We all swallowed the Zero Covid lie. (Credit: Kevin Frayer / Stringer/ Gettty Images)

July 11, 2022   6 mins

For the past two years, the Western media has taken that pernicious little term, “Zero Covid”, at face value. While the rest of the world saw rocketing caseloads and death rates, during a key 18-month period China reported two (yes, two) deaths. In a country of 1.4 billion people, and with a disease that scientists find uncannily adapted to infect humans, this was not just obviously false; it was absurd.

Nevertheless, Western media has repeatedly validated the claim, often celebrating it. The result is that in the minds of billions of people, China was uniquely successful at containing the virus. What few, if any, have realised is that among the many false narratives constructed and deployed by the Chinese government, Zero Covid has been the most successful — a fact evidenced by the widespread adoption and use of that patently self-contradictory term itself.

Like any global, historically significant false narrative worth its salt, Zero Covid has not been monolithic in its claims. Rather, it has been modulated by the Chinese propaganda apparatus, with, of course, the witting or unwitting collaboration of Western media that has been essential to its success. The most recent manifestation of the Zero Covid false narrative is one that speaks to its daring and sophistication — the idea that, in response to criticism and pressure, the Chinese government came to terms with the fact that it could not cope with the swell of Omicron cases and so needed to ease restrictions.

The new “China is easing restrictions” phase of the CCP’s Zero Covid campaign began to emerge in March when a high-ranking Chinese health official began arguing in the Chinese business news outlet, Caixin, that China should fight the disease “more sustainably”. “We should carve a very clear path and not spend all our time debating whether we should continue zero Covid or coexist (with the virus),” wrote Zhang Wenhong, a senior infectious disease specialist known as the “Chinese Fauci”. Zhang followed up with another opinion piece a week later: “China’s Pandemic Fight Can and Should Allow for Normal Life.”

This development seemingly exposed the flaws in China’s Covid strategy, which is exactly what was messaged by the US media. The Associated Press article that reported Zhang’s comments added that despite the new policy advice, “the government is sticking with the tried-and-true policy of lockdowns, repeated mass testing of millions of people and a two-week or more quarantine for overseas arrivals
Opening up carries risks, because the country’s success in protecting people from Covid-19 means many don’t have antibodies to fight the virus from previous infection.”

The reality that the AP report papered over — and what virtually all Western media has missed as it swallowed CCP’s Covid narrative whole — is that China’s true Covid strategy wasn’t aimed at containing the virus; it was aimed at containing the narrative. “The Chinese CDC was told how it’s going to go,” a private intelligence analyst with knowledge of the data said. The source explains that the CCP’s methodology of choice is not to flatly deny data or take down reporting wholesale but simply “round the edges” off the story by obfuscating just enough to blunt any alternative narrative from forming.

This new inflection in the Zero Covid narrative, which claimed that Omicron reveals the “limits” of China’s approach, merely served to reinforce the idea that China had successfully contained Covid had up that point. In an article on the limits of Zero Covid in the Omicron era, the BBC credulously noted, “If you adjust for population size, there’s been around three deaths per million people in mainland China, compared with about 3,000 in the US and 2,400 in the UK.”

Even entertaining China’s absurd Zero Covid claims requires suspending basic human logic. Consider the case of Singapore, a country much richer and more advanced than China that was able to drive compliance at least as well. (Though considering the entire country is an urban island, in distinction to China’s vast rural expanses, probably much better.)

According to analyst George Calhoun, official Chinese data put China’s mortality rate 50 times lower than Singapore’s. South Korea — which has a single, permanently closed border which effectively makes it an island — is another standout for Covid success. Yet by Chinese official reporting, South Korea’s Covid mortality would be 73 times higher Covid-19 than China’s.

Late last year, The Economist published a machine learning study on global Covid-19 under-reporting rates, comparing reported Covid deaths to estimated excess deaths. The study found that it looked like the US under-reported Covid mortality by around 20%, though a number of Western European countries at times over-reported by around 2-3%. The highest rates of under-reported mortality top out at around 1,000% for countries including India, Afghanistan, Venezuela and a handful of others. That is, except for China, which the study estimates to have under-reported mortality by an eye-watering 19,000%.

Looking at China’s official death counts tells an equally surreal story. Like a fairytale princess, China’s total death count was frozen for well over a year from January 25, 2021 until March 21, 2022 at the magical number of 4,636. Prior to that, from April 20, 2020 to January 25, there were four deaths. Taking these numbers at face value, this would make the death rate of the United States, where superior vaccines were distributed with high compliance rates, 800 times higher than China’s.

