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Discussing what the end of 'zero-covid' in China means with Bill Bishop: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with longtime China expert Bill Bishop about what China's rollback of its strict Covid policies means.

The pandemic hasn’t raged within China the way it has in the rest of the world over the past few years. However, that’s beginning to change. Following a wave of protests, Chinese leadership officially rolled back some of the country’s most stringent Covid restrictions. The end of “zero-covid” policies, combined with an already strained medical system, along with low vaccination and immunity levels, could lead to disastrous public health and economic consequences. China could see over a million deaths in 2023, according to projections from the University of Washington Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation. Bill Bishop is a longtime expert on China, writer of his own Substack newsletter called “Sinocism,” co-founder of CBS Marketwatch and he worked in China for years. Bishop joins WITHpod to discuss how government control has been consolidated under president Xi Jinping, the timeline of events leading to this moment, why Covid case numbers in China are undercounted and what the latest developments portend for (what could be) a very sobering future.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Bill Bishop: I mean, there are going to be some really tragic outcomes and, I mean, it is shocking how quickly this thing is spreading in China. And there's no data. They stopped testing. And they're lying about the deaths.

We're in a really deeply worrisome and volatile moment right now. I think it's going to last for the next few weeks or couple of months.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me your host, Chris Hayes.

Well, this week, you may have seen some headlines floating around along the following lines, 10 percent of the world's population estimated to contract COVID-19 in the next few weeks. And that's a pretty arresting figure. Again, like all kind of epidemiological modeling, it's a prediction about the future. It's not a sure thing.

But it relates to the fact that China right now is going through, you know, an unprecedented engagement with the pandemic, something that hasn't happened there since 2019 when this new coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan.

The pandemic has not raged within China the way it has with the rest of the world for the duration of three years and that has been largely due to extremely aggressive measures that the Chinese government has implemented to contain viral transmission, to never let viral transmission pick up enough such that they had to abandon the measures you use when something first enters a populace, right?

So, at the beginning, when a new pathogen enters a populace, you can use a bunch of public health measures to essentially stop its transmission chain. You can contact trace. You can figure out where it's going. You can quarantine forcibly people that might have been exposed. You can keep people in their houses. You can surveil them using all sorts of digital technologies.

You never get to the point where the disease is just bopping around the way it has in every other country. And China has basically, through remarkable amount of effort, will, technology, and repression, maintained a situation with COVID where COVID never got a chance to just start large-scale community transmission.

But that has now changed. Now, that has changed due to two reasons that we're going to get into in today's discussion. The biggest one is that it became unsustainable. And we'll talk about whether it was unsustainable from the perspective of Chinese folks who found it unbearable and started to protest in large numbers, or the Chinese Communist Party, which rules China, and thought it was unsustainable on their end as well or responding to popular uprising or some combination of both.

But you now have a situation that’s totally uncharted where unlike in other countries where previous ways of infection, combined with vaccination, produce a level of immunity, that means that no one in the world is dealing with a situation like, say, 2020, China kind of is.

Now, the big difference being, China does have vaccination. But if you peer into the vaccination numbers, the Sinovac vaccine that was developed by Chinese medical officials looks to be not as good as some of the other vaccines and also very shockingly low numbers of vaccination rates among some of the most vulnerable populations.

China also has a population that has high levels of lung disease due to high levels of smoking. So, there's real cause for concern about what untrammeled COVID-19 transmission plus the Chinese population look like, what it means at the human scale, what it means at the governmental level.

And I've been wanting to talk about China and particularly the sort of mix of Chinese politics and public health and state authority for a while because I think it's one of the most fascinating questions in the world. And I'm really pleased to have a long-time China expert who I read for years named Bill Bishop.

Bill co-hosts the Sharp China podcast which is all about how China and China impacts the world. He founded and writes his own Substack newsletter called "Sinocism," S-I-N-O-C-I-S-M. He cofounded

He lived and worked in China for years. He speaks and reads Mandarin and is someone who has a really interesting perspective on China and has devoted himself to basically covering it full time for years now.

Bill, it's great to have you in the program.

Bill Bishop: Oh, thank you. It's a real honor to be on it.

Chris Hayes: Before we get to COVID-19 and before we get to developments there, I want to just start with life in China under the Xi presidency because it seems to me that's a really important context. So, he's been for 10 years.

He just re-upped himself for another five, which will make him 15. And there's no successor being groomed. And it seems that he's consolidated power among the sort of important committees in the CCP, such that there's a general sense that this is the most powerful Chinese ruler since at least Deng Xiaoping, maybe earlier.

Talk a little bit about, from the perspective of the top, how Xi has consolidated control and how Xi's China might be different than, say, China 10 years ago.

Bill Bishop: That's a great question. So, you know, in many ways, Xi's China, there's actually a lot of continuity with the Hu Jintao era which came before and then Jiang Zemin era which was before that, and Jiang Zemin recently died, in the sense that a lot of the goals that are being pursued under Xi Jinping were actually long-standing goals that the Communist Party has set forth.

Xi has been, of course, different in several ways. He was expected or seen as a successor in about 2007, became in, and China was pretty messy place. Corruption was running rampant. You could sort of see how things could spin out of control pretty quickly.

And he came in with what appeared to be a mandate that then I think he massively exceeded, which was to crack down on corruption, re-instill some ideological discipline and basically double down on ensuring that the Communist Party could stay in power for as long as he wanted.

And so, there was hope at the beginning in some quarters as Xi was somehow a reformer because of, I think, more projections that people had made in terms of their dealings with him or what his father who had talked about because his father had been the senior leader in the Mao era before he was purged at least twice.

And so, there was hope that somehow Xi would see things differently and yet, and really, he's kind of double down on a more of a top-down state-led economy, top-down control, much more robust and omnipresent security system, much accelerated military modernization and sort of moves towards military preparedness. Corruption in the military and the PLA was atrocious.

A lot of people inside the system were kind of weary you see in the sense that he wasn’t that educated. There was a joke among some of the chattering classes in Beijing that he only had a primary school education because then it was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution and he left school.

And yet, when you look at how he's maneuvered through the Chinese political system and effectively outmaneuvered everybody else, he’s clearly at least in one area just a master brilliant tactician. And that's in terms of politics and political consolidation and political ruthlessness. And that is one area where I think he really learned quite well from what Mao Zedong did.

And so, 2020 Congress was held in October. That's the annual five-year meeting of the Communist Party where they select the new leadership in the several levels down in the Communist Party hierarchy. And at this Party Congress, Xi Jinping, you know, the previous one in 2017, he’d made a lot of strides through consolidating power.

Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for new era became a thing. So, he got this eponymous sort of thought. And so that was the first time, other than Mao, that a living leader had gotten that. So, that was a big step towards consolidation (ph).

