things in Shanghai despite making an extraordinary effort is also very not good. I expected such an effort to work locally, while it was happening, better than this, if it was at this level of rigidity. That things are still failing is a very bad sign – I expected to find containment in the hardcore quarantined areas, but with the virus escaping to the rest of the country for that not to much matter in the end. Instead, China seems to be losing even (and especially?) in Shanghai.

I do not have a good political or social model of China, and how the Chinese people are likely to react to all this. Either way, starvation and imprisonment have a way of focusing the mind. China was the original home to the penalty for being late being death, and the penalty on this one keeps rising.

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Does anyone have any insight into whether this lockdown will fail, forcing China to abandon their zero-covid policy, putting Xi into a bad light as he enters his bid for the upcoming controversial second re-election?

A number of factors are all coming together at an interesting time: a big outbreak, the authorities struggling to keep it under control, a potential national embarrassment right before the lead-up to a historically important election. The consequences all seem so important, and yet I have seen very little in the way of informed speculation about what will happen as a result.

What are the chances that China can successfully contain the current outbreak in Shanghai? What about the new recorded cases in Guangzhou? Can China handle the logistical challenges of locking down 2 out of its 3 largest cities? What if it spreads even further, perhaps to Beijing? How many cities need to be locked down before the central government says "enough" and decides to live with the virus like every other nation in the world?

More generally: What are the consequences of a nation with such draconian policy for years to come? Will this mean that China will look less pro-business to foreign investors, as their business could be locked down arbitrarily at any time? Does this mean we should revise our estimates of future Chinese growth (a very important factor that plays into AI arms races, etc.)? Will Chinese citizens begin emigrate in greater numbers to avoid lockdowns?

Previously, Chinese citizens learned to cooperate with the central government because, as everyone knows, their lives were getting better. Each year was better than the last, as their standard of living approached the levels seen in the West. Now, their lives are getting unambiguously worse, growth is slowing down, and may never reach even 50% of parity with the United States. Are we seeing the fall of a great giant, a revision downwards from what was supposed to be the Chinese century?

This is an interesting time for Xi. I don't know of any good betting markets here but Xi may be in more danger than he has been for years, and may be re-elected with constraints like a promise to make it his last term or not re-elected at all.

Pekinology is hard, but in addition to the still-escalating coronavirus failure, there is a Russian report that Xi was considering invading Taiwan before the re-election as a quick victorious war of revanchism against a much smaller isolated decadently-demoralized enemy (ie. just like Putin & Ukraine), which given the risk of failure implies either that Xi is higher than a kite on his own propaganda supply & totalitarian epistemic closure or that he is much less secure than one would think. There is further a report from Nikkei that the Politburo itself (the only group that could reasonably force Xi to step down or otherwise rein him in) is deeply unhappy with Xi and particularly outraged at his encouragement (the 'coincidental' timing of Putin delaying the invasion to right after Xi's Olympics has been lost on no one, never mind the subsequent water-carrying) of the boondoggle of Ukraine.

Whether the lockdown fails or not depends on its goals, which we don't really know much about. I'd bet that it'll fail to achieve anything resembling zero-covid due to Omicron being more contagious and vaccines less effective, however it might be successful in slowing the (Omicron) epidemic down enough so Hong Kong scenario (i.e. most of the previous waves mortality as experienced elsewhere packed into a few weeks) is avoided

(I promise I'm not concern-trolling here, or JAQ-ing off or whatever the appropriate phrase is -- just admitting to a vague worry that I suspect and hope is unrealistic. Feel free to downvote me for stupidity, but please also leave a reply explaining why my concerns are dumb.)

The Chinese government's continued super-cautious approach to covid, at a time when vaccines are widely available and permanent eradication seems impossible, makes me worry that it has reasons to expect e.g. worse long-term effects from covid infection than the rest of the world currently expects. 

I get that the government has invested a lot of political capital in its covid-zero policy. But I don't get why, now that continuing down that road seems at best extremely costly, and quite possibly doomed to imminent failure, it hasn't pivoted to a message like 'our policy was a success; we saved our people from getting covid without the protection of vaccines; now, with a health system fortified in all the appropriate ways thanks to the time that our sacrifices bought us, we make an orderly transition to living with the virus'. 

There seems to be a serious risk that it'll have to make that shift very soon anyway -- and surely it would have benefited from getting ahead of the reality, rather than being seen to fail and lose control.

One possible explanation for this would be a belief that the cost of letting covid run rampant is much higher than generally believed. (And perhaps also a belief that effective mitigation via superior vaccines or treatments is possible, but will take more time.)

So are there any plausible ways in which the Chinese government (due, I suppose, to secret knowledge about the origins of the virus) could still be ahead of the rest of the world in understanding its long-term effects, despite two years of open study (but, despite this secret knowledge, not yet able to produce a sufficiently effective vaccine or treatment)?

Doubling down on a failed policy that they staked their efficiency reputation on seems like a much more likely explanation.

The reason I don't find this explanation satisfying is that it didn't need to be a 'failed' policy; the policy was very successful in suppressing/eliminating the virus during the first couple of years, while vaccines were developed, treatments improved, and uncertainty about severity reduced. 

Did the Chinese government really intend to keep covid out of the country forever? At least since the emergence of Omicron it must have been clear how difficult and costly that would be.  

And if 'failure' in that sense is inevitable, why not get ahead of the news and celebrate the success of the early response, while framing the next phase as necessary and at least partially controlled, rather than letting it look like defeat and a loss of control?

