My review of the book, Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World

This is the best book on the pandemic I’ve read and one of the best books on current affairs I’ve ever read. Get it. Now. Read it. And share with your friends and family. I also address some quibbles and critiques I have of the book.

“The judges deferred to the politicians [on the pandemic]. The politicians deferred to the health officials. The health officials deferred to the WHO. The WHO deferred to China. And China deferred to Xi.”

Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World, p. 144.

Michael P. Senger offers a powerful critique in his 2021 book, Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World, of both domestic and global public health systems. The main focus of his ire is the “lockdown” policy that became the main tool of governments around the world for fighting the pandemic.

He argues that public health systems around the world have been commandeered by China’s Communist Party (CCP) through a type of economic and cultural warfare, and that Xi Jinping, China’s soon-to-be leader for life, executed a plan — “an unprecedented, international influence operation” — to intentionally shut down the world in response to the virus, as a way to gain economic and political advantages.

Let me outline his argument in more detail before I dive into my review:

1) the virus, which is not particularly novel, and not particularly deadly, was probably circulating widely in China, not just in Wuhan, long before November 2019, which is the official date of the first cases in Wuhan;

2) the identification of the virus and the swift lockdown of the large city of Wuhan was a choice by Xi and the CCP rather than the result of a true discovery of a dangerous new virus and a subsequent response to the outbreak;

3) the presence of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city that was chosen as the first to be locked down in China was not an accident; rather, it was intentional in order to create the red herring of a possible lab leak and a global controversy over a natural vs. a man-made origin to the virus in order to obscure the true story;

4) widely-circulated videos of people in Wuhan collapsing in the street from the new virus, as well as hospital chaos and even the story of the brave Chinese doctor who tried to alert the world to the new virus, and later died from the virus, were probably all aspects of a massive propaganda campaign by Xi and the CCP, just the latest in a century-long world-class history of propaganda campaigns that had brought the CCP to power in China and then maintained that power against all odds (“This campaign was organized, sophisticated, and used expert messaging sprinkled with clever psychological suggestions. The videos had been hand-picked, edited, and manipulated to tell the world a specific story”);

5) lockdowns of Wuhan and many other Chinese cities were primarily a tool for social control and to crush any possible dissent now and in the future, and only peripherally related or perhaps entirely unrelated to any genuine public health issues;

6) these policies were an extension of existing CCP fangkong practices, an unholy mix of “public health and security policy,” first enacted twenty years earlier in Tibet and Xinjiang and then more recently in Hong Kong as tools for control, brutally suppressing dissent in those regions, creating massive concentration camps, and indoctrinating residents into proper Chinese thought;

7) China worked with western nations, including providing massive amounts of funding to think tanks, public health agencies, and academic institutions, for many years before the pandemic in order to create financial ties and to influence public health policies in those nations — leading to the birth of a “western China class” that saw their bread buttered by being friendly and open to China and CCP ways of thinking, no matter how authoritarian they were; China also employed hundreds of thousands of people and created bots that posted countless comments on social media around the world in favor of lockdowns;

8) Italy had a particularly close relationship with China before the pandemic and it was this reason primarily that led to Italy being the first western nation to impose lockdowns in early 2020, on China’s recommendations (“Chinese experts arrived in Italy on March 12 and two days later advised stricter measures”), followed soon after by Germany, France, the US and most other nations in quick succession; it appears that Italy being the focus of lockdown policy was known ahead of time and telegraphed by anonymous insiders;

9) mandatory lockdowns had almost no precedent in the west and were not, contrary to widespread opinion, used in the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak or any subsequent outbreaks; in fact, most western nations’ pre-existing pandemic response plans made no mention of lockdowns even for the most severe outbreaks;

10 ) despite this lack of precedent and the relative severity of lockdowns (by definition these policies shut down most aspects of society) as a tool for public health, western political leaders and public health professions embraced lockdown policies in response to Covid-19, with enthusiasm and a degree of fervor that felt almost religious — despite almost no science at all to back up the efficacy of these policies.

I know this is a lot to chew on, but hopefully its clear enough in laying out Senger’s argument.

My lawyer mind often focuses on poking holes in arguments, so I want to be clear upfront that I think this is easily the best book on the pandemic that I’ve read yet (I’ve read half a dozen and there are many others now, Kennedy’s book The Real Anthony Fauci, is second on my list of best books). Senger’s book is well-cited, with footnotes for almost every assertion, and web links that you can verify yourself. And overall Senger’s understanding of the various aspects of the pandemic, from testing to virology to lockdowns and other public policies, is quite impressive — particularly for what appears to be a one-man show.