This time though on October, he really ran the table in terms of personnel, both at the top level, which is called the Standing Committee, the Politburo, which is seven people, the Politburo which at this time is 24 people, and then the Central Committee, which is 200 and change people.

They're pretty much all his people. And so, from the outside at least, he's in extremely secure political position which really does tie back into this broader discussion of COVID because had this reopening happened in the weeks or couple of months before the Party Congress in October, there could have been a very different outcome with the Congress because of the strains that this sudden reopening and the massive acceleration of outbreaks is causing economically, socially, medically.

And so, it's pretty clear and, again, the problem under Xi, too, has been that trying to understand the Chinese Communist Party has always been difficult. It's actually gotten much more opaque in the last 10 years. There was a period in early 2000s where you could get a pretty good sense what's going on.

Now, it's extremely difficult. And so, we're really stuck guessing on all these things. But it does really look like there was a political decision made to extend what they call dynamic zero-COVID through the Party Congress because they couldn't risk what they believe would happen reopening. And now, they're finding all sorts of ways, propagandizing around the fact that they just have let it rip.

Chris Hayes: I want to get to COVID in a second. But just to stay with Xi for a second, so one of the things I find really interesting when I was sort of going back and doing research is there's an interesting through line across a number of different domains of anticorruption being used, wielded by people trying to consolidate powers in nondemocratic systems as a kind of populist cudgel to wage kind of intra-elite war.

So, one example was Putin putting Mikhail Khodorkovsky on trial. Now, Khodorkovsky was an oligarch and it was also clear that what he was trying to do there was essentially take out, you know, rival. And Khodorkovsky has started funding opposition, you know, media and politicians.

We saw this with Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia where he takes power and he starts imprisoning a bunch of members of the royal family and Saudi elite in the Ritz-Carlton where he gets them to sign these basically, you know, extracts these sort of corruption admissions. And, again, I don't know the particulars here. But I think, you know, probably a lot of them were super corrupt.

Bill Bishop: Right.

Chris Hayes: Xi wages a somewhat similar battle here that seems to, in some ways, have both those elements. That like there were a bunch of ostentatiously corrupt local officials. And there was one particularly who's like running all of Chongqing. There's a lot of pressure on that.

Bill Bishop: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And also, as a means of sort of power consolidation waging kind of intra-elite power politics.

Bill Bishop: No. That’s an okay way to look at it. It's multidimensional. And so, Xi definitely used the corruption crackdown that he launched really almost immediately after he became General Secretary of the Party in November 2012, to move on political groupings that were rivals or potentially put his position at risk.

At the same time, like you said, I mean, the problem is you couldn’t take down everyone who's corrupt because, I mean, the joke was like --

Chris Hayes: No one's left, right?

Bill Bishop: -- who's left, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: So, there absolutely was an element of political selection. It was and continues to be. You know, the corruption crackdown is quite popular. And you know, they look at it, they talk about it from two levels, what they call the tigers, who were the very senior officials, and then the flies who were the local officials, the people who deal with a certain, you know, types of permits you need or inspections at your restaurant or whatever, at the grassroots level.

And, of course, you know, you don't really see tigers very often. You deal with flies every day, right?

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Right.

Bill Bishop: And so, the crackdown at the fly level has been very positive and very well received for the most part and has been less of a political endeavor.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. No one wants to have to pay a bribe to get a, you know, a permit --

Bill Bishop: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- for their addition on their house or running --

Bill Bishop: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- their business or anything. I mean, it's awful.

Bill Bishop: Or dirty cops. So, that’s when --

Chris Hayes: Right. Right.

Bill Bishop: -- it's extremely popular and well-received and continues and there have been significant improvements made. You know, they’ve been lumpy. You know, China is a big place with multiple levels of government and a long history of several thousands of years of problems with grassroot officials being corrupt. And so, it's sort of an unwinnable battle but he's fighting it.

The other piece though which the Communist Party has a corruption agency that they call it the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and it's seen as the sort of the anticorruption enforcers. But it also has a real ideological role. It enforces ideological discipline and increasingly over the years has enforced adherence to policies, command at the central government.

And so, this corruption crackdown very quickly became both a corruption bad behavior crackdown as well as an ideological crackdown --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- and has been used as a way to push much more ideological conformity towards this sort of Xi Jinping thought concept and that again was also used as a way to help him consolidate power.

Chris Hayes: It also seems that a lot of the aspects of the sort of surveillance state of China and some of the more sort of ham-fisted authoritarian methods of population control have been I don’t know if exacerbated, extended, innovated under Xi.

I mean, the Hong Kong example is sort of the most obvious where they’ve really just essentially, you know, stopped with the kind of two worlds, you know, model and basically --

Bill Bishop: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- brought it fully under CCP control in ways that were precipitated, you know, protests, which were huge departures in a place that had been functioning as essentially somewhat, you know, a small liberal city state.

But in other places as well, I mean, obviously, what they've done with Uyghurs which, you know, I think my understanding began before him but has been incredibly brutal. And then just like the everyday levels of surveillance, which, again, I only get this through reading the Western press, but does seem like extreme on the spectrum of societies in the world right now to be quite extreme even comparatively speaking.

Bill Bishop: Yeah. I think, you know, there are strains in the Communist Party and in sort of Chinese history, imperial history of attempts at very close surveillance and very close social control that was very tight during the Mao era even though the technology was really not there.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: It got pretty loose. It happened if they really wanted to go after somebody but it got pretty loose in the sort of late '90s or 2000s. It's come back with much more vigor and money in the Xi era. But also it's a convergence of this sort of pushing much harder on ideological discipline and control combined with the explosion in technology that makes so much more surveillance and control possible, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: And so, sort of a perfect storm or a confluence of all these factors that have allowed for the kind of social control systems that, frankly, they're not an anomaly in terms of the desire of the Party during the Xi era but they're just something that he has more capacity and capability than any really of his predecessors have had.

And certainly, Xinjiang out of Western China where the Uyghurs primarily live, you know, there's been a lot of Western reporting over the years although not recently because they’ve restricted access. But they’ve looked at how surveillance systems were built and control systems were built. And one of the concerns that a lot of people had was will this then be exported to the rest of China.

And some of the worst have not yet but some of the bits look like they are coming and certainly, like in the wake of these protests in November, you had reports of police just stopping young people in the streets and taking their phones and either getting their passwords or plugging a device and downloading their data, which is something that is done regularly in Xinjiang.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: So what I said earlier, I mean, Xi is different in the way that he's kind of just more in your face and more, I think, of a risk taker and more assertive. But many things that are underway in the Xi era actually have a lot of continuity with previous eras if that makes sense.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. That makes sense. One more thing I want to kind of establish before we move to COVID is just when you talk about this, it's so hard, I think, for people, you know, of a certain age or younger, right, who didn't grow up in the context of the Cold War, in the context of, you know, global communism, Marxism-Leninism as this sort of, you know, massive counter-hegemonic force.

