China's COVID Lockdowns Once Inspired Western Officials; They Should Listen to Protesters Instead

Given the harms caused, lessons should be learned from China’s people, not its government.


They'd like you to forget, but at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic many Western public health experts praised the draconian measures that have now brought thousands of furious Chinese protesters into the streets in defiance of their totalitarian government. In some circles, China's response was actually seen as a model for other, freer, countries. Now, of course, few people want to associate themselves with lockdowns that have tallied up vast costs in lives, health, prosperity, and liberty.

The reasons for the backtrack are obvious. After years of unpredictable, rolling lockdowns that have seen whole neighborhoods fenced off and residents welded into their apartments, often to suffer from hunger and medical neglect, the people of China are fed up.

"As thousands took to the streets in cities protesting against Covid restrictions, an exhausted nation has been asking how much longer must they endure Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy," the BBC reported Monday. "Suffering under COVID restrictions has become a unifying experience, breeding anger in many corners of China from major cities to far-flung regions like Xinjiang and Tibet."

Precipitating the protests was first an outbreak of anger among workers at a pandemic-restricted Foxconn facility in Zhengzhou. Hundreds of employees at the massive prison-like plant clashed with police. Then, people died in an apartment building fire in Urumqi because lockdown barriers prevented responders from getting to the building.

"The deadly incident, which claimed the lives of 10 people, was the ultimate nightmare scenario for millions of urban Chinese who live in high-rise apartments: trapped in one's flat, unable to escape a roaring blaze because of a strictly enforced lockdown," adds the BBC.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a high-profile architect of America's pandemic response who is retiring from his roles as President Biden's top medical adviser and as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases, criticized the policies that brought people into the streets.

"Their approach has been very, very severe and rather draconian in the kinds of shutdowns without a seeming purpose," he commented on NBC's Meet the Press. Even so, he allowed room for lockdowns, so long as they're "for a temporary period of time for the purpose of regrouping, getting more personal protective equipment, getting people vaccinated."

And it wasn't that long ago—July of 2022—that Fauci told Reason's Robby Soave he would recommend "much, much more stringent restrictions" if he could go back in time to redo America's COVID-19 response.

In fact, before their current public dismay at what China's pandemic policy has wrought, public health professionals often showed signs of envy at Beijing's ability to impose tough measures.

"In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history," fawned a February 2020 World Health Organization report on the country's COVID-19 response. "China's bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic."

"These extreme limitations on population movement have been quite successful," insisted Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Minnesota, in a March 2020 assessment of China's response (he became more skeptical of the approach with the appearance of Omicron).

And while Western countries rarely went so far as China's total lockdowns, to the significant extent that schools and businesses were closed, movement curtailed, and life disrupted, much of the inspiration for such policies came from the allegedly successful Chinese model.

"They claimed to have flattened the curve. I was skeptical at first. I thought it was a massive cover-up by the Chinese. But as the data accrued it became clear it was an effective policy," Professor Neil Ferguson, the U.K.'s counterpart to Fauci until he violated his own rules and resigned in disgrace, told The Times of London in December 2020. "It's a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn't get away with it in Europe, we thought. And then Italy did it. And we realized we could." (unpaywalled summary here.)

Public health officials may have found they could "get away" with imposing the policies of a communist state on democratic countries, but what about their assumption that China's approach was successful? That claim is based on mortality rates reported by the Chinese government, which has a vested interested in touting its successes, whether or not they actually exist.

"The mortality rates presented for China are plainly implausible," George Calhoun of the Stevens Institute of Technology wrote earlier this year. "The Chinese death rates are much higher than what is published." He points to challenges to the Chinese government's data, including a 2021 model from The Economist that put COVID-19 deaths closer to 1.7 million than the then-official figure of 4,636.

Officials also focused on minimizing COVID-19 infection to the exclusion of other concerns including liberty, education, mental well-being, and the unintended economic consequences of restrictions.

"China's COVID-19 lockdowns are probably costing the country at least $U.S. 46 billion … a month, or 3.1 per cent of GDP, in lost economic output, and the impact could double if more cities tighten restrictions," the Australian Financial Review reported in March of this year, based on research from economists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Such severe economic downturns tend to breed unrest, "including demonstrations, strikes, and other forms of potentially violent disruptions" I warned in March 2020 of the potential impact of restrictive measures imposed in the name of public health. "Unemployment, impoverishment, and despair are frightening outcomes in themselves. They're also a recipe for social unrest that will afflict even those of us who weather both the pandemic and the accompanying economic storm."

And here we are in November 2022, watching the people of China protest against lingering lockdown measures. They follow in the footsteps of Americans, Belgians, Canadians, Germans, Italians, New Zealanders, and others who protested earlier against pandemic polices that emulated, if in diluted form, Beijing's model. And they follow despite the inevitable harsh response from the Chinese government.

Public health officials around the world took inspiration from China's draconian pandemic response. The recent round of criticism of Beijing's lockdowns suggests they are now taking their lead from anguished reactions to those policies. Given the harm to liberty, prosperity, and human well-being restrictions caused, with minimal benefit, the long-term lesson should be learned from the Chinese people and not their government.