This book is a must-read and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a better understanding of the pandemic, which is the most important global event since World War II. I hope also that this book spawns many spinoffs and follow-ups, particularly among academics.

I am now convinced that techno-dictatorship is the single biggest threat to our lives and the planet. China and Xi’s CCP are the clear and present leaders in this trend toward techno-dictatorship. The New York Times article just linked to details how China is literally seeking to preemptively stop people from committing crimes, in an eerie similarity to the sci-fi classic Minority Report, but with AI as the “oracle” rather than human precogs as in the movie. The article includes this spine-chilling quote: ‘Li Wei, a researcher at China’s national police university, said in a 2016 speech. “For those who receive one or more types of labels, we infer their identities and behavior, and then carry out targeted pre-emptive security measures.”’ And that was back in 2016 — before the pandemic and a vertiginous ramp-up in control systems and monitoring.

Not only is Xi instating hyper-authoritarian policies and tech systems in his own country, he is actively exporting these tools of control around the world as part of the new “China model” of national governance, using every tool at his disposal to achieve this goal.

Would-be dictators in every corner of the globe are licking their lips in anticipation of the control systems that China is pioneering and exporting. Over 80 countries had imported some kind of China’s surveillance tools already before the pandemic, according to a Brookings Institution report from early 2020. And, yes, those salivating includes a lot of people in public health who have amply revealed a deep disdain for public opinion and personal autonomy in the last two years.

I’ve recently completed a deep dive into the body of work by Charles Eisenstein, a contemporary philosopher and social thinker who focuses on the history and logic of control systems. His magnum opus is The Ascent of Humanity, in which he argues that the slow ten-thousand year upward march of humanity from pre-agricultural civilization— “ascent” — is actually descent masquerading as ascent. In other words, what we think of as progress is often downward movement in things that really matter such as quality of life, free time, human connection, and finding meaning in our lives. Eisenstein paints a history of modern civilization resulting primarily from a very long-term trend of humans exerting ever more control over their environment and other humans. This urge toward control takes on a life of its own and has become tremendously damaging to human as well as planetary welfare.

I’ve also been reading Kevin Kelly’s book, What Technology Wants, and, combined with Senger’s and Eisenstein’s work (as well as The Dawn of Everything, an amazing alternative history of humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow), it is hard not to see the connections between the dawn of the Technium (a 7th kingdom of life in Kelly’s framing, but one that has been created entirely by humans), the longstanding human will to ever-increasing power and control, and the pandemic and its various draconian policy responses. These dynamics are all part of a long upward trend toward technology becoming more and more prominent in our lives. We are on the cusp of a global shift toward techno-dictatorship.

These are high stakes indeed and this moment requires that all thinking and compassionate people do their best to not only understand what is going on but to also start delving deeply into how they can push back against this massive tsunami of illiberal anti-freedom. The tools of techno-dictatorship are big data, machine learning, and all the other tools made possible by advances in biometrics such as face recognition, and AI more generally. A July 2022 story describes how Chinese researchers are claiming that they have developed AI tools that can read minds and ensure strict adherence to party teachings and policy.

The unexpected irony is that it seems to be mostly the global Left that is the current vanguard of this trend toward anti-freedom. It’s ironic because as a lifelong liberal progressive (I describe myself a “left libertarian” if I’m asked), I’ve previously seen the Left as the main protector of personal and societal freedoms. But something strange has happened in recent years, and Senger would point to the “leftism” of the CCP and communist authoritarianism (there really isn’t much communism in the CCP, however, as Senger points out) as the source of this strange trend in the global Left. With the money and power that the CCP has brought to bear globally, there is a new resurgence of authoritarian thinking on the Left.

The book also offers a short and pithy summary of the CCP in China, as well as Xi’s own rise to his current status as a leader, with only Mao as his equal. Xi is all but assured of winning a third five-year term this fall as supreme leader of China and the CCP, and will very likely continue to win more terms until his death. Understanding how China and Xi got to this point is also important.

The extreme efforts and vast resources brought to bear by China and their allies around the world go far in explaining the vastly strange spell that seemed to have been cast over the world in early 2020, and the rapidity with which normally sane people seemed to suddenly lose their good sense. Somehow, almost all “responsible” media and leaders were suddenly calling for shutting down society and confining people to their homes for extended periods of time. I’ve likened this feeling of a dark underlying malignancy as similar to what happened after 9/11 in the US, and how the pandemic was essentially the Left’s 9/11 — a set of policy choices that led to far greater harm than the original event.

