It’s commonplace to not believe anything until it’s officially denied. China, though, takes this to a delirious art form whereby anything in state media (which now, thanks to Xi Jinping’s endless crackdown on free expression, is almost every domestic outlet) is likely to be its entire opposite, placed there for the Chinese government’s political convenience. 

Facts don’t matter. For instance, the website for the state broadcaster CGTN ran an article on Wednesday proclaiming that Xi “leads in refocusing the climate change conversation”. No matter that Xi has been skulking in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing rather than attending the COP26 conference in Glasgow: in fact, making such an assertion becomes all the more important, lest the reality sink in. (This helps to explain the recent finding by the US-China Perception Monitor that 80 per cent of Chinese believe that their country is viewed “very favourably” or “favourably” internationally, when the nation’s reputation has rarely been lower). 

So any denial always begs the question, or many questions. And today a doozy of a tweet came from Global Times, the Fox News of Chinese state media: 

China’s food supply is sufficient with no panic buying in Beijing or Shanghai, following official notices about stocking up on daily necessities on Tue. Officials said the notices aimed to prepare residents for potential emergencies. 

As denials go, it’s up there with the hallucinatory proclamations of Chemical Ali or Sean Spicer. (The ludicrousness is partly the point). It comes just a day after the government had indeed been encouraging people to stock up on food for “emergencies” – code for more and stricter lockdowns, with China’s Covid infection rate at its worst in months. So no wonder people were gripped by fear – to the extent that my WeChat Moments (akin to a Facebook feed) showed local shoppers with towering trollies and supermarkets with empty shelves, without even any pictures of asparagus to conceal their shame.

This wasn’t in Beijing or Shanghai, true, but as attempts to minimise political embarrassment go, this move was both laughably transparent and comically inept. (Chinese propaganda efforts like this are so predictably reactive – saying, “Oh, you think we’re like this? Well, we’ll say we’re like that!” – that they never seize the initiative, which ought to be the first step in any PR campaign. Billions have been spent on China’s crass soft power efforts, from inserts in outlets from the Washington Post to the Economist to hilariously inept rap songs about the Belt & Road global infrastructure policy). 

But the real story here is China’s adamant refusal to shift from a Covid-zero strategy. This strategy state media cannot question, of course. But approaching two years on from the first outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019, China seems stuck on Plan A, with draconian lockdowns and travel bans about the only effective methods in its toolbox. The vaunted domestic vaccine produced by Beijing company Sinopharm has less efficacy than the Pfizer and AstraZeneca versions, at around 79 per cent compared to 91.3 per cent for Pfizer. China’s achievement in getting 80 per cent of its population vaccinated should not be underestimated, while government figures suggest that the death toll in China is commendably low at around 4,400. (In this case, for once it’s reasonable to believe the figures: Chinese social media is highly censored, of course, but there’s a slight lag time before things disappear into the memory hole, and we would have seen glimpses of images or details of mass death, had they occurred).

It is also true that China took the virus seriously long before most western countries did, cancelling flights, testing newcomers and enforcing quarantines with a rigour far beyond either Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. (I returned to China in late 2020, and was astonished at the contrasting efforts in Chinese and British airports: the UK, it felt, simply had not bothered). Although this had led to vaccine triumphalism, with Xi and the state media machine taking victory laps: “The pandemic once again proves the supremacy of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics”, Xi said in September 2020. (While the US response in particular has looked almost like national self-sabotage). 

Now they are stuck, hoist with their own petard. The government cannot allow outbreaks to happen lest it looks foolish. It is like George Orwell, going to shoot an elephant, egged on by a crowd, and acting like it knows what it is doing for fear of losing face. But like Orwell, behind the facade is someone rather perplexed and unsure, desperately trying to avoid looking foolish in front of those it needs to impress. Hence the stiff-necked, unyielding, angry refusal to countenance any other possibilities. Even when that means food shortages and preposterous denials. But if the other option is to suggest any flaws in the Chinese system, you can bet the house on what the government will choose.