Gwern writes elsewhere in this comment section that this may be a critical and precarious year in Xi Jinping's career. So perhaps the simplest explanation is that he is desperate to defer any appearance of failure or weakness, believing that he is vulnerable now but will soon be in a better position to ride out the consequences.

The Chinese government's continued super-cautious approach to covid, at a time when vaccines are widely available and permanent eradication seems impossible, makes me worry that it has reasons to expect e.g. worse long-term effects from covid infection than the rest of the world currently expects. 

There are a lot of bad reasons to have such expectations. China's media spend two years speaking about how COVID-19 did a lot of damage in the West but didn't in China because of the great CCP policy. 

In authoritarian countries the elite are affected by the government propaganda as well.

I suppose, to secret knowledge about the origins of the virus) could still be ahead of the rest of the world in understanding its long-term effects

That's not how things work. You don't develop a good understanding of long-term effects by understanding the origin of the virus. Especially you don't without a healthy scientific debate. 

That's not how things work.

I expect you're right, but can you elaborate? For the sake of discussion, suppose it was accidentally released but deliberately created. Couldn't the 'designers' of such a virus have knowledge about its capacities that might elude outside researchers?

To understand the long-term impacts of a disease or drug you have to study what it does in humans. That's why a lot of drugs that were promising to the developer of the drug don't live up to their promises in clinical trials.  

There's information that you gain in the design of a drug that's useful to know which questions to ask when you study the drug in humans, but clinical studies in humans are the most important source of information.

Given the pressures that exist in China to fudge numbers, any internal government statistics that the Chinese do have are likely not very trustworthy. Very smart people in the Chinese party know that.

Related theory is that they're planning for a more dangerous disease to be released in the future, either accidentally or on purpose, and they feel the need to perfect their zero-[disease] protocol now. They can't accept a superficial failure with covid because that means accepting a critical failure with the next thing, especially if they're not so good at making vaccines.

Why the heck would they want to do that, considering how much COVID is clearly costing them? I don’t see any rational actor looking at the situation and being like “what we need right now to invigorate the economy is a more deadly virus”…

Practically, the Chinese government's response to their biosafety people is: 'You shouldn't do that dangerous research in biosafety II labs the way you did in Wuhan. To get you to stop doing that, we give you a lot of money to build a lot of biosafety III and biosafety IV labs'.

Without openly admitting that there was a lab leak in Wuhan, they might not see other moves that are currently viable. 

The problem with that policy is that the researchers in those biosafety III and biosafety IV labs are likely going to want to do dangerous prestigious work. There are strong pressures to create research results and China does not know how to teach their researchers safety culture. 

It's plausible that there are people high up in the Chinese party who do think there's a good likelihood that there will be more screw-ups and lab leaks in the future because they don't trust the biosafety people but who don't see another path to take. 

I can't speak for the other commenter, but 'planning for' might have been intended in the sense of 'planning to respond to' (or at least to have been ambiguous between that and the more sinister meaning)

I remain confused why China doesn't use their massive government power that allows for these insanely strict lockdowns, to instead just get vaccines and boosters in everyone's arms. Three doses of SinoVac isn't as quite as good as the mRNA vaccines but it's still pretty damn effective against severe disease and death. (I don't understand their reasoning for not using mRNA and admitting weakness or whatever, but SinoVac certainly seems good enough.)

It would even justify the extreme measures right now, "Hey everyone, we know things are rough, we just want to hold out for X weeks and max out our vaccination rates."

Actually, China has got vaccines and boosters in a lot of arms, vaccination rate 85%

What's scares me a little is this: If (or maybe better "When") this containment policy has to be abandoned, how will the Chinese government deflect blame? How will it try to distract the public? That could prove to be quite dangerous.

The most likely outcome here seems likely to involve continued lockdowns until China reaches herd immunity via mass infection, all while starving tens to hundreds of millions of people. Millions will die from covid or from lockdowns (starvation, no medical care etc), which will all be hushed up. In the end, once herd immunity has been reached and the bodies have been cleaned up, the CCP will celebrate the success of their zero covid strategy and raise the "mission accomplished" flag in time for Xi's reelection and throw anyone who disputes the official account in prison.

The official covid numbers will remain low enough to give the farce a superficial patina of legitimacy to the claim, and the Chinese people who are unhappy about being starved by a failed containment strategy will have no way to coordinate due to iron tight government control of all communication networks.

I guess there's more of a question about how things happen in the longer term. Slowing growth seems more likely to present a real problem to the CCP's continued rule, but many dynasties have ruled china for hundreds of years with virtually no economic growth, so it doesn't seem all that likely to me that it will matter.

The most likely outcome ... Millions will die ... which will all be hushed up 

China has an Internet and a public sphere. Almost everyone has a smartphone. It would take a garrison society with no electronic communications to cover up something like that. Also, Chinese government policy can change. If they have to capitulate on Covid, they'll do it, and in a way that saves face...

I should have phrased this differently. I'm not suggesting that chinese citizens won't actually know that tons of people died. What I'm conjecturing is that it will not be acceptable to talk about the real death toll in public, and there will be wide error bars around people's estimates of how many people died because the official counts will be so artificially low.

Except that herd immunity isn't really a (permanent) thing; only temporary

True. It would be interesting to know how much a single (non-fatal) infection reduces the odds of mortality from subsequent infections. My guess is more than a single vaccination, but probably unlikely it can decrease it by as much as a 3-dose mRNA vaccine regiment.

Problem: A Covid outbreak in the Chinese population would destabilize our regime.

Solution via the politician's syllogism: The population can't die of Covid if we starve it first.

(Apologies for the gallows humour.)