Zero-COVID and Free Speech

From the Financial Times, last Thursday:

Barely a week after the Chinese Communist party declared victory in its struggle to protect Shanghai from coronavirus, half of the financial hub’s districts will be shuttered this weekend to test millions of residents after signs emerged of renewed community transmission of the virus. China’s most populous city, which was only released from a two-month lockdown last week, detected 11 new infections on Thursday, six outside the city’s mass quarantine centres. The measures will affect eight of the financial hub’s 16 districts, including Pudong, one of the worst-hit areas at the start of the lockdown.

Three cases were detected in the Red Rose beauty parlour in the city centre, prompting health authorities to test more than 90,000 people close to the salon. Only a few days previously, the Xuhui local party body wrote a celebratory post on the microblogging platform Weibo hailing the salon’s reopening on June 1 for clients who had gone weeks without a professional haircut. It said the state-run salon’s resumption of business reflected how the city’s “pandemic situation improved”. The post has since been taken down.

The mass testing ended up finding 5 cases; Chaoyang district in eastern Beijing, meanwhile, is undergoing mass testing of its own, and schools are closed.

One of the common responses to China’s draconian efforts to control COVID’s spread (which, notably, do not include forced vaccination, or the use of Western vaccines), is that it doesn’t work: SARS-CoV-2, particularly the Omicron variant, is simply too viral. It’s worth pointing out that this response is incorrect: China not only eventually controlled the Wuhan outbreak, and not only kept SARS-CoV-2 out for most of 2021, but also ultimately controlled the Shanghai outbreak as well. The fact there were only 5 community cases over the weekend is proof that China’s approach works!

What I think people saying this mean is something different: either they believe the trade-offs entailed in this effort are not worth it, or they simply can’t imagine a government locking people in their homes for months, hauling citizens off to centralized quarantine, separating parents and children, entering and spraying their homes, and killing their pets. I suspect the latter is more common, at least amongst most Westerners: people are so used to a baseline of individual freedom and autonomy that the very possibility of the reality of COVID in China simply does not compute.

Taiwan and Zero-COVID

Perhaps it is not only my knowledge of China, but also my experience living in Taiwan for nearly two decades, or more pertinently, my experience of living in Taiwan the last two years, that makes me much more willing to believe in the effectiveness of China’s approach.

For most of the last two-and-a-half years Taiwan was COVID-free; for most of 2020 that meant life went on as normal, with no masks, everything open, etc.; the one abnormality was that every person entering Taiwan had to quarantine (at home or in a hotel) for 14 days. Things changed in 2021, when the Alpha variant broke through, leading to a soft lockdown: restaurants and schools were closed, and workplaces were strongly encouraged to work from home; masks were instituted everywhere, including outside, and quarantine was hotel only. What is less known is that quarantine went beyond travelers: anyone who was a close contact of an infected person, including family members and co-workers, but also people who might have had the misfortune of being in the same restaurant at the same time as a positive case, were quarantined as well (your location in said restaurant was ascertained by reviewing your cellular location data).

It is this last point that, in my estimation, stopped the 2021 spread in its tracks, and kept Taiwan COVID-free until earlier this year (I myself endured an 18-day centralized quarantine due to testing positive at the airport). It is also, for nearly every Westerner I have relayed this fact to, a startling abridgment of civil liberties. The very idea that you can be locked up for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time is inconceivable; that, though, is much less stringent than China’s approach in Shanghai, including the requirement that you need a PCR-test within the last 72 hours to even grocery shop.

Here’s the thing: that relative reduction in stringency relative to China is precisely why Taiwan’s containment eventually failed; Taiwan, for most of the last month, has had the highest case rate in the world. From the New York Times COVID tracker:1

NYT Covid tracker on June 13 shows that Taiwan has the highest case rate in the world

Taiwan, to its credit, did not lockdown in the face of this outbreak; I suspect the horrors of the Shanghai lockdown served as a deterrent, particularly given Taiwan’s ongoing struggle for international recognition and desire to distinguish itself from China. It’s also worth noting that at the critical moment — late March and early April — it wasn’t clear if China’s lockdowns would work; still, even if the outcome was clear, Taiwan — despite its willingness to violate civil liberties to a considerably greater degree than most Western democracies — was never willing to go as far as China. And so, while the Chinese approach worked, it almost certainly would not have worked in Taiwan simply because the latter wasn’t willing to be as brutal as the former.

