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Latest in an ongoing series of missives from China, where Evanston resident Kurt Mitenbuler is quarantined because of the coronavirus

In an excellent article about the quarantine – and excellent commentary is literally exploding from every China expert the world over – there is an individual who only lists himself as Andrew, who brings up the concept of ”Security Theater,” a term coined by security expert Bruce Schneider after the 9/11 attacks and then popularized by James Fallows. There is a variation from historian Maura Cunningham, calling this outbreak “Quarantine Theater.”

As the Politboro Standing Committee itself declared, “This outbreak is a major test of China’s system of and capacity for governance.” There is very little or no agreement that the lockdown and quarantine is doing anything to stem the spread of the virus.

Even after the lockdown, there are still increasing numbers of cases. Several experts from around the world think that the entire escapade is misguided. The theater we are seeing is not so much for public security as it is a hammer-slamming exhibition of State Power. In the overwhelming response, the State is showing The People just how much power it has and that this power is being used to crush a State enemy.


In my experience in the countryside, I find the people do, in fact, find it all extremely reassuring. The government has been rolling out a series of policy measures, primarily affixing blame to mid-level officials and the governing individuals of Wuhan. 


Recently President Xi Jinping stated that he knew about the virus on Jan. 7 and gave “specific instructions” to the local cadres and department heads to take all action necessary to stop and contain the virus. It is approximately 27 pages of stultifying Commie-speak declaring that the “Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee” made repeated and specific requests for all focus and energy be made in containing the virus. He then continued for another 26 pages declaring “all energy should be directed toward containment,” that containing the virus was “essential in the continued opening up and integration of China into the world” and that “other countries are being consulted because we can learn,” etc., etc.


The screed is full of pictures of smiling happy people clapping for Xi, Xi having his temperature taken (which I pointed out on WeChat was being done counter to all published methodologies, and my comment was deleted after 10 minutes), and generally showing that The Emperor was now in control.


There were a dozen or more statements declaring that “social stability and the guidance of public opinion is paramount,” that “the internet should be blanketed with positive information” and on and on and downward into the usual exhortations of The Party in maintaining “resolute action” in all efforts.


At the end, Xi points his finger at the lowest of the low cadres, those tasked with working 20-hour days 7 days a week cleaning his mess and indicates any slacking will not be tolerated. The girls and guys in the trenches getting pounded and, in many cases, sick with the virus are not able to escape blame should anything go wrong. 


In geopolitical terms appropriate to the scale of this disaster, it is the “I didn’t do it” claim of Bart Simpson and “the dog ate my homework” school of excuse-making. This should serve as an indictment for anyone imagining the Chinese government has any intentions at integrating itself into a world order of liberal- and civic-mindedness. It is only concerned with its own power and the exercising of it to show the world the superiority of its methods. 


When the virus eventually burns itself out with warming weather, as flu bugs seem to do at the end of flu season, I expect Xi will claim victory in the final act of theater that never needed to have been played in the first place.