xi time to go
© Vincent Thian/AP
Student protesters call on Chinese President Xi Jinping to resign during a rally for victims of a recent Urumqi apartment fire blamed on rigid anti-virus measures.
How different it feels this time around. Broadcasters are lustily cheering anti-lockdown protesters in China. Members of Congress offer unqualified support. President Joe Biden, although more guarded, is sympathetic.

No Western politician, as far as I can see, is insulting the protesters. They are not dismissed as selfish or sociopathic, nor as dupes of conspiracy theories. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) captured the mood: "To the people of China — we hear you and we stand with you as you fight for your freedom."

Broadcasters and columnists who spent 2020 calling anti-lockdowners kooks and criminals are now uncomplicatedly applauding their Chinese counterparts. They see ordinary people standing up against an authoritarian government the anti-COVID policies of which were crushing liberty.

So, what changed? Perhaps pundits tell themselves that the disease is less virulent now, or that vaccination has altered the balance of risk, or that, in some other way, Beijing's crackdown is less proportionate than those of 2020. But none of these explanations stacks up.

Yes, the coronavirus became less lethal. All viruses that spread through human contact eventually become less lethal because they have an evolved tendency to want to keep their hosts up and active and therefore more infectious. For this to happen, they require a critical mass. Enough people need to be incapacitated or killed by the original version to give milder strains an advantage. And, yes, the vaccines helped, too.

But the trade-offs are essentially the same in China today as they were three years ago — coronavirus deaths versus other deaths. The current unrest was sparked by a fire in Xinjiang, which was allowed to become needlessly deadly because the authorities were following COVID protocols. In other words, they were elevating COVID above other forms of harm.

Most countries did the same in 2020 with, as we now see, disastrous results. The lockdowns did not just cause an economic meltdown from which we will take years to recover. They also failed on their own terms. They killed more people than they saved.

Guess which developed country had the lowest excess mortality between 2020 and 2022. Go on, have a guess. That's right. Sweden, which refused to close shops or schools or to impose a mask mandate, saw cumulative excess deaths rise by 6.8%, the lowest figure in the OECD. By way of comparison, the equivalent figures were 18% in Australia, 24.5% in the U.K., and 54.1% in the U.S.

At this stage, various authoritarians, hypochondriacs and mask fetishists trot out bizarre arguments about Sweden having a low population density, as if Swedes were evenly spaced across their birch forests rather than living mainly in cities comparable to ours. What is striking about this argument is not so much its dishonesty (in March 2020, lockdowners claimed that Sweden faced total catastrophe, not that it might end up with a slightly higher mortality rate than Finland ) as its desperation. Across the world, we are in denial. We simply can't bring ourselves to admit that everything we went through — the disrupted education, the spike in mental health problems, the ruined careers, the debts — was for nothing. Like the countries that emerged maimed from World War One, we tell ourselves that the sacrifice must have had some purpose. Perhaps, now as then, decades will pass before we can bring ourselves to face the hideous truth.

And yet, deep down, we know it already. That is why we respond as we do to the images of the brave protesters in China. We wish we had responded the same way, even if we cannot yet acknowledge that wish to ourselves.

"Suppose the pandemic had started not in China but in Canada or the Netherlands, a country, in other words, where locking up the entire population had previously been unthinkable," I wrote back in May 2020 . Had that happened, I suggested, the authorities might not have been panicked, or pushed by irresponsible media, into pursuing the most draconian of measures for fear of having worse mortality rates than their neighbors on just one metric.

In retrospect, I underestimated our servility, cowardice, and authoritarianism. We demanded, and got, two more lockdowns — three for some countries — despite all the evidence being in. It turned out that we were no less keen on the smack of firm government than anyone else.

At the start of 2020, looking at what was happening in Chinese cities, I thanked my lucky stars that I lived in a culture that elevated personal freedom over collectivism. In the event, it took only the tiniest tap to shatter that culture. Will we ever piece it back together?