I am being, as best as I can, impartial about the choices here: the important takeaway is not simply that China’s approach did in fact work to arrest the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but also that it was the only approach that worked; even Taiwan’s approach, which was far more stringent than any Western country would tolerate, eventually failed. Of course there were benefits, particularly in terms of getting time to administer vaccines, but it’s certainly worth wondering if it was all worth it.2

The opposite side of the spectrum were areas of America that, after enduring a few months of (very) soft lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, were mostly open from the summer of 2020 on; I have friends in parts of Wisconsin, for example, whose kids have been in school since the fall of 2020. The price of this approach was far more deaths, particularly amongst the elderly who have always been at far higher risk: over 1 million Americans have died of COVID.

This isn’t the complete COVID story, though, and not simply because there can be no honest accounting of the pandemic until it finally sweeps China; the most effective vaccines in the world were developed in the West, and the U.S. produced and distributed the largest number of them. How many lives were saved, and how much economic upheaval — which isn’t about simply dollars and cents, but people’s livelihoods, sense of worth, and even sanity — was avoided or reduced because of vaccines? That must be recorded in the ledger as well, and in this accounting the West comes out looking far stronger.

The Great Firewall

The reason to audit this accounting is that I think there is an analogy to be drawn between COVID and the debates around free speech that have sprung up over the last six years. Before then, there wasn’t much of a debate about free speech: just as the W.H.O. and C.D.C. used to maintain that lockdowns don’t work, it used to be widely accepted that free speech was a good thing. Moreover, it was also accepted that free speech was not simply a legalistic limitation on government power, but was a cultural value. I pointed out earlier this year that this was no longer the case in elite culture; the debate around Elon Musk buying Twitter confirmed exactly that.

To summarize, the “sophisticated” view on free speech is that the First Amendment both restricts the government and also protects companies who make their own moderation decisions; this is of course correct legally, but the idea that this distinction should be both celebrated and pushed to its limit is new. That, by extension, means that the “rube” view on free speech is that said principle ought to apply broadly: not only should the government not be able to limit your speech, but neither should Facebook or Twitter or Google. Again, this was a widely held view not too long ago: much of the debate around net neutrality, for example, centered on the importance of private corporations not being allowed to treat different bits of data differently based on what type of content they represented.

There are, of course, philosophical arguments to be made as to why either view is better or worse than the other; to return to the COVID analogy, one can debate whether or not the sacrifice of civil liberties is worth whatever deaths might be prevented (again, with the caveat that the final accounting is not yet complete). What I think is missing in both debates, though, is the question of what was possible.

Go back to my point above: I strongly suspect that most people in the West are convinced that China’s approach will not work — even though it is! — because they simply cannot imagine enduring or tolerating or even encountering the level of brutality necessary for success; that is certainly true of COVID dead-enders who still bemoan that the West isn’t doing enough to control the spread of COVID. It is, from my perspective, hard to imagine any of these folks accepting non-negotiable centralized quarantine simply for being in the wrong restaurant at the wrong time — and again, this is the Taiwan approach that ultimately failed! They are complaining about something that simply isn’t possible, not because their political enemies are unwilling to do what is necessary, but because they themselves would never tolerate it.

