Chance plays an underappreciated role in human affairs. Whether it is the weather or human error, unexpected events often change the course of history. The death of Ogedei Khan in 1242 halted the Mongol invasion of Europe. Constantine having a strange dream prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, advanced the cause of Christianity in Europe. The shifting winds at Salamis allowed the Greeks to defeat the superior Persian navy. Chance is often a player in human affairs.
A recent example is what happened in Iran. According to news reports, the experts gave Trump a list of options, with droning the general deliberately setup as the least pleasing option. For some reason, he picked that one. Maybe it is apocryphal or maybe they were just dumb about it, but the unexpected happened. Of course, the Iranian response was altered by the unexpected blunder of shooting down the passenger plane on the night of their response. No one imagined that happening.
We may be seeing a similar bit of chance in China, as she contends with what is becoming a very serious pandemic. Right now, the cause of this infection is being blamed on eating weird foods, but no one really knows. There are serious people wondering if this is not the result of some error in their bio-weapons program. The Chinese did steal coronavirus from Canada recently and we know they have a clandestine lab located in the area of the pandemic. It’s not an unreasonable suspicion.
A lot will depend on how things unfold over the next several weeks. If they are able to contain the spread and the death toll is limited, then the cause of this outbreak will not be important. The way the Chinese handled it will get the attention. On the other hand, if things get much worse, then people will want to know how this happened. Even in a big country like China, a million deaths will spawn a lot of speculation. No one is going to accept the bat stew argument or dumb luck as an excuse.
The thing is, chance often finds the raw nerve in society. For example, most Americans were always unsure about the competence of the Bush administration. The handling of the Katrina disaster confirmed in the minds of most Americans that the administration was not very competent. When Iraq started to go sideways, that lack of trust turned into a collapse in support. The public, especially conservative supporters, were unwilling to take the administration’s word for anything happening in Iraq.
Of course, the collapse of conservative support for Bush had consequences. Obama beat Clinton in large part on being an outsider. He also beat the fevered warmonger John McCain for similar reasons. It’s hard to know, but Katrina probably had more to do with putting Trump in the White House than anything else. His rise in the primary was due in large part to voters remembering the incompetence of the Bushies. An ill-timed storm did what the paleo-cons could not.
We may be about to see something similar in China. The last few decades have seen a great alteration of the country and the people. In one generation, families have gone from rural peasantry to urban middle class. The unprecedented economic boom in China has had unprecedented cultural changes. It’s also changed the nature of the ruling class as well. The combination of elements we see in modern China is not only totally new. It is untested. It has never been under pressure.
What China is today is an accidental compromise between the prosperous urban dwellers and the legacy ruling class. It just sort of happened. As long as the good times keep rolling, the new class of Chinese will tolerate the corruption and petty shenanigans of the ruling party. Dealing with crooked officials or petty tyrants harassing trouble makers is a tax people are willing to pay, when times are good. No one really knows what will happen if times stop being good.
This virus outbreak could be the big test. It really does not matter what actually caused it if the government is unable to contain it. People unhappy with the party will use the crisis as a chance to speak out against the party. That’s how rumors about the plague’s origin will emerge. Instead of blaming peasants eating bats, it will be bureaucrats experimenting with bio-weapons or perhaps experimenting on people. A crisis can easily become a vehicle for conspiracy theories about the state.
On the other hand, politics in China is fundamentally the same as politics everywhere else in the world. The people in charge of the party are at the top of a faction that is currently dominating the other factions. There is no question, for example, that there are factions unhappy with how Xi Jinping is handling trade issues with America. Some want a harder line, while others want a more conciliatory approach. A stumble in handling the pandemic could open up these riffs within the party.
Again, much will depend upon how events unfold in the coming weeks. As things stand, this virus has at least two characteristics experts predict will precede a disaster. One is the virus is contagious during the “incubation period.” This means people can spread the virus to others, weeks before they show signs of infection. This accelerates the spread, as authorities cannot react in time to quarantine the infected. Given modern travel, this is what makes this virus so concerning.
The other red flag is the mortality rate. The numbers coming out of China are mostly certainly wrong, but we have roughly 100 confirmed deaths and 3,000 cases. That’s a three percent mortality rate. The Spanish Flu was around ten percent, so this virus is not as deadly yet. That’s actually bad news, as it means the infected linger on and have a greater chance to infect new people. A quick death actually aids in quarantining a virus outbreak. More bad news for China here.
Again, nothing could come of it, but that’s how it works with chance. It is only after the fact that people see the long shadow of the unexpected event. The Persians did not grasp the significance of the skirmish at Thermopylae until they were being chased from the field at Platea. China could be on the verge of a great leap backwards, as her people turn up in hospitals with pneumonia. All the conditions are in place for chance to have a starring role in this story.
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