China, covid and climate

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Xi. Image: Paul Kagame

The protests erupting across China deserve international solidarity. The future of the planet could be determined by their success - or failure.

It’s time to do something different to save the planet. Many, many of us now think that means building a mass climate movement from below. In any such movement, the people in China would be crucial.

On Saturday I posted something on social media asking if anyone knew of vigils or protests in solidarity with the Chinese protests anywhere in Britain. I have more than 5,000 “friends” and “followers” - and none of them knew anything.

It’s not just Britain either. Globally, environmentalists and the social movements have been largely silent or worse about what seemed to be happening in China. This is appalling. So I’ve written this article to explain why I think the protests in China are important to the future of life on this planet.

In the early spring of 2020 I published a series of urgent articles in The Ecologist calling for a lockdown to control Covid and warning what would happen if the British government delayed. They did delay, and what I had warned about happened. So what happens now?

Why China matters

This is a moment of hope. What happens in China will have consequences throughout the world.

There are two great powers in the world now. China is the more important. About 20 per cent of our species and about 40 per cent of human industrial workers live in China.

Almost 30 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions come from China. That is as much as the emissions from the United States and the European Union combined. China is not the richest country in the world. But it terms of economic activity, energy used and human labour expended, it comes first.

In the medium term, China will replace the United States as the global economic and political power. And what happens in China matters more than any other country for climate change.

Political events in the most powerful countries in the world system have an enormous impact. The French Revolution of 1789 was not the first successful insurrection against a king and his aristocrats. But it was the first one at the center of the world system, and that made all the difference.

What is happening in China now is not a revolution. There have been hundreds of meetings and protest. Almost all of them have been small. But for the first time since 1989 and Tiananmen Square, the protests have been nationwide, and focused around the same demands.

It matters too that almost all of the protests feature speakers and chants calling for democracy and for the president to step down. Calling for democracy in China is  revolutionary.

This is not the time to predict such a revolution. But it is a time when it becomes possible to hope. And it is definitely a time to take sides with the protesters who want democracy.

It is worth imagining for a moment the global consequences of the Chinese people winning democracy. The dictatorship has held power for more than 70 years.

Globally, most people assume that power is unbreakable. If that rule falls, hope will explode across the Arab world, in Iran, in Sudan, Myanmar, Thailand and Central Asia. Putin would suddenly appear weak and helpless, and Ukraine would probably win.

It’s time to do something different to save the planet. Many, many of us now think that means building a mass climate movement from below. In any such movement, the people in China would be crucial.

For the global climate movement it could also make all the difference. For one thing, it will give every kind of protest movement heart.

But we also have to learn from experience. For thirty years we have lobbied, begged and yelled at the leaders of the world, and global emissions and global climate change has grown worse and worse. We need a global movement from below to stop climate change. Nothing else, and nothing less, will do it.

The most important part of that mass movement will be people in China. If they have democracy, if they have confidence, all things are possible.

But perhaps that is to hope too much. However, sooner or late, there will be an end to the lockdown in China, and people inside and outside the country will understand that as a victory for the protesters.            

Covid is an environmental issue

The next thing that needs saying loud and clear is that Covid is an environmental issue. Like climate change, it is a global issue. And like climate change it is simultaneously a political and economic issue.

As the world heats, we will face more and more environmental crises. And as with covid in China, the struggle over what to do about the environment will also be a struggle over who has power and what they do with it.

Zero Covid in China

The Chinese government under president Xí Jìnpíng has pursued a policy of lockdowns wherever a case of the virus appears, often locking down whole cities of millions of people.

In the early months of the virus, this seemed like a successful policy, especially compared to the scale of death and illness in Europe and the Americas. But it is now clear that ordinary people in China have had enough.

All of us who have lived through lockdowns know the dreadful mix of loneliness, fear and caged boredom. We know it is far harder for some – the lonely and the bereaved – that for others.

This suffering has been magnified in China because the lockdowns have been extreme, topdown, authoritarian. The government has done them without the consent of the people.