You know, these things like, you talked about criminology, you talked about the Central Committee and the Politburo, when you talked about Xi Thought, like just the forms of ideological consolidation, indoctrination, propagandizing that happened and, again, in the Chinese context, it's both the mechanics of communism and much longer Chinese traditions of governance in a place that has one of the longest governing traditions on planet Earth.

Talk just a little bit like what does it mean when you say like the ideological enforcement or Xi Thought, like what does that look like? What is the corpus? What's the ideological vision that is being, you know, imposed and cultivated and enforced?

Bill Bishop: Well, you know, it's a Marxist-Leninist system. You know, the Leninist side is a lot of the discipline. Xi Thought, you know, it’s called a great leap in the sinification of Marxism, right?

The whole schtick for the Communist Party is they took Marxism, which is a foreign, you know, Western idea of, you know, body of thought, and over the last hundred years, they have continually evolved and sort of reworked it to fit Chinese characteristics or to Chinese realities.

And so, you know, I think a real Marxist would probably tell you it doesn't really look Marxist to me. But it's what their ideology is. And so, they can't change it. They can't say we're no longer Marxist. They have to keep updating it.

And so the Xi thought is, I mean literally, the term they use is a great leap in the sinification of Marxism, right? It's the next level and how they integrate it with Marxism and then traditional Chinese sort of values and philosophies.

What it is really is it's about much more state control. It's about much more state presence in your life. It's about much more state role in the economy. It's about very much pushing back on any of the sort of the liberal values that we aspire to here in the U.S., very much a sort of sees any of these liberal ideas from the West especially as hostile, sees Western political systems and political structures as hostile, and things that need to be sort of kept out and cracked down on if there's any sign of these coming.

But in terms of, you know, when you look at sort of a Marxist society or a communist society, you know, their Gini coefficient, which measures wealth inequality, I think is higher than ours. I mean, they don’t have as many or more billionaires than we do, right? I mean, there's lots of these contradictions.

And people say, well, they're not really communist or, you know, they don’t really believe this, one of the big questions has been over the last few years especially is, well, maybe Xi does actually believe this stuff, right? Maybe this is actually something that Xi, because his formal education basically stopped in the late '60s and all of his self-study that he did was reading like Marx and Engels and Lenin and Mao, is it’s quite possible that actually this is his worldview.

And certainly, when you look at how they look at the world from a geopolitical perspective and look at how history is supposed to develop, there's very much a Marxist viewpoint in terms of that. But it's a real mishmash and in many ways, it's a whatever it takes to keep the Communist Party in power, whatever it takes to push back against foreign especially Western ideas and whatever it takes to keep the economy running so long as we can control it, is sort of a very simplistic, I would say, crystallization of what it looks like.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, I think that point is actually really well taken particularly for people that are essentially amateurs here, right? People that don't follow China all the time but obviously plays an enormous role in the news.

It's the largest country in Earth and, you know, the largest economy and will be, you know, probably out into the future in many decades to take seriously in some ways the ideological commitments of its leaders. I mean, this is like it's not just --

Bill Bishop: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- all, you know, in the same way that you take seriously the ideological commitments of American leaders who violate those principles all the time for constantly, you know, backing strongmen, doing all these things but are actually guided by some set of ideological precepts even though they're constantly, you know, contradicting them or denying them or --

Bill Bishop: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- sort of cynically marshaling them. They are real and they do have a sort of operating force. And I think that's useful, I think, for all of us as we think about China.

Bill Bishop: I think that's a good point and I think, you know, one way I've heard people describe it is they say, you know, I think it's sort of like the Catholic Church where, of course, Catholicism, what guides it but not everyone is a Catholic.

Chris Hayes: Right. Right. Right.

Bill Bishop: Right.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: The same way. Like, you know, there is a communist, it's Communist Party, Xi Jinping talks about being a good communist. But how many of them are actually really communists.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: But in some ways, it doesn't matter because that's their lodestar.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: That’s their entire intellectual ideological sort of policy framework. And so, it does matter and it is important to listen to what they say and try to understand what they're trying to say.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: So, well, let's talk about COVID, the COVID era of Xi. So, obviously, COVID-19 is first discovered and found in China. And there's a lot of controversy and claims and counterclaims about its origins that I don't want to get into and litigate.

I mean, basically, how I would summarize them is --

Bill Bishop: Right. We don’t know.

Chris Hayes: -- we don’t know. I mean, basically, what we know is it first appeared in Wuhan. There's a fair amount of evidence that is non-dispositive that it started around a certain market in Wuhan. But --

Bill Bishop: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- the information that we would need to know to rule out the possibility that it came from a lab that was researching virology and particularly coronaviruses that was also located near there, we just don't have access to that evidence, partly because the Chinese government won't hand it over.

And even if that isn't the most likely scenario, given all the other possible scenarios in outcome tracer (ph), there's just no way to just positively rule it out. So, we don't really know. What we do know is it does crop up in that area in 2019.

And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the early response, like the December, you know, the earliest, earliest response in China to the appearance of this novel coronavirus.

Bill Bishop: Sure. So, it was right around now three years ago in Wuhan --

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Exactly.

Bill Bishop: -- and you started seeing rumors, I think it was really right before New Year, right, so, it would be three years ago next week, where their stuff was starting to pop up online that there was something going on in Wuhan that was SARS-like. And SARS, of course, was the big outbreak in 2003, '04, I think.

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Bill Bishop: 2003.

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Bill Bishop: And ultimately, the Chinese covered it up, covered it up then it was exposed and then it didn't spread, it wasn't like this, it wasn't really transmissible. So, it didn’t become a global pandemic, it didn’t kill that many people.

But anyway, so, Wuhan, you started hearing these things that something's going on. There's some weird illness. Some doctors started talking about, one who posted it in a group then multiple people in that group were called in, warned by the police, they shouldn’t talk about it, had to come out and say, you know, it was not true.

Then all the media piled on and said there's, you know, these rumor mongers who are talking about this illness that it's not there. And then they went about their business in Wuhan.

Through the third week of January, because there was a big political meeting for, I think, the provincial or the municipal leaders, it was coming up on the Lunar New Year holiday, so, there's bunch of celebrations and much big outdoor public events.

And so, this thing was spreading and there were more reports about it in early January then it was, well, it doesn't spread human to human so it's not that risky. And then it was only about the second week of January where they brought an expert who went down and get back and said it spreads human to human, and then things started to get crazy.

