In a Topsy-Turvy Pandemic World, China Offers Its Version of Freedom
Surveillance and censorship bolster Beijing’s uncompromising grip on power. But in the country’s cities and streets, people have resumed normal lives.
Duncan Clark’s flight was rolling down the runway in Paris in late October when President Emmanuel Macron announced a second national lockdown in France. The country had nearly 50,000 new Covid-19 infections that day. The United States had almost 100,000.
He sighed with relief. He was headed to China. That day, it had reported 25 new infections, all but one originating abroad.
Mr. Clark, a businessman and an author, returned to China after spending nine months in the United States and France, his longest time away from the country since he moved to Beijing in 1994. He had been spending more time outside China over the past few years to get away from air pollution, censored internet and an increasingly depressing political environment.
But when he returned in October, he felt something new: safe, energized and free.
“The ability to just live a normal life is pretty amazing,” he said.
While many countries are still reeling from Covid-19, China — where the pandemic originated — has become one of the safest places in the world. The country reported fewer than 100,000 infections for all of 2020. The United States has been reporting more than that every day since early November.
China resembles what “normal” was like in the pre-pandemic world. Restaurants are packed. Hotels are full. Long lines form outside luxury brands stores. Instead of Zoom calls, people are meeting face to face to talk business or celebrate the new year.
The country will be the only major economy to have grown this past year. While such forecasts are often more art than science, one outfit is forecasting that the Chinese economy will surpass that of the United States in 2028 — five years earlier than previously predicted.
The pandemic has upended many perceptions, including ideas about freedom. Citizens of China don’t have freedom of speech, freedom of worship or freedom from fear — three of the four freedoms articulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt — but they have the freedom to move around and lead a normal day-to-day life. In a pandemic year, many of the world’s people would envy this most basic form of freedom.
The global crisis could plant doubts about other types of freedom. Nearly half of voting Americans supported a president who ignored science and failed to take basic precautions to protect their country. Some Americans assert that it is their individual right to ignore health experts’ recommendations to wear masks, putting themselves and others at increasing risk of infection. The internet, which was supposed to give a voice to the voiceless, became a useful tool for autocrats to control the masses and for political groups to spread misinformation.
China’s freedom of movement comes at the expense of nearly every other kind. The country is about the most surveilled in the world. The government took extreme social-control measures at the beginning of the outbreak to keep people apart — approaches that are beyond the reach of democratic governments.
“There are actually a lot of parallels between how the Chinese government treats a virus and how they treat other problems,” said Howard Chao, a retired lawyer in California who invests in start-ups on both sides of the Pacific.
“It’s kind of a one-size-fits-all approach: Just completely take care of the problem,” he said. “So when it comes to a virus, maybe that’s not too bad a thing. When it comes to certain other problems, maybe not such a good thing.”
That realization has not stopped Mr. Chao from enjoying his time in China. Since flying to Shanghai from San Francisco in mid-October, he has hosted business dinners attended by as many as 20 people, gone to a jazz bar, seen a movie, visited a seafood market and flown to Shenzhen, in southern China, to check out a self-driving car start-up.
“This is where I had lunch in Shanghai today,” he wrote on Facebook on Nov. 6, alongside a photo of people dining. “Starting to remember what normal life looks like.”