People are confined to their homes, often flats in highrise buildings, without being allowed to come out at all. People have been hungry and cold. In places dog-like robots patrol the ground looking for rule breakers, and in the sky drones fly around the high-rises shouting at people to stay home.

Part of the fury about the ten people who died in the fire in Urumqi is based on the widely held belief that they could not escape because they were locked in. People believe this because so many of them have been locked in.

The economic disruption is also enormous. Recurrent closures have disrupted supply chains. Lockdowns have forced workers to stay home and to lose weeks or months of wages.

China was already facing economic headwinds before covid. Now they face the same rising cost of living as the rest of the global economy. The official statistics, which exaggerate how good things are, still say that the economy is currently in recession.

One official statistic stands out. Youth unemployment in urban areas is now 18 per cent. That’s the official statistic. Reality is probably worse.

All of this would be tolerable if there was an end game in sight. In some countries, intermittent lockdowns have been used to hold the death rate down until vaccines became available. Then, once the population were largely vaccinated, restrictions could be lifted.

This possibility is not on offer in China. The Chinese government is insisting on the use of vaccinations developed and manufactured in China. This is a point of national pride and personal vulnerability for president Xi.

But the Chinese vaccines are not as effective as those from other countries. No one really knows how much less effective, but we do know they are much less effective against the Omicron variant.

In spite of this, Xi and his government have refused to import vaccines. That means that a wave of deaths will follow the lifting of lockdowns and the end of a zero covid policy. It also means that there appears to be no end in sight.

The economic concerns of the powerful

The pressure for opening up is coming from ordinary people. But it also coming from the people who own and run the economy – the bankers, stock owners, corporate executives and government managers.

They cannot but be deeply worried by the chronic economic stress, and the threat of a collapse in the stock market or the housing and office building sectors.

Moreover, for thirty years the rule of the Communist Party has relied on a tradeoff. Many people don’t like the party, but they put up with it passively because their living standards have been rising quickly.

This tradeoff has never worked for the 200 million precarious workers who migrated from the villages to the city. But it has worked relatively well for the middle classes and professionals. Continued economic recession will endanger the party.

Moreover, the continuing falls in production and interruptions in the supply chain have had a global effect, hurting the economy in many other countries. This damages the soft power of the Chinese state around the world.

In the medium term, it means that many businesses in the world are looking for supply chains in other countries, which will do lasting damage to the Chinese economy.

All these pressures must be there. However, unlike in 1989, we have not seen any open evidence yet of splits at the top of the party and the economy. This is partly because repression in Xi’s neoliberal China is stronger it has been for forty years.

The dangers of opening up

So there are strong reasons why ordinary people want to open up, and why many in the elite do too. But the consequences of opening up would be catastrophic.

The current vaccinations offer limited protection, and apparently almost none against the Omicron variant, which spreads so quickly. Lifting the lockdowns would mean that an epidemic slices through urban areas.

One study by a Chinese research team in Nature Communications estimates that 1.55 million could die in the first three months. The number of sick people over the first year would be in the hundreds of millions.

The result will be what we saw in 2020 in New York and parts of northern Italy. The hospitals will be overwhelmed and people left to die at home.

China has relatively few intensive care beds. One recent estimate is that China would need fifteen times as many beds as they now have to cope with an epidemic after lockdown.

The result will be helplessness, rage, grief and fear. Because the hospitals will be overwhelmed, many people will die of other causes. So perhaps five million deaths, roughly the per capita equivalent of the one million deaths in the United States and the 200,000 in the UK?

If that happens, most Chinese people will blame Xi, the government and the Communist Party. So removing the lockdown will also be a disaster for them. And Xi’s preferred narrative, that China has done so much better than the West at containing covid, will be in ruins.

Repression won’t make the movement go away

During the first couple of days of the movement, many people in China and abroad were worried that the police would simply arrest, beat, jail and probably kill many protesters, and repression would break the movement. It is a reasonable fear, but this time is different for several reasons.

