The German language has, as usual, a hyper-specific word for this phenomenon: “Aktionismus,” literally Actionism, or action for action’s sake. What I was witnessing was Aktionismus in the face of a problem that required a sensitive response involving public trust. But since the Chinese government cannot elicit either of those things, I was seeing the compensatory flailing-around of a state with no other options.
Instead of having an adult conversation with the population about the virus and putting in place reasonable policies that have been used effectively elsewhere, the Chinese state has gone into full lockdown mode. This demonstrates one of those truisms from political science: Authoritarian governments are like people who don’t have any fingers but do possess two thumbs. They can take forceful actions but can’t fine-tune the levers of government.
Actually, I’m not being fair. When the Chinese Communist Party has time, it can come up with and use sophisticated policies — witness its co-opting of traditional faiths to fill a spiritual vacuum in society.
But when faced with a crisis, the party can’t seem to avoid grand gestures: building hospitals from scratch in two weeks, locking down tens of millions of people, banning millions more from traveling to big cities and so on.