In the US, we have an old saying about gullibility which goes that if you’re willing to believe some outlandish statement then we have a bridge to sell you (that being the Brooklyn Bridge). If we were to abstract this reality and describe this situation generically to a group of listeners, be they savvy statisticians or plain-thinking journalists, the chances that they would believe these numbers to be real would be next to zero.

And yet, not only have we all believed China’s claims about its Covid “success”, specifically Zero Covid, we’ve built an entire political theory around it. This theory states that while China’s authoritarian system of government certainly has its downsides (human rights and civil liberties and all that), the big upside is that it’s effective. With the pandemic, this reasoning goes, China was naturally somewhat draconian, but ultimately successful. Authoritarianism saves lives, you see.

“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,” a WHO report on China’s handling of the pandemic observed. Interestingly, one of the members of the WHO mission that produced the report, epidemiologist Tim Eckmanns, told Science magazine, “I thought there was no way those numbers could be real.” And yet, despite his own disbelief, he believed them to be real.

In a 2020 column titled “China Got Better. We Got Sicker. Thanks, Trump.” Thomas Friedman touted the wild success of the CCP. “[W]ho can blame the Chinese for gloating? A pandemic that began in Wuhan, and, for now, has been contained in China.” Friedman even allowed for a little number-fudging, writing, “Maybe China’s fibbing. OK — so quadruple its numbers — China still has been vastly better at protecting its people than the United States.”

Friedman never pondered the possibility that he might need to not quadruple China’s numbers but multiply them by 180 or 800 times. The patently ridiculous baseline mortality numbers set by China and validated endlessly by the Western media allowed commentators like Friedman to factor in CCP lying by a factor of four and still be off by an order of magnitude. (Who can blame China for gloating, indeed.)

What’s curious about the narrative that emerged in Western media is that it’s almost exactly the same one that Beijing was (and still is) advancing. While Western observers might think that the CCP’s wanting to “round the edges” of reporting on data would want to do the same regarding the rougher edges of its political approach, that’s incorrect. The CCP’s own messaging used the term “draconian” to describe the measures taken in response to Covid. For us “draconian measures” is harsh criticism; for the CCP it’s self-affirmation.

As egregious as it is, Zero Covid is only one facet of China’s propaganda campaign. Another equally important piece of this puzzle, one that ties Zero Covid to the question of the pandemic’s origin, is the date of the first outbreak. While most of the media has let the question settle comfortably on China’s official story, the reality is much more questionable.

According to China (and some Western experts), the first recorded cases were diagnosed sometime in mid-December 2019, which connects the outbreak of the pandemic to people who visited the now infamous seafood market. But evidence has emerged suggesting that the first outbreak might have emerged as early as November that year that would make the seafood market origin much more difficult (if not impossible) to support.

The same arsenal of tactics has been deployed, such as disqualifying early cases in China because they didn’t meet an almost impossible criteria — for example, being admitted to hospital and testing positive with a PCR test, which required being admitted to one of the very few hospitals that administered PCR tests in those early days. A key article in Caixin tracking these disqualified early cases was swiftly taken offline with a redirect put in place to the Office of Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission. It cites a statute that calls on Chinese citizens to “fulfil social responsibilities, adhere to correct public opinion orientation and value orientation, promote socialist core values, and publish high-quality information content that is upward and good,” as DRASTIC researcher Gilles Demaneuf documented.

In a way, the CCP can be forgiven its epistemic sins. It was, after all, just doing its job: consolidating power, weaving false narratives, tamping down dissent. What’s more concerning — what is in fact, a four-alarm fire raging deep in an institutional sub-basement — is that the CCP campaign could never have succeeded without Western complicity, and most of all, with the complicity of the American media, broadly construed.

If it weren’t for the fact that China’s false mortality data was presented in Google search results; or that Twitter-verified members of China’s State-Sponsored Media could post without being flagged; or, most glaringly and egregiously, that the legacy press actively spread the mistruths and openly celebrated them, the narrative could never have been built. And even if it had been, it would never have mattered.

“The world is turning its eyes to China, and China is ready,” Xi Jinping said in advance of the great authoritarian spectacle, the Beijing Olympics, which took place when Zero Covid was still the official party line. Xi was right that China was ready, but though the West had turned its eyes to China, it failed to scrutinise it whatsoever.