April 06, 2017
Premium stories from Worldcrunch's own network of multi-lingual journalists in over 30 countries.
The region I hail from in eastern France is a Lutheran Protestant enclave in a predominantly Catholic country. But the churches in my neck of the woods are considerably more subdued than Reykjavik's Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja in Iceland.
See more slides from My Grand-Père's World here.
Too much has been put in to the state-sponsored truth that minimal spread of the virus is the at-all-cost objective. But if the Chinese economy continues to suffer, Xi Jinping may have no choice but to second guess himself.
The tragic bus accident in Guiyang last month — in which 27 people being sent to quarantine were killed — was one of the worst examples of collateral damage since the COVID-19 pandemic began in China nearly three years ago. While the crash can ultimately be traced back to bad government policy, the local authorities did not register it as a Zero COVID related casualty. It was, for them, a simple traffic accident.
The officials in the southern Chinese province of Guizhou, of course, had no alternative. Drawing a link between the deadly crash and the strict policy of Zero COVID, touted by President Xi Jinping, would have revealed the absurdity of the government's choices.
Objectively speaking, Zero COVID may not necessarily be a bad policy in itself, as it is based on good intentions: to protect the health and lives of the public. During the first phase of the pandemic, and the onslaught of the Delta virus, Zero COVID did serve to protect the population, bringing the spread under control to the greatest extent possible, and allowing the economy to recover quickly.
In mainland China, there have been just over 5,000 deaths from COVID-19, most of them were in Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic, a low proportion compared to the country's total population. This can be credited to the “Zero Covid” policy, even if it has also caused a number of humanitarian disasters, such as the lockdown of Wuhan. Ultimately, we can conclude that Zero COVID had remained successful until the emergence of the Omicron variant.
Zero COVID has had the inverse effect of the stated purpose.
Its destructive side has emerged the longer it's been held in place. Since Omicron, Zero COVID has kept China's infection rate low, but the collateral damage and social cost has long since surpassed its benefits.
The crude and brutal nature of the policy, and the harm to people's individual interests and even their own life can be seen in the strict lockdowns, large-scale COVID testing and social isolation. As witnessed in Shanghai, Xi’ An and other cities, Zero COVID has proven to ultimately have the inverse effect of the stated purpose of protecting people's lives and health.
What concerns the public most now is how Zero COVID will change in the future
The examples of the harm of Zero COVID are too many to list. So the question now is, with the population extremely resentful and local officials struggling to maintain this policy, why is Xi sticking with Zero COVID? Hasn't he always taught officials to measure their governance by whether or not the people are satisfied? It shouldn't be based on sticking to a promise. Why is this criterion invalid for Zero COVID?
The answer lies in two factors: first, Xi's one-man leadership system prevents his personal will from being effectively corrected; second, his knowledge of Zero COVID's direct effectiveness in preventing the spread has kept him fixated on that goal.
During his visit to Wuhan in June, Xi declared: "If you see the overall picture, our measures to prevent the pandemic are the most economical and the most effective ... With the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the important grassroots base of local communities, we have the ability and strength to implement the Zero COVID policy until we achieve final victory."
The official party line and propaganda states that "the practice of the pandemic control in the past three years has proven that Zero COVID is scientific and in line with China's national context. This path is right and effective, and is the best option for China."
This is likely the extent of Xi's understanding of Zero COVID, which is based on the fact that China was able to contain the spread and maintain economic growth during the first phase of the pandemic. For Xi, since the approach proved to be correct back then, it is all the more important to stick to Zero COVID in the face of the Omicron virus, rather than changing or abolishing it.
The government doesn't trust the Chinese vaccine.
In addition, vaccination rates have not yet formed a sufficient barrier against the pandemic in a vast country like China with differences in local healthcare conditions. It was thought that if China followed the West's example of "mass vaccination," it would cause a spike in infections, resulting in a run on medical resources and ultimately causing unbearable losses to people's lives and property, with unthinkable consequences."
What the official media say is what officials think. The Chinese government, and probably Xi himself, don't trust the efficacy of the Chinese vaccine. But for reasons of so-called "vaccine nationalism," he is unwilling to approve the purchase of American and Western mRNA vaccines. Thus the policy of harsh lockdowns and mass testing had to be continued.
There will be an end to the pandemic at some point, and with it a way out of Zero COVID. But when?
What concerns the public most now is how Zero COVID will change in the future, and whether China will remain closed after three years of control. Some worry that China's Zero COVID could become a permanent policy.
However, there will be an end to the pandemic at some point, and with it a way out of Zero COVID. But when?
The scenario most likely to end the harsh lockdowns are more signs that the economy simply can longer sustain it. Now considered a consensus, China's economy is living through its worst period in more than a decade. If we don't see significant signs of growth, despite various stimulus measures, then Zero COVID might be abandoned sooner rather than later, though nothing would happen before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on October 16.
There is also a scenario of the pandemic lingering, the economy adjusting and the controls of Zero COVID never quite going away.
From businessmen to farmers, Ukrainian society has been militarizing for the past six months to defend its sovereignty. In the future it may find itself like Israel, permanently armed to protect its sovereignty.
The warning comes after Washington's latest military aid package to Ukraine.
Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.