First, the danger of mass arrests, and especially of killing people, is that it will provoke a much larger movement of resistance. That could threaten the rule of the party.

Second, stopping protests in the center of cities will not be enough. Lockdowns have to be enforced block by block and street by street. Local authorities and estate management commitments have to enforce lockdowns.

Already, there are scattered reports of residents meeting with local committees and negotiating to stop or delay lockdowns. In the wake of protests across the country, this will be far more difficult to do. There are already indications from Beijing that the managers of high-rise apartment blocks are backing away from lockdowns.

Third, repression will not make the actual problem of covid go away. The lockdowns will continue to impose suffering and bitterness. The economic crisis, unemployment and breaks in supply chains will continue. Profits will be under further pressure and the threat of financial crisis will build.

The government may well be able to repress the protests. But they will be back in a few months or a year, larger and angrier.

Lockdowns in Britain and China

One troubling thought that will occur to many readers of this magazine runs like this. Trump was against lockdowns. Anti-vaxxers and the far right have been against masks, social distancing and lockdowns. So isn’t the Chinese protest movement like that?

The answer is no, but it’s not a simple answer. We need to unpick several confusions. The examples of Britain, where I live, and the United States, will bring out some of the issues.

In the spring of 2020, as the global pandemic began, I joined with many others in a desperate campaign for a lockdown. I presented my arguments in a series of articles for The Ecologist.

It was very clear from what was already happening in northern Italy what would happen if we did not act. In fact, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government delayed by only a few weeks, but those few weeks killed at least 50,000 people and probably more.

But it was not just Johnson, and not just the Conservatives. The Labour Party and its then leader, Jeremy Corbyn, did not call for a lockdown. Nor did the right of the Labour Party, nor the Scottish National Party, or the Trades Union Congress.

Some local union activists campaigned desperately for protective equipment in the hospitals, but no national unions called for lockdowns, or even small demonstrations or token strikes for protective equipment.

Unite, the bus drivers union, was unable to insist that passengers had to use the rear door and not pay fares in order to keep the bus drivers safe.

Finally, the National Education Union called for a lockdown of schools and threatened action. At that point Johnson accepted reality and began a lockdown.

At that point, Johnson was the only national political figure in Britain to call for such action. If there was to be any credit for saving lives, it belonged to him. Sunak, the Conservative minister in charge of the economy, also bought in serious benefits and income support for people trapped at home.

Until the moment he did so, neither the Labour Party or the Trade Union Congress had mounted a public campaign for such action. This set a pattern. The unions, the social movements and the left, broadly defined, abstained over the next two years.

James Meadway, a British leftwing economist, put it this way. For two years, he said, covid was by far the most important political issue in the lives of people in Britain.

During those two years the Left, inside and outside the Labour party, said and did nothing about covid, and waited patiently for people to return to what they regarded as actual political issues.

That was the political left. But neither did the environmental movement make any serious or systematic demands in the face of the biggest environmental challenge that was dominating people’s lives. More seriously, the climate movement went into hibernation for two years.

The result has been that covid weakened both the left and the climate movement. It strengthened the racist and sexist far right, through their close ties with the growing movements of covid denial and anti-vaxxing.

One of my friends, a hospital doctor in the rust belt of the North of England, speaks of her deep distress at the way the division between maskers and anti-maskers maps closely to the class divisions among the workforce.

The doctors and managers tend to be vaxxers, the porters and cleaners anti-vaxxers, and the nurses are divided.

This class pattern is much the same in the United States. Several factors have made the division particularly bitter. One is that the organised far right around Trump is massive, grassroots and organized.

The second is the lack of a health service available free at the point of need. People without insurance, mostly the working poor, had to pay for vaccinations and could not afford treatment.

More important, a massive gap in experience opened up between the office workers on one side and the service and manual workers on the other. Most of the office workers could work from home, draw their wages, continue their careers and stay pretty safe.