I hate the origin discussion, I did a whole podcast on it, too, just because we don't know and whatever --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- you say, it's like it just inflames emotions and theories and it's really hard to have a great conversation. What I think is fair to say though is that the Wuhan government at least, they absolutely covered it up.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: One of the leading Chinese public health professionals had bragged about how in the wake of SARS in the 2000s, they created a surveillance system across the country so SARS could never happen again. And what happened was the doctors in Wuhan circumvented it. The local officials told them don’t report that stuff.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: Right. And so, whatever the origin was, there were massive sort of intentional decisions, very bad decisions were made by local officials that allowed this to spread and effectively become the pandemic it became.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Hold on one second, I just want to hit that --

Bill Bishop: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- because I think it's actually important because this has been through the prism of American politics as it becomes a kind of polarizing our ideological point. But just as the best as we can tell and when you look at the reporting, the record, like whatever the origins, they did try to cover up and suppress knowledge of it early on, local Chinese authorities, and that was really deleterious to public health, like had really, really bad effects.

Bill Bishop: Yeah. Your earlier comment about how you tried to contain it -

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- they missed those windows. That was --

Chris Hayes: Right. Right.

Bill Bishop: -- their moment to contain it and they said, they had built --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- the whole plans about how they would do that in the wake of SARS and they short -circuited it.

Chris Hayes: Right. Right.

Bill Bishop: For political reasons. It's three years ago. It is very infuriating. And it's sort of like the original sin of the pandemic whatever happened, right? So, then Wuhan gets out of control. The Chinese leadership, Xi Jinping had disappeared. He, you know, regularly disappeared from the propaganda.

And all this was out. It was sort of bubbling up. And there are awful videos of hospitals overrun and people dying and, you know, bodies stacked up in medical wards. So, finally, they stepped in right on the, I think, Lunar New Year's Day and announced that they're shutting down Wuhan. They're closing the city off and they closed it for about two months.

And Wuhan was the epicenter. There were other cities where they had it but they were able to, you know, make the interventions to basically isolate people, quarantine them, trace them, track them.

And by April or so of 2000 (sic), China was pretty much back to normal. They closed borders for the most part. It made it very difficult for anyone to come to the country.

But really for the rest of 2000 (sic) and much of 2021, life was normal inside China. And China was also seen as, you know, it was good. The supply chains came back online. They actually helped us and helped the rest of the world because, you know, for manufacturing things we needed.

But they went kind of crazy on the propaganda where they used this as, as the epidemic or the pandemic started spreading here especially and also in Europe and we had, you know, horrible scenes with people dying and hospitals overrun, they really turned this into, our system is superior. You know, we put human life first. We value human lives. America especially doesn't. And, you know, look at them, ours just proves that the Communist system, you know, our social system is superior. We are keeping you safe.

What that meant was, first of all, the propaganda wrote itself at least part of the time given sort of the craziness that was going on here and the U.K.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: But what I meant was that --

Chris Hayes: You know, I was just going to say, it's a little --

Bill Bishop: Right. I mean --

Chris Hayes: -- it's a little of a propaganda layout. Like I can't, it's a (inaudible).

Bill Bishop: Sometimes, propaganda is true, right?

Chris Hayes: You're right. Yeah. You're right. Right.

Bill Bishop: So, you got this mix where people in China are actually pretty happy with the government, right, through the rest of 2000 (sic) into 2021 because life is basically normal and, of course, they magnified things, the rest of the world looks like terrifying.

And they tell people, COVID's awful, it's terrible. You know, even they got people really afraid of getting it. So, people were very careful around, you know, masking and social distancing and all these things.

And they were able to maintain this pretty well until really late last year when Omicron started hitting. And Omicron, because it's so much more transmissible, just broke everything. So, the challenge though as they sort of went through then you saw these lockdowns in some cities that are not really well known in the West like Xi'an about a year ago, which is a big city but it's where the terracotta warriors are.

But what really sort of showed that their policies are breaking was the Shanghai lockdown in March of this year, in late March, early April. And the problem was they had put so much political capital into this what ultimately became known as the dynamic zero-COVID policy, which was we're not going to be zero COVID but as soon as we see a case, we're going to intervene, we're going to put that person in quarantine, we're going to put all their contacts and those contacts' contacts in quarantine and we're going to shut parts of the city.

And, you know, they were able to do this because they built the technology around how to, you know, basically track everybody and you had to check in and you're going to get tested on a regular basis.

I mean, I'm tapping ahead because we could spend hours talking about --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- the infrastructure they built up. But they built up this massive infrastructure to support this dynamic zero-COVID policy involving testing, involving tracking and tracing and quarantining. Up until sort of early this year, people were like, okay, this is fine, we're safe, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: This thing isn't coming in. They rolled out their vaccines. They had a reasonably good uptick at the beginning but they didn't really push that hard. There was not a course of vaccine campaign.

You know, into 2021, as people started saying like, we're fine in China, maybe this is passing and we're okay, vaccines can cause side effects people think and there are histories of vaccine scandals in China. So, there is a fair amount of vaccine hesitancy. It's like probably the side effects might be worse than this thing because we're unlikely to ever get it because the government's taking care of us, right? They're keeping it from spreading.

Chris Hayes: I want to actually stay on this for a little bit because it really was, again, I don't want to, in anyway politically or ideologically endorse this approach, right? To quote Lee Greenwood, I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free.

But just at the technical level, right, because they really did succeed in suppressing it and not having the kinds of outbreaks the rest of the world did for --

Bill Bishop: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- you know, a good year through this year and a half --

Bill Bishop: Policies they built up.

Chris Hayes: Just a remarkable feat, just in and of itself, I mean, talk a little bit, everyone has an app. You're constantly being traced, right? You get notifications. If there's a COVID case, you have to be quarantined. Just talk a little bit of how invasive the kind of quarantining, the forced shutdowns were when they happened because that's a huge part of it.

And I think Americans think like Americans just have the wrong idea of what, quote-unquote, lockdown looks like because like even in other European countries, it's like, in France, you couldn't go outside except to go get groceries.

You know, we had this very laissez faire lockdown compared to other places and those places had laissez faire lockdowns compared to China where you were essentially imprisoned.

Bill Bishop: Yeah. Well, I mean, so, it was also one of those things where there was different implementation depending on the city or the province. But there became a COVID industrial complex. I mean, they spent tens and tens of billions of dollars on all the various interventions and control measures and people were making a lot of money. And this is important for, I think, we get further in discussion. But so --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- you ended up where you had these apps and they were actually like a central government level app, they were done by at each sort of provincial level that had a health code that would be green, yellow, or red. And if you were red, you're screwed. You couldn't go anywhere. You probably need to go into quarantine or you couldn’t leave your house.

Yellow, you had to go get tested. Green was like you’re fine, you can enter places. You can go on, you know, travel. You can go on public transport.

