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  • Alastair Cavendish

In the Belly of the Beast

I was in China when the coronavirus pandemic started, though no one bothered to mention it at the time. On 15 January 2020, I flew from Shanghai to Bangkok to begin my winter vacation, and it was in Thailand that I first learned of some mutant virus that had arisen in a Wuhan wet-market through excessive consumption of bats and pangolins. I paid no attention, and spent a month wandering round Thailand, Bangladesh, and the Philippines before returning on 14 February to a febrile atmosphere, inaccurately measured by a barrage of thermometers.

For the next four months, people waved thermometers at me wherever I went. This appeared to be the principal reaction to the pandemic in China, and it was a lot less intrusive than having a swab jammed down one’s throat or up one’s nose. As for “lockdown”, I do not recall when I first heard the term, but I do not think it was until the end of March, and then with reference to Britain, not China. The city where I lived, Shanghai, was later to become notorious for one of the most vicious and counter-productive lockdowns in the world, but when I was there, the government reaction was still mercifully disorganized and inconsistent. The back entrance to the estate where I lived was blocked with a makeshift barricade, as were most other shortcuts around the city. There was an outbreak of facemasks, many of them worn fashionably low on the chin so as not to impede smoking (though an enterprising minority wore them over the mouth in more orthodox fashion and poked a hole for the cigarette). Apart from this, the principal sign of crisis was the thermometers. No one ever told me I could not leave my apartment, or attempted to stop me from doing so.

It was in the news from England that I first heard of extremist measures being employed by a tyrannical government, though I did not really understand what was happening at the time. My records show that I first wrote to the Health Secretary on 4 April 2020, telling him that he was a disgrace to humanity and a drivelling fascist, words that, in retrospect, seem far too benign. My message was in response to a speech in which he sullenly ordered the British people not to leave their homes, though I do not believe he used the word “lockdown” even then. A few days before this, on 30 March, I contacted the Derbyshire Police and Crime Commissioner, remarking that his officers appeared to have too much time on their hands, since they spent it harassing innocent citizens going for solitary walks in national parks. This is the first formal response I recall making to the crisis of democracy that was erupting in my country.

The real shock was returning home at the beginning of July 2020. China, or Shanghai at least, seemed relatively calm by this time, so I was appalled to arrive in Britain to a mass of pettifogging regulations and a plethora of bossy little notices about where I could or could not stand, walk, or exist. The distinction between Communist dictatorship and liberal democracy did not, at this point, seem to run in favour of the latter.

A few days ago, I returned to China, where I am now in a government quarantine facility in a coastal city. The journey was far from easy, and the bureaucracy leading up to it was a good deal worse. On the plane, the entire crew were dressed in white hazmat suits, any ability to communicate effectively stifled by the facial trifecta of facemask, goggles and visor. Instead of wheeling trolleys down the aisles, they had dumped a plastic bag of random foods (an orange, a packet of pretzels, a dry bread roll, an even drier sponge cake, some bottled water, and some foul sweet drink made from little white flowers) on each seat. They sprayed everyone with disinfectant, then scuttled away to some secure pod where they spent the rest of the flight in seclusion. When we landed, we sat on the plane for over three hours, waiting for the tunnel into the airport to be drenched in disinfectant.

I might have despaired, but for the view from the window of the shuttle that took me into quarantine. The people on the streets were, on the whole, behaving sanely. About half, I should say, were wearing facemasks, but there were no other signs of panic and despondency. The sight of old men smoking and playing checkers while old women screamed at them from upper- story windows was curiously reassuring. Then I reached the quarantine station to be hosed down with disinfectant again by another of Dr. Evil’s minions.

One hears a certain amount in the West about how China may be using the pandemic as an instrument of foreign policy or, to speak bluntly, a weapon against the rest of the world. It may well be doing so, but what is immediately obvious from within the country, even from the window of a quarantine facility, is that the Chinese government is using the virus as an instrument of domestic policy, a weapon against its own people. Covid gives them the perfect excuse to restrict travel and to deny anyone who disobeys them access to goods and services. Lose the green health code on your cellphone and you lose with it any human rights you may have thought you had.

It is easy to see what Xi and the Party have planned for this country. They will milk the coronavirus scare for all it is worth, forcing regular tests and other indignities on the populace and withdrawing the ability to participate in everyday life for those who refuse. Whether they will get away with it remains to be seen. Their conduct in Shanghai appears to have alerted many Chinese people to the simple and obvious fact that the Party values them only when they act like slaves, and then not very much. Still, they have a largely compliant and effectively indoctrinated population, and a complete indifference to the death and suffering of the people, powerful advantages for the despot.

Despite the deterioration of China under Xi Jinping, I still regard myself as a Sinophile, having spent a sizeable proportion of my adult life in this intriguing country. For most people in the West, however, the news from China serves principally as an illustration of what has happened and a warning of what could happen to them. Western countries do not have the wherewithal to do quite what the Chinese state has done and is doing, but they have done things most of us would not have imagined possible a few years ago. They have used coercion and propaganda to divide people from their families and neighbours, steal vast sums of money from the public purse, increase their own powers to an unprecedented degree, demoralise and oppress working people, and murder many of the elderly and infirm.

The government strategy in Britain now appears to be one of collective amnesia, following the token sacrifice of Boris Johnson. Johnson has many flaws which made him the wrong man to guide the country through such a tumultuous period. He is a coward and an opportunist, a pathological liar, a corrupt, greedy, childish, dim-witted man who cares for no one but himself. Nonetheless, he is probably not much worse than the average politician in Westminster at the moment (the two empty husks vying to succeed him are not in any appreciable way superior) and anyone who thinks that he is the root of the problem simply has not been paying attention.

Getting rid of Johnson will achieve nothing if the British public is ultimately forced to choose between Truss or Sunak and Starmer. All three were complicit in the crime committed against the British people. All three, along with Hancock, Gove, Ferguson, Whitty, Vallance and many others, belong behind bars.

In China, either the government will succeed in its tyranny or there will be revolution, inevitably attended with much bloodshed. In Britain, it may still be possible to have some form of reckoning with what has happened, and retribution for the crimes committed against us. Such a process will be painful, but it is our only chance to escape becoming a failed state. If we attempt to avoid looking back and follow the mad-eyed Ms. Truss into her promised land of cheese and pork markets and tax cuts, the next panic will plunge the country back into the misery of house arrest, enforced idleness and creeping totalitarianism.

In the meantime, Britain is at least better off than China, where totalitarianism gallops rather than creeps. So why come back here? One’s motivations are never entirely transparent, even, perhaps especially, to oneself, and some of them are purely practical. I have been working online for the last six months for a Chinese employer which has continually exhorted me to show my face in person, rather than merely on Zoom. If I had demurred much longer, I should probably have had to find another job. Besides this, however, there is a certain morbid interest in being in the belly of the beast. I’m only sorry that I could not get a posting to a bat sanctuary or pangolin farm (or perhaps a biochemical laboratory) in Wuhan. Then again, I want to see what happens to China. If it is what I think will happen, then this will probably be my last chance to do so.

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