This, I should note, is why I have long been in strong favor of fully opening up: while there was an argument to be made that it was worth trying to delay outbreaks until vaccines were widely available, by the summer of 2021 (in the U.S.) the only possible outcome of restrictions was to make people miserable at best, and cause economic, socio-political, and developmental damage at worst; spread, absent a China-style approach, was inevitable, so why invite bad outcomes when there are no benefits?3

I have the same questions about free speech. Once again, I must acknowledge that China’s approach to free speech works, at least in terms of its leaders’ immediate goals. In other words, it doesn’t exist, even — especially! — on the Internet. This — like China’s insistence on zero-COVID — was something that Westerners scoffed at as being unrealistic; then-President Bill Clinton said upon the establishment of Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China:

In the new century, liberty will spread by cell phone and cable modem. In the past year, the number of Internet addresses in China has more than quadrupled, from 2 million to 9 million. This year the number is expected to grow to over 20 million. When China joins the W.T.O., by 2005 it will eliminate tariffs on information technology products, making the tools of communication even cheaper, better, and more widely available. We know how much the Internet has changed America, and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China.

Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet. Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail jello to the wall. But I would argue to you that their effort to do that just proves how real these changes are and how much they threaten the status quo. It’s not an argument for slowing down the effort to bring China into the world, it’s an argument for accelerating that effort. In the knowledge economy, economic innovation and political empowerment, whether anyone likes it or not, will inevitably go hand in hand.

Clinton, along with nearly all of the Western intelligentsia, underrated China’s willingness to do whatever it took to build a mold around that jello, from building the Great Firewall to employing countless numbers of censors to tanking its entire IT sector once it felt it was becoming too politically powerful. The end result is a populace that not only has little idea about today’s reality — i.e. that most people have had COVID, and are fine, and are living normally — but even less idea about the past.

Tank Cake

Last February Time Magazine named Li Jiaqi one of its “Next Top 100 Most Influential People”. Li’s nickname was the “lipstick king”, which refers to the time in 2018 when the live-streaming e-commerce peddler sold 15,000 lipsticks in 5 minutes; last fall Li sold $1.7 billion worth of goods in 12 hours. Ten days ago, on June 3, Li was doing what he does best — selling goods via live-streaming — when his stream suddenly went off the air; Li, within a matter of hours, was suddenly off of the Internet, no longer appearing on Taobao, Alibaba’s e-commerce platform that streamed his show. The BBC explained what happened:

Last Friday night, Li was mid-way through his popular livestream show when it ended abruptly. The 30-year-old, known for his smooth voice and K-pop idol looks, had just shown his audience a vanilla log cake while selling snacks. The cake resembled a tank: it had Oreos for wheels and a wafer pipe resembling a cannon. And Li’s show was on 3 June, the eve of the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre…

The "Lipstick King" selling a tank cake on June 3rd

Generations of Chinese have grown up without learning of the massacre – and many of those millennials and Gen Z-ers appeared to be among Li’s audience on Friday and in the days after. Li failed to return to his livestreaming show after the transmission was cut. Shortly after, he posted on his Weibo account saying he had merely faced technical issues. But his continued absence – he has missed three shows so far during one of the year’s biggest online shopping festivals – has only fuelled more questions and debate. Some have cottoned on quickly as to why he was censored, while others are having a revelation. “What does the tank mean?” a confused viewer asked. Another said: “What could possibly be the wrong thing to say while selling snacks?”

That’s not all, though: it seems almost certain that Li had no idea he did anything wrong, or why.

Few online believe that Li was trying to make a political statement. Given his celebrity status, he knew how to navigate political sensitivities and to steer clear of minefields, they said. And he had never expressed political beliefs before. Some even argued that he was possibly among those who didn’t know about the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Many of his loyal fans also wondered if the top livestreamer had been set up by competitors to take a political fall, and perhaps the cake was sneaked into the line-up of his show on Friday. A clip circulating on social media, apparently of the moment before the cake is brought out, also shows Li expressing surprise over the announcement of a tank product. A male assistant announces in the background that the team has a tank-shaped good to sell. Li laughs and says: “What? A tank?” His co-presenter then says: “Let’s see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be here at 11pm.” They were taken off air shortly after 9pm.

Many fans suspect purposeful sabotage; perhaps that is a conspiracy theory, but said theory is undergirded by the reality that it is not just possible but even probable that a 30 year-old in China has no idea that selling a tank-shaped cake on June 3rd is grounds for being disappeared. To put it another way, China’s control of information is not unlike its control of COVID: it seems impossible, and the means intolerable, but that is simply because we in the West can’t imagine the limitations on personal freedom necessary to make it viable.