And then they track because they use data from the big three state-owned telecom companies to track everybody's movement. So, they knew if in case you visited a city or town, you know, three days ago and then you get home to Shanghai and then somebody in that town tests positive and you were --

Chris Hayes: You're right.

Bill Bishop: -- within a certain district, your app will turn yellow because you're a close carrier or a close contact, whatever. Then you have to go get tested and you have to prove, you know, your test has to be negative. If positive, then you probably get pushed, taken off to one of these quarantine facilities.

Or depending on how the local officials were implementing it or you just basically be stuck in your apartment for 10, 14 days where there were some scenes of literally, and this did really happen in the bigger cities but where people be welded into their apartments which, I mean, literally, like they'd weld the bar across.

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Bill Bishop: You couldn't open your door. Mostly though, it was a technology --

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Bill Bishop: -- basis and they put a little thing on your door. If you open the door, an alarm would go off. So the Chinese Communist Party, you know, really, they built up over decades this grassroots governance structure that goes down to the basic neighborhood level and it was very active in the Mao era.

It then sort of waned through the beginning of the Xi era and it's something that Xi had revitalized, anyway, as sort of where you had people in your neighborhood, that neighborhood watch committee kind of thing but with a lot more, sort of, power than say, you have here.

And all those folks were activated. Some were paid, some were volunteers to basically watch everybody in their community. And so, you ended up with --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- it sort of became like a doom loop as Omicron hit where you had these lockdowns that were sort of smaller pre-March or pre-February of this year, mostly manageable with couple of exceptions. And all of a sudden, it just became sort feeding on itself because Omicron meant so many people were infected.

And then you ended up with this situation like Shanghai where you literally had people who were food insecure, some people, you know, a lot of suicides that didn’t go reported. People were locked in their homes for weeks. You couldn't get food delivered.

I mean, it was just like for all this talk of this, you know, the amazing planning capacity of the Communist Party, when it came to these lockdowns, they kept making the same mistakes in all the cities. It's like they would suddenly go on lockdown. They hadn't prepared.

But more importantly, this lockdown which was really the manifestation of this dynamic zero-COVID policy, dynamic zero-COVID, this policy became a signature policy of Xi Jinping.

Chris Hayes: Right. So, then he can't abandon that.

Bill Bishop: He can't abandon it but also local officials can't deviate from it. And one of the crazy incentives that was built into the system with the politics was basically if you have a city, if you're the mayor the party sector, the party sector is ahead of the mayor in the hierarchy in a Chinese city, if you have a lockdown and a bunch of people, you know, post videos at their sector, they can't get see a doctor and some die and, you know, there are multiple videos of people dying, trying to get in the emergency room because they couldn't get in the emergency room because they weren't taking patients because of COVID, you know, awful scenes, you had a bigger political problem.

And your career was more likely to be affected if you had an outbreak as opposed to you had some people who starve or couldn't get, see --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- medical care, right? So, from the perspective of the people, the incentives became a bit perverse. And so, you ended up with these lockdowns that for the people in them, looked, on the one hand, we understand, but it's became irrational and stuff wasn’t being delivered.

And it became increasingly untenable. Really, the moment where people realized this is getting crazy was Shanghai in April and May where they took really one of the most amazing cities in the world and one of the most (inaudible) in the world and just basically turned it into, I mean, it just became completely dysfunctional.

And you know, forget what we see in the West. You know, there's a lot of class structure in China and, you know, people in Shanghai can sort of deal with some of these things happening to people who are in Shanghai, out in the provinces or sort of the rural areas. But all of a sudden, all of this course of measures, all these controls, all this dysfunction around sort of the lockdown happened to them and they're, you know, middle class, upper middle class. This is not the life they expected.

This not what they understood the governance to be or you know, they thought they had some rights to be perfectly blunt. But then because Shanghai is such an important city, so influential, of course, and everyone sort of paying attention within China and outside and Shanghai released in May and then you started, again, rolling lockdowns in all the cities at one point, I think, 20 percent of China's GDP was in some sort of a lockdown.

And it just became untenable because people were getting really upset, lives were being destroyed, nobody was making money. The economy was being destroyed. Local governments were running out of money.

You know, I know unfunded mandates are a big deal here on Capitol Hill, well, they exist in other countries, too. And so --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- these local governments are being told, you know, you pay for testing, you pay for the quarantine facilities. It's, you know, your top political order but you find the money. And because of other things were happening in sort of the policy running around in the economy and specifically in real estate, a lot of these local governments were running out of money, anyway.

So, it became this really crazy, unstable situation by sort of August, September of this year.

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: Before we get into sort of it coming apart, I have to say that I don't see the U.S. is like in competition with the Chinese system in any way. You know, again, probably from my own, you know, patriotism, chauvinism, whatever, like, I prefer the American system.

But I have to just stress this because it really feels important and it feels a little lost, I got a say in the current coverage. If China had the U.S. fatality rate for the first part of the pandemic, you know, there'd be 4 million more people dead thereabouts.

I mean --

Bill Bishop: Yeah. They saved a lot of lives.

Chris Hayes: -- they saved millions and millions of lives. I mean --

Bill Bishop: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- no question. And this is not, like, oh, they rigged the numbers, they're lying about it. Those people had died at the rate we know. We would have known about it, right? Like, you can't hide that.

Bill Bishop: Right. No, that’s right. The data weren't great but you can't like at that magnitude. It's very difficult.

Chris Hayes: Exactly.

Bill Bishop: It's very, very hard in this day and age.

Chris Hayes: And in fact, we're seeing what happens, right, when a natural outbreak happens, like, you can't stay on top of it. If they had had what we had, we would have known --

Bill Bishop: Yes.

Chris Hayes: And if they had what we had --

Bill Bishop: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- it would have been the destruction of millions of people's lives. And I do think that, like, as we cover the end of their COVID policy, I think with a little bit of, like, I don’t know, schadenfreude or whatever it is, one of the things I come back to is COVID's a really hard problem.

Like be careful where you go.

Bill Bishop: Where there are no winners, there are no winners.

Chris Hayes: There's no winners.

Bill Bishop: Yes.

Chris Hayes: If you choose what your losses are going to look like --

Bill Bishop: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- and some places have done better than others and I don’t think the Chinese model is the one that I think is the best model at all, but it's also the case that you could take a whole bunch of different governments, a whole bunch of institutions and governing structures and approaches and it's some level you're dealing with what you're willing to sacrifice and what your losses are going to to be and where they're going to come.

And in the case of China, the thing you can say is there are millions of Chinese people alive who probably wouldn't be if they hadn't pursued what they pursued.

Bill Bishop: No, I agree with that. And I think one of the big frustrations certainly that a lot of people have now and especially the people who are suffering in China, some of them is, you know, they made all these sacrifices for this sort of zero-COVID --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- environment that worked really well until late 2020, thereabouts. But then they squandered all that sacrifice because they didn't push forward --

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Right.