The manual workers lost their incomes in a lockdown, and went back to work earlier. The essential workers, mostly low paid - the nurses, care workers and bus drivers - went into the maelstrom without proper protection.

The sick, the dead and the frightened were far more likely to be found among the service and manual workers and their elderly parents. Unlike the office workers, they also had to have schools open in order to go to work themselves.

In turn, the home office workers were shall we say this..? Smug. Their media, and their comments, revolved around contempt for the maskless and the working poor.

Enter the far right, performed by Trump, led by Putin and amplified by Russian bots. Their narrative was off the wall. But they spoke to the suffering, the rage and pain.

They spoke to people who could not go to work if they did not send their children to school, and who brought home a deadly virus to those they loved. They spoke in a language of class and hatred for governments.

Tellingly, in the United States anti-vaxxing was strongest among black people. They were more likely to be low paid service workers, and far more likely to die, as were black and Asian people in Britain also.

The bots spread the story that vaccinations were more dangerous for black people. They said it was no wonder that black people were suspicious, as the medical system had failed them so many times before.

This was true. But it ignored the fact that the overwhelming majority of those failures were refusals to treat black people, not the treatment per se.

The reaction of center left homeworkers was support for the government rules and contempt for the rage of the manual workers.

They made fun of ignorance, in a world where calling people stupid is the leading form of kicking down. Among the center left, the leading justification for class inequality is also saying that working class people are stupid.

It could have been so different. It should have been so different.

If only the environmentalists, the climate movement, the social movements, the unions and the Left had mounted mass campaigns, in the workplaces and distanced on the streets, to insist on lockdowns at first, and to insist that everyone was treated, everyone was cared for, and everyone had a proper income.

Governments, often conservative governments, gave people some of those things. But nowhere did people think those had been won by mass movements from below.

Indeed, the greatest failure of the environmentalists, the social movements, the unions and the Left was that we did not mount mass campaigns for global vaccination.

The vaccines were unavailable to poor and middle income people in many countries because governments did not supply them and people could not afford them. At the heart of this problem was that the vaccine manufacturers hoarded their technology and would not share it.

Activists with Global Justice Now, a campaigning NGO in Britain, did mount a global campaign to provide vaccines to everyone, and former prime minister Gordon Brown backed them eloquently. All credit to them and him.

But this was a campaign of petitions, letters and Zoom meetings. What we needed was a global campaign on the streets across the world, angry and vocal, like Black Lives Matter but far wider and bigger.  We needed that backed by at least token union action, especially in the countries without vaccine cover. We did not get that.

This was not because global vaccines did not matter. It was because we did not try.

Millions of lives were at stake, and millions of lives have been lost, because of what our movements did not do. But more than that, covid is like the climate in another crucial respect. No one is safe unless everyone is safe.

The solution is global. The failures of vaccination, and especially the failures among the poor and the already sick, created a massive reservoir for the virus to mutate and produce new strains which spread faster and were more resistant to the vaccinations we have.

A global campaign on a large scale could have been won, because the denial of vaccinations to the poor was so glaring, and so obviously dangerous for everyone. Had we won that, the climate movement and the left would have come out of the pandemic far stronger.

People power and environmentalism

Many environmentalists have been put off the Chinese protesters because they seem similar to the anti-vaxxers in other countries. This is an understandable mistake. However, many environmentalists and leftists have also been put off by the way the protesters talk about democracy.

The chants, the speeches and the demands at the rallies mention democracy again and again. They call for Xi to step down, for freedom of the press, and for the Communist Party to leave power.

These protests mobilise only a few hundred people at a time, at most one or two thousand. These are very small minorities of brave people. Many of them dp probably have extreme political views. But they are in more than a hundred cities, and seem to be speaking for a much larger climate of opinion.

This commitment to democracy is why I love them. Though it may sound strange, it’s also why some environmentalists and leftists distrust them.

Many environmentalists have long had a soft spot for the Chinese Communist Party. They don’t write about this much, but I have heard it many conversations.