Acceptance and Competition

To further expand on this point: if people in the West would not accept truly strict lockdowns, then they certainly wouldn’t accept centralized quarantine (which didn’t work), which means they absolutely wouldn’t accept forced testing and the inability to leave your house for months. Ergo, people in the West would never accept the reality of zero-COVID, which is why it makes sense to go in the opposite direction: open up, and forgo the massive costs of zero-COVID as well. Don’t get stuck in the middle, enduring the worst outcomes of both.

Similarly, if people in the U.S. would not accept any government infringement on speech, then they certainly wouldn’t accept ISP-level censorship like the Great Firewall, which means they absolutely wouldn’t accept forced disappearances for selling the wrong cake. Ergo, people in the U.S. would never accept the reality of true control of speech, which is why it makes sense to go in the opposite direction: embrace free speech not just as a law but as a cultural more, and forgo the massive costs of half-ass speech restrictions as well. Don’t get stuck in the middle, enduring the worst outcomes of both.

COVID, alas, seems to have been a worst case scenario in terms of both points: we suffered the aforementioned economic, socio-political, and development damage associated with strict control, while controlling nothing; meanwhile private platforms went overboard in controlling information, and ended up only deepening the suspicion of skeptics about COVID and its vaccines, leading to many more deaths, but also increased skepticism about vaccines generally.

The worry is that this middling approach, where we get the worst of both worlds, impacts innovation generally; China is increasingly focused on a top-down approach to technological innovation in particular, placing heavy emphasis and tons of money on catching up in areas like semiconductors and AI. The best response is to go in the opposite direction, and let a thousand flowers bloom, trusting that innovation by definition arises in places we least expect it.

To put it another way, if we could accurately eliminate bad ideas, then there would, by definition, be no more good ideas to discover; the way to compete with China is to lean into the fact that there remains so much we don’t yet know.

You likely have, by this point, heard the story of Katalin Karikó; from Stat News in 2020:

Before messenger RNA was a multibillion-dollar idea, it was a scientific backwater. And for the Hungarian-born scientist behind a key mRNA discovery, it was a career dead-end. Katalin Karikó spent the 1990s collecting rejections. Her work, attempting to harness the power of mRNA to fight disease, was too far-fetched for government grants, corporate funding, and even support from her own colleagues…By 1995, after six years on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó got demoted. She had been on the path to full professorship, but with no money coming in to support her work on mRNA, her bosses saw no point in pressing on.

Karikó would eventually figure out how to stop the body from rejecting mRNA, an essential discovery on the way to today’s vaccines. Along the way, though, she was nearly defeated by an academic system that increasingly relies on money from the powers that be, who think they know everything; fortunately said powers couldn’t actually stop her work, even though the consensus was that said work was a bad idea.

Only with time did it reveal itself as a good idea, which is the story of almost everything in life: we live, we learn, we discover new things, not just those of us alive in 2022, but all of humanity for our entire existence. That is how we beat COVID: not by destroying our liberties and lives, but by invention and information. It turns out that free speech isn’t just an analogy to COVID: it’s an essential part of getting past it. And, critically, it’s the only approach that nearly all of us reading this article — particularly those of us in the U.S., no matter our political affiliation — would actually tolerate.

In short, we live in the U.S., not China, and it’s high time all of us — including tech companies — started acting like it, instead of LARPing the most pathetic imitation possible.

  1. This case rate is likely significantly underreported, I would add: given that positive cases are not allowed to leave their house for 7 days — again, tracked by cellphone — there is a very strong incentive to simply not report a positive case; anecdotally speaking the majority of people I know in Taiwan have gotten COVID over the last month or so. 

  2. My aforementioned 18-day quarantine in April certainly seemed like a needless waste of my life — as do ongoing traveler quarantines whose only purpose is to protect travelers from what is again, the highest case rate in the world. 

  3. I do recognize that people wished to wait for a children’s vaccine; given the relative risk for children I disagreed, but I acknowledge the argument