Bill Bishop: -- with the --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- broad-based factor. You talked about earlier how, you know, they didn't push hard on vaccinations. You think it's such a coercive place, they could have forced people to get vaccinated. But they weren't willing to for whatever reason and --

Chris Hayes: That’s wild.

Bill Bishop: -- you know, there are lots of different hypotheses but they weren't willing to force the vaccinations. They didn't stock up on, you know, there are shortages of fever-reducing drugs, shortages of ibuprofen in China right now, most major cities.

They didn’t plan. They didn’t actually make sort of the reopening plan. It became its sort of its own zero-COVID is the thing and I don’t know but because no officials felt comfortable planning for something else because it was sort of Xi's signature policy or, I don’t know.

They thought they had something in the pipeline, some better vaccine that never came. You know, one thing I hear a lot, which I do, not from you but I just want to make the point is, you know, you hear some sort of, I think about fairly simplistic views, oh, well, their biggest mistake was they didn’t approve the mRNA vaccines.

And it was a mistake, right? mRNA, they're not panaceas. They wouldn't have solved --

Chris Hayes: No.

Bill Bishop: -- all their problems. They would have been in better position if they have taken in Pfizer and Moderna and gone through the booster program then on, you know, booster number three for vulnerable populations.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: But the Chinese vaccines are much better than nothing and, you know, have shown efficacy in reducing, like, severe illness and death. We're going to find out, sadly, over the next few weeks just how good they are in a way that, I mean, there are going to be some really tragic outcomes and I mean, it is shocking how quickly this thing is spreading in China.

And there's no data. They stopped testing. And they're lying --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Bill Bishop: -- about the test. We're in s a really deeply worrisome and volatile moment right now. I think it's going to last for the next few weeks or a couple of months.

Chris Hayes: So, before we get to that, let's just talk about the sort of final coming undone of dynamic zero-COVID because, you know --

Bill Bishop: Okay.

Chris Hayes: -- because It was clear as untenable. It's sort of coming apart, as you said, the central party of the Congress which happens every five years happened in October, that’s where Xi gets another term. In the last six weeks or so, it seemed like there was this real upspring of revolt and protest and, you know, the rare images of street protest which you really don’t get a lot of out of China --

Bill Bishop: No.

Chris Hayes: -- showing up in major cities. Tell me a little bit just about that moment, how widespread that was, what you think, did that represent --

Bill Bishop: Sure.

Chris Hayes: -- something? Was that the tip of the iceberg of a sort of broadly popular sentiment? Was that a more kind of vanguard of a specific class of people? What's your sense?

Bill Bishop: So, one thing is China actually has protests like, couple hundred protests a day on average. So, protests are not rare.

Chris Hayes: Right. Right.

Bill Bishop: What's rare is protests in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai and rare among sort of white-collar types and students. You see a lot of labor disputes, a lot of land disputes in rural areas.

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Bill Bishop: So, they have a way - you know, they're used to dealing with protests but these were different. And so, there were two protests that sort of happened near each other which were related but also quite distinct and the first big one was at the Foxconn facility in Zhengzhou in Henan Province which is in center of China where Apple makes a large percentage of their top iPhone models.

And there were issues, you know, Foxconn had gone into this what they called closed-loop management to keep workers working and not get sick in sort of limited outside contact. And then outbreak workers were not being treated well. They thought there were those videos. I'm sure a lot of people you saw, a lot of listeners saw people, like, running away from the factory in Foxconn and jumping over the walls and walking home.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: And then Foxconn brought in new workers and those workers, a lot of them were military veterans. They thought they had promised one thing in terms of pay and then they thought the terms have changed, so they started protesting. You saw those protests. And they got relatively violent and there were some pretty crazy images out of that.

And that was really more related to money than specifically COVID policy. But they were well known across the country. And then about a week later, you had these protests where people, starting with some students, held up a white piece of paper in silence --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- as a way to express. You can't say things but just that piece of paper can mean lots of different things to lots of people.

Chris Hayes: An incredible object lesson for every philosophy of language class on floating --

Bill Bishop: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- signifiers and meaning.

Bill Bishop: Yes.

Chris Hayes: It's just incredible.

Bill Bishop: And so, you know, the Communist Party, especially after 1989 has worked really hard to figure out how to prevent protests from spreading when they start and has put a huge amount of work both in terms of personnel and in the security services and technology to prevent any sort of large-scale outbreaks.

And one of things they worry the most about is they worry about protests that involve multiple geographies simultaneously and multiple different classes or sort of --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- socioeconomic groups. And so, these protests were, I think extremely worrisome to the leadership because they involve students. They involve workers. They involve white-collar people. They involve, you know, people hitting the streets of Shanghai and Beijing in ways that, really, we hadn't seen in a very long time.

And for the most part, people were talking about, you know, they wanted to be let out of lockdown. They wanted relaxation on the COVID restrictions. They wanted relaxation on censorship because the censorship, it's always existed in one (ph) of the Communist Party. It's gotten significantly more suffocating over the last year.

And, you know, one of the things like you saw in Shanghai, we had these crazy lockdowns and we had 20-plus-million people locked down for weeks at a time. Very few people, if any, actually, hit the streets. There was a huge amount of venting online but the party, historically, has allowed that sort of online venting because --

Chris Hayes: Mm-hmm.

Bill Bishop: -- it's the way to let people get it out and they move on. They can scream into their computer, scream into their phone and then the next day they feel better, they move on, they understand that it's too costly to protest in a physical way because of the coercive nature of the security services.

This time, this people are like, we can't even get it out online, so we're going to go to the streets. And so, that was quite shocking. And the ones in Shanghai and Beijing were peaceful. There were some protests in Wuhan where there were also lockdowns. They got a little more violent.

You also had this other bit of protests which were individual communities in cities like Beijing where people were basically pushing back on these local grassroots workers who'd lock them into their compounds and said you have no legal right to lock us down.

And they would, you know, they got lawyers who write out sort of quoting the law and then give them a guide about how you can argue, you call the police and you tell the police there's no legal basis for locking us in so you have to let us out. And so, that started happening. And so, basically, it just all started falling apart into the second week of November.

Now, at the same time, you know, there were already indications that the government was moving towards a relaxation, both public and nonpublic. There were bits going on that made it look like they were realizing that they were now in an untenable situation.

And then the protests happened. And so, the big question is how much did the protests drive the decision-making to accelerate reopening. And we don’t have a great answer. "The Wall Street Journal" had a good story from one of their best China reporters a couple of weeks ago that said that the founder of Foxconn had written to policymakers in Beijing to basically say that unless you change this policy, you're going to put at risk the idea that China has a secure or stable supply chains and you're going to see an increasingly large exodus of big companies moving out of China to produce stuff elsewhere, which is then for them, it's a huge problem because it's tied to employment.

