The Last Generation
We’re still in a pandemic, despite what everyone seems to want to think right now. Last summer, thanks to warmer weather and the widespread availability of highly effective vaccines, we had a genuine respite where Covid numbers crashed downward and it looked like the whole thing would be over soon. Then the virus mutated to the delta variant and then the omicron variant, which is far more contagious but slightly less deadly. Since then, we have seen successive waves of infection that keep popping up then falling down, then going back up again.
Nationally, we’re now enjoying a summer trough with numbers about as low as this time last year. But the infectious power of the omicron variant is so great that it diminishes the protection offered by vaccines and can re-infect those who have previously had it (in some cases leading to a more serious “long covid” reaction), so there’s lots of reason to believe we’ll have another wave in late summer or fall.
All of this is to say that I don’t have much patience for the attitude you see, particularly on the right these days, that covid precautions were all overblown from the beginning, that it was a hysterical “covid cult,” that it is all motivated by authoritarianism and that the effect of anti-covid measures was worse than the disease itself. None of these propositions is true—in the United States.
But these last two ideas do seem to be true of China. After initially ignoring and denying the disease, China clamped down with strict lockdowns that seemed to largely keep it under control—though the real numbers may well be much worse than the authorities have admitted. But the omicron variant wrecked those efforts, and now just as the rest of the world is recovering, or at least settling into a new normal of “live and let die,” China is plunging itself into economic crisis with measures that are both extremely draconian and ineffective.
I’ve seen a few good articles on this, but I decided to immerse myself into some research and write my own overview. In Discourse, I explain how this is the Law of the Instrument in action.
Having failed at all other pandemic measures, what does China have left? Something that comes naturally to a regime that also runs vast prison complexes and concentration camps: locking people up. It’s the Law of the Instrument: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like it needs to be pounded down….
The result is the massive effort over the past two months to put most of the population of Shanghai, a city of 26 million, under house arrest.
Shutting down all activity in one of China’s economic powerhouses is likely to cause an economic contraction for the whole country, just at the point when most of the world’s other economies have come roaring back from the pandemic. But the economic impact is just part of a massive human toll. The stories coming out of Shanghai indicate a lockdown so draconian that people were trapped in their homes without food or medicine….
In the cruelest part of the crackdown, young children were forcibly separated from their parents. To complete the dystopian feel of it all, residents shouting from their windows to protest the lack of food were answered by a government drone broadcasting a message telling them to “control your soul’s desire for freedom.”
I had a sense of how bad things were in Shanghai, but as I looked into it, it was even worse than I thought. Read the whole thing.
All of this is having a very interesting impact on Chinese culture.
Now the slogan emerging from Shanghai is the response given by a couple to an official who warned them that if they didn’t comply with lockdown rules, their punishment would last for three generations: “We’re the last generation.” This has become a rallying cry of protest, with one Chinese social media comment explaining what it means. As China Digital Times reported: “This phrase, redolent of tragedy, is an expression of the deepest form of despair. The speaker declared a decision of a biological nature: We will not reproduce. The decision is underpinned by a psychological and existential judgment: A future worth striving for has been taken from us. That phrase is, perhaps, the strongest indictment a young person can make of the era to which they belong.”
This is a powerful repudiation of the supposed strength of an authoritarian system, which rather than liberating and empowering the individual leaves him passive and dispirited.