Their thinking is that action over climate change is more important than any other political issue - something with which I agree. They also believe that ordinary people are too selfish, or short sighted, or ignorant to accept the kind of change which is necessary.

They also believe that austerity and degrowth are essential to stop climate change, and that voters in the poorer countries can never be convinced of this.

For all these reasons, they say that only the Chinese Communist Party will be able to what needs to be done when they make up their minds to do it.

This is not a silly argument. But it runs up against two stubborn facts. The first is that China under the Communist Party has grown from being a minor emitter of greenhouse gases to being by far the biggest emitter in the world.

Those emissions continue to grow every year. Per capita emissions in China are lower than those in the United States, but they are higher than those in Europe.

The other fact is that we have tried the tactic of lobbying the rich and powerful to save the planet since the Rio Summit in 1992. For thirty years, from COP1 to COP27, the leaders and the governments have failed us, and global emissions have risen steadily.

It’s time to do something different to save the planet. Many, many of us now think that means building a mass climate movement from below. In any such movement, the people in China would be crucial.

The Left and the social movements

Many in the Left and the social movements also distrust the emphasis on democracy. After Syria and Ukraine, it is becoming increasingly clear that a reconfiguration of what was the traditional Left is underway.

Many on the far left are moving right, and many on the center-left are moving towards system change or revolution.

This reconfiguration is a work in progress, and deeply confusing for many of the people involved. But the outlines of what is happening are becoming clear.

On the one hand, many on the Left have moved to the right and become strong supporters of Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, Assad’s Syria, Diaz-Canal’s Cuba, or even the Ayatollahs in Iran, and in favour of the idea of progressive dictatorships.

Some of these loyalties spring from a visceral opposition to the global power of the United States - an opposition I share passionately. Others stem from deep and honourable loyalties to old Communist or anti-colonial movements.

However, there is another side to these left movements. Putin, Xi, Assad and the rest are in no sense socialists, but obviously capitalists at home. For some people, the fact that Putin was and is a KGB man is a plus.

Indeed, the influence of Putin and Trump’s global coalition of sexist, homophobic, anti-Muslim far right racists is constantly surfacing in this Left. One can see it, for example, in the way that so many on the Left repeat Putin’s talking points on Ukraine.

This can be deeply confusing to many Left activists.

Many of them are uneasy about the spread of transphobic ideas, a key marker of the influence of the far right. And in Britain, the far Left parties and many on the Labour left supported Brexit - or Lexit - the central victory for the far right in Britain during the last twenty years.

They did not do so for racist reasons. But it is now clear that the result of Brexit has been a strong shift to racism in British politics. This leaves many former Brexit supporters on the Left confused, split, defensive or stubbornly defiant.

All change

The result of these different processes and forces is that many environmentalists, many on the Left and many organisations now instinctively distrust any movement for democracy among people living under dictatorship.

Mercifully, however, this is only one side of the reconfiguration. The number of people moving left from more mainstream positions is much larger, much younger, and much more important to the future.

The left movement to the right is based equally in the global north and the global south. The movement left of the popular uprisings from below for democracy is strongest in the global South, in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Myanmar, Thailand, Chile, Ukraine and beyond.

The movement left in the climate and environmental movement is also much larger than the movement right. Greta Thunberg is the representative figure, standing there with her School Strike placard and a Ukrainian flag at the start of that war, arguing now loud and clear that capitalism is the source of climate breakdown.

Of course, the project of reconfiguration is not finished. Many who have found themselves supporting Putin, Brexit or Xi will recover their hearts.

Many who are now ready to give their lives for democracy will find themselves supporting whoever occupies the White House. We have entered upon a historical process, driven by the growing impact of climate change, that will leave none of us unchanged.

But I know which side I am on.

This Author

Jonathan Neale is a climate activist, novelist and nonfiction writer, on twitter @JonathanNealeA1. His book, Fight the Fire, is published by The Ecologist and is also available in paperback from Resistance Books. Jonathan also blogs on climate, politics and gender with Nancy Lindisfarne at Anne Bonny Pirate.

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