And they already have an unemployment problem. So, this would lead to potentially millions of more people unemployed. And then you had all the local governments that some were literally running out of money. So, it looks like you just had this confluence of all these different pressures both from a money perspective and from a social perspective, and frankly, from an Omicron perspective, which, I think, they realized it was an impossible task to contain it unless they were going to destroy the economy and, you know, have rolling lockdowns of hundreds of millions of people into the foreseeable future.

And so, then they just said, okay. And what is shocking everybody inside the system, outside the system, is how quickly they just said okay. And instead of some sort of a phased approach, they just basically said let it rip. You know, they say that’s not we're doing, that’s what they're doing.

And how unprepared they were. No stockpiles, no accelerated vaccine. I mean, just okay, there you go. And so now we're approaching just the worst days of the pandemic are now people are experiencing that in multiple cities in China.

Some of the stuff that’s --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- coming out around, I mean, it's really unfortunate. And, you know, it's heartbreaking to see. I mean, you know, I'm a big user on WeChat, a lot of WeChat groups. I saw in-laws (sp?) there, you know, lots of people, most people I know in Beijing have gotten sick in the last couple of weeks who have tested positive.

Today, was the first day where I opened one of these groups and they were talking about three people they know who died. I didn’t know them but it was just clearly, like, people are starting to realize that more and more people are actually dying here in Beijing.

And it's terrible. And, you know, maybe it was unavoidable but there's a real tragedy underway right now that, you know, whatever your politics are, from a humanitarian perspective, this could be a really rough couple of months in China.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, I have heard estimates. I heard one estimate. And again, and all the information here is a little hard to get, obviously, because if I saw someone, I saw, I think it was a WeChat post that someone had screen-grabbed and put on Twitter and, you know, a manner and that was like showing the Chinese governments like cases going down, you know, over the last few weeks, like, you know, the official number --

Bill Bishop: Yeah. There had been no deaths.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: It's like just don’t say anything rather than just put out the stuff that everybody knows which is lies. It's just --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- it's nuts.

Chris Hayes: And the thing that, my point being, it's hard to get official epidemiological information because official statistics are completely, you know, ridiculous at this point. But, you know, I've heard estimates of a doubling time in some places in China of 12 to 16 hours, right?

So, the worst we've ever got in the U.S. was like three days, I think. I mean just a level of transmission that is basically unlike anything that has happened in the pandemic --

Bill Bishop: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- anywhere so far.

Bill Bishop: No, that, I think, is from alternative data sets, people have been using like around sort of Internet searches for positive or fevers or these things. And certainly, anecdotally, again, everybody I know in Beijing is basically, with maybe one exception, has tested positive.

So, one theory is, okay, this was circulating way before they announced the lockdowns and they were lying about the numbers then. And then this is just --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: -- some more of a refraction of reality and we don't know versus it's been massively accelerated and exacerbated by the sudden reopening. And the problem, one of this has happened, right, is the sort of the top health experts, there is sort of people who are quite prominent in the propagandist system have been talking for the last two and a half years about how awful COVID was, all the damage it can do to you, how, you know, long COVID is terrible.

The U.S. economy will be harmed for decades because of the damage to the workforce from all the people who got long COVID because the government didn't care if you got sick or not. And then in the last few weeks, all of a sudden, there's no such thing as long COVID.

This should be renamed the corona by one of their top experts, the guy they trotted out --

Chris Hayes: Jesus.

Bill Bishop: -- at the beginning of the pandemic in January of 2020, to basically say this is serious, it's human-to-human in transmission, this guy, Zhong Nanshan, I mean, he's in his 80s, now he came out and said, oh, really it's Omicron, the symptoms are much milder, so just be called the coronavirus cold.

And so, let's hope that true. The problem is, like, anything in China, the numbers are just so outside the scope of most people's imagination that so there is one expert who gave a speech last week. He's retired but he estimated 80 to 90 percent of Chinese people will get it. The people in China will get it in the next several months. That’s over a billion people.

And then this person who says it's more like the coronavirus cold said, oh, well, the death rate should be, you know, less than 0.1 percent. Well, if you had a billion who get it and the death rate is 0.05 percent, that’s 500,000 people dying.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: Not including the people who died because they couldn’t go to the hospital or you have other illnesses treated because the medical system was being overrun.

Chris Hayes: I mean, that’s the other aspect of this. I mean, first of all, I would say about Omicron, you know, I think it's poorly understood here. The worst deaths we ever had in the U.S. was Omicron because of how its transmissibility. So, you know, it's just a numbers game, right? Like even if it's a fraction, even in --

Bill Bishop: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- a vaccinated country, it's a fraction of a very large number. And in the U.S., we were, you know, back up north of however many thousand of deaths a day and in the worst part of Omicron winter was just basically a year ago. So, you know, and that’s in a place that, I think, is in some ways was more vaccinated than China is now.

So, the math there just doesn’t end up in the aggregate, helping you much even if the individual risks to any given person, you know, feels --

Bill Bishop: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- lower which is actually part of the problem because it's harder to get, to collect the behavioral response under those conditions so it's even more wicked problem and we actually saw that in the U.S.

But also, you know, the reason the countries haven't gone with let it rip, generally, isn't necessarily because the humanitarian concern, although that’s been part of it, it's because health infrastructures incredibly important part of any society's pillars, whatever its economic or political institutions, and they don’t want their hospitals overrun. And that’s the other fear I have to have about China, right?

I mean, like, just hospital capacity. Look, any place that you have untrammeled outbreaks with this thing, anywhere in the world whether it's one of the richest provinces in all of the EU, in Lombardy, in Italy near Milan, you know, or it’s New York City or it's Delhi, the hospital system gets overrun.

And so, --

Bill Bishop: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- you know, that seems like a huge concern in China.

Bill Bishop: No, it is. And I think that, as I said earlier, I just think there's a lot of reason to be really concerned for the next several weeks, couple of months, because Beijing has the best medical infrastructure in China. You know, we had kids there and this was a few years ago but we had a couple instances we had to spend a lot of time dealing with local hospitals. And we knew people so we could get in to see the right people and blah-blah-blah.

And even in the best of times, they're like overrun. I mean, it's just --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- especially the kids' hospitals. There are not enough doctors. There are not enough primary care facilities. So, it could get really problematic. And, you know, one of the things, again, we don’t know. There's some talk that Beijing, for example, that the cases have peaked because, like, most of the people have gotten it.

But that doesn’t mean it's over. It can roll on for a while, you know, severe illness, hospitalizations, death lag, the initial infection by, you know, a --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- a couple weeks at least. So, it could get much worse. And then, you go throughout the rest of the country and that’s why there are multiple models that are pretty dire that look at north of a million deaths over the course of this reopening.

You know, the Chinese official view is that it won't be nearly as bad. You know, they talk about, you know, they’re pushing really hard on traditional Chinese medicines, certain herbal combinations that they say reduce symptoms. Some people will tell you that they had the combinations that worked for SARS.

But, you know, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like they're really working right now. I mean, all over my WeChat are these awful stories of people, how their experience is trying to get their loved ones taken to the crematorium and how, like, they're taking them in their own cars because they're all overwhelmed so they're not setting the vehicles to pick up the bodies.

The furnaces in some of the crematoriums are, you know, they're overloading. They're like people having to pay. They're charging a whole bunch more money to get your loved one cremated today versus three weeks from now.

I mean, it's just awful, awful, awful stuff that I think really was stuff that was happening in a lot of places, it was happening, you know, with bodies backed up in New York, right? We have --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- awful imagery --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- from the worst part of the pandemic in New York. You know, you had it in Delhi. You had it in Wuhan. And, you know, the Communist Party is very good in controlling information. So there's a lot of stuff we're just not going to see. But it's, you know, impossible to have some of the stuff come out if it gets really bad.

And the other thing we're going to talk about, I think this is, you know, again, this is happening in a period where Xi, from a sort of a party, political power perspective looks stronger than he ever has, but this is adding this whole reopening new outbreak tragedy, potential real tragedy is, I think, can add a whole bunch of volatility towards the country, both economically and politically and socially over the next few months or year, at least.

And so, we're really in the early days, I think, where it's something that could be really quite disruptive both inside China and around the world.

Chris Hayes: As a sort of final thought, just say a little bit more about that because that was the next place I was going to go which is just like the ramifications here. And obviously, and, you know, people get angry when their loved ones die. And look, again, taking back to the --

Bill Bishop: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- U.S., like, I think everyone in the U.S. went through an enormous trauma that made everyone lose their minds a little bit in a bunch of different directions. And I don’t think, you know, part of that was the lockdown, but part of it was mass trauma.

And mass trauma --

Bill Bishop: Mass trauma --

Chris Hayes: -- makes people --

Bill Bishop: And we're not out of it yet.

Chris Hayes: No. We're not.

Bill Bishop: Never (ph) recovered.

Chris Hayes: No. And when I think about and just in the U.S. domestic sphere, I've really come to understand that the level of disruption of the pandemic and what it did sociologically, what it did spiritually, psychologically, politically, there were all these concentric circles of ripples that came out from it that we're still going through it, mental health crises and --

Bill Bishop: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- addiction levels that are through the roof. So, you know, and those play out through our system. You know, we have a democratic system, we have this very polarized political atmosphere that polarization's been exacerbated in some ways.

So, you could just imagine that, like, there are going to be ripple effects throughout all of Chinese society --

Bill Bishop: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- as they go through this.

Bill Bishop: And there aren’t the easy outlets that there are here because of the way speech --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- is censored, social media is controlled, information is controlled. It ends up sort of like a pressure cooker where you just sort of tie the top-down tighter or add another sort of layer steel on top of the pressure cooker unless you could find out, find ways to let out some of that pressure, let out some of that steam.

And, you know, it's one thing, when you're locked down, your life's inconvenienced, you're not making money, you're pissed off about censorship, it's one thing to sort of risk a pretty nasty security services system that is going to be working through a lot of those protestors from November and we'll never hear about it.

It's one thing to do that for those reasons. And not only, you do that if your loved ones died or was mistreated or, you know, you just --

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Yeah.

Bill Bishop: -- there's just a lot more volatility. But then from the economic perspective, you know, again, I'm coming around, really, I mean, what ultimately, I think, drove this was the economics. I mean, they lose a lot of legitimacy when the economy tanks. And the economy was tanking, so they have to restart the economy.

But this next several months where you have massive destruction, massive people sick, potentially makes the economy worse in the near term, potentially messes up supply chains that then cause us problems, ripple throughout the world, you know. And then you look at investors.

Investors got all excited in November because of all this talk of reopening and then, like, Hong Kong, the stock markets were up, you know, a lot and then they’ve sort of not really gone up or gone down a little bit since that sort of real reopening because I think people are starting to realize that there is potentially a much longer tale to this reopening than people expected.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: And so, the best case scenario is to say, it's mostly the cold or it's the flu and people die getting the flu and we’re through this in the January unlikely, you know, one of this is underway know as every year, there's a migration around the lunar New Year where the migrant workers who go from the countryside to cities throughout mostly on the eastern sea border in Southern China, they go home for six to eight weeks.

The lunar New Year is about a month from now. And so, they're all leaving now or they may have left a little early because of the outbreak. In normal years, it's a few hundred million people. This year, it may be smaller, but you'd now have in the middle of this outbreak, with this incredibly transmissible variant, you're going to have tens or hundred-plus million people travelling throughout the country.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Bill Bishop: And so, just the likelihood that this somehow was back to normal by, you know, February, March, doesn’t seem like a particularly likely scenario. It's not impossible. The party propaganda is out saying things will be back to normal by spring. Well, spring, I think, lasts till June. The summer starts in June.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Bill Bishop: So, you know, it could be several more months. It could be half a year. And in the meantime, it goes back to the question of did it have to be this way, did they have any other choice or just there are no winners of the pandemic. At some point, it comes for everybody.

And that’s what, I mean, I wish I knew the answer. Me, personally, I'm worried. I mean, I have a lot of friends in China, very, very worried right now. Because I just worry it's going to get really bad.

And I'm sorry to be so negative but I just think that --

Chris Hayes: No, no, no.

Bill Bishop: -- you know, it's so easy to just kind of sort of abstract away China and the Communist Party and we forget sort of the human element of what's going on. And just how bad it got here and you know, how bad it is getting for some people right now in China.

Chris Hayes: Bill Bishop writes the Substack newsletter called "Sinocism," that’s S-I-N-O-C-I-S-M. He's a long-time China watcher and reporter. He cofounded, lived and worked in China, cohost the Sharp China podcast. He's someone that I always turn to for China information. And that was just so, so, so exactly what I was looking for. Bill, thank you so much.

Bill Bishop: Thank you. It's a real honor to be here. I love your podcast.

Chris Hayes: Well, that was intense. And I'm going to be thinking a lot about that conversation and watching the news with my fingers crossed. But great thanks to Bill Bishop who really is a unique resource if interested. That Substack is really, really, a great resource if you're interested in China. I find it super useful.

As always, we'd love to hear your feedback. You can send us question, thoughts, tweet us with the #WITHpod. Email Be sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. "Why is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia. Engineered by Bob Mallory and featuring music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to