So — read this book. It will provoke deep thinking about these issues.

Some Quibbles

My main quibble with the book (of a few) is that it gives short shrift to the role that Bill Gates, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Big Pharma (see Abramson’s great book, Sickening: How Big Pharma Ruined American Health Care and How to Restore It), the World Economic Forum, IMHE, Imperial College, London, and various other Western institutions played in the massive over-reaction to the virus, which has caused far more harm than the virus itself.

Senger would argue that all or most of those institutions’ policies can be traced back to China’s advocacy, but I’m not so sure since there were so many other players integral to those policy choices in the west. At the least, the book should include more discussion of actors other than Xi and the CCP. Without such discussion the book seems unbalanced.

Another quibble is that there’s no summary of Senger’s arguments in his book. The book is easy enough to read but it’s extremely helpful to have a short summary of the arguments presented for those who don’t have time to read the whole book.

Another quibble relates to China’s relative power at the WHO and other global institutions. Senger states (p. 146) that “it was widely known that the WHO was in the pocket of the CCP.” This is a very broad statement that should require some data and significant discussion. Based on funding levels, the US, UK, and Bill Gates, through his various entities (aided and abetted by Big Pharma in various ways), are far bigger funders of the WHO than China. In fact, China’s funding of WHO in 2020 was just 2.3% of the total, compared to 28% and 14%, respectively, for the US and UK, and about the same as the US for Bill Gates through his various entities. And yet Senger gives US policymakers a free pass, and doesn’t dwell much on Bill Gates’ role in the pandemic either.

Funding levels don’t necessarily match influence levels at international agencies but they are generally considered to be a reliable correlate of influence. By this criterion alone, China very likely has far less influence than the US or Gates, or Big Pharma, at the WHO and in other international forums.

Some Critiques

Moving beyond quibbles, I have a few critiques that I hope Senger will address in a second edition. This sounds lawyerly, but it’s an important point of logic and argumentation, as well as legal reasoning: the evidence presented for Xi’s efforts to “shut down the world” are almost entirely circumstantial. There are no smoking guns here, and that’s not surprising. But nor are there documents cited or quoted regarding any actual plan by Xi or his henchmen to wage what Senger describes as stealth economic and culture warfare against the US and the west.

As I’ve outlined above, the circumstantial case is pretty strong — but far from a slam dunk.

Senger is a great writer. I suspect he has a CIA background because his analysis of foreign policy and world affairs seems perhaps a bit too sophisticated for a relatively young tax attorney who was previously a CPA and only admitted to the California bar in 2016. His previous CPA work did include tax work for large international companies, so perhaps his training in this field, plus his personal interest, was sufficient to provide his deep understanding of China’s history, strategies, etc. The degree to which he focuses almost solely on China’s role in the global pandemic, and does not at all focus on US global public health influence at WHO or elsewhere, or the massive role of Big Pharma in all aspects of medical and public health policy, also feels like a CIA kind of approach since CIA analysts would almost never focus their attention on analysis or critique of US foreign policy.

As is often the case in foreign policy and political thinking, however, the standards for causal evidence are mostly narrative-focused rather than focused on data, correlations, or assertions of causation. I learned way back in international law classes in law school (I graduated from UCLA School of Law in 2001 where I focused in part on international law) that the standard of scholarship in this field was not quantitative or scientific, as it was in my undergraduate training in evolutionary biology and ecology. In foreign policy and international law, making arguments is mostly about the kind of story you can tell, rather than marshaling the data.

I would love to see Senger follow up with a second edition that includes appendices for the truly geeky readers like myself who want to see more data and original documents, and to provide a more balanced analysis that isn’t solely focused on China’s role in this global disaster.

A second critique is the lack of any mention of how much Trump’s re-election campaign led to extreme fear among a large section of the US population and similar reactions in many other western nations. As in all elections for national office in the US, the opposition will seize upon any negative events and try to pin them on the party in power. This is a truism of modern US politics. And yet Senger doesn’t even mention this dynamic in his book. The degree to which pandemic hysteria and lockdown fervor became almost matters of religious faith was surely heavily influenced by the desire of almost every Democrat and many independents too to exaggerate the threat of the pandemic and to then pin the pandemic and botched responses on Trump. This approach worked — it seems unlikely that Trump would have been defeated without the pandemic and the political campaign to pin US failures on him.

I shared the overwhelming desire to get Trump out of office. He was a cancer on this country. But I did not and could not go along with the charade of nonsense that led to lockdowns and massive policy backfires (which caused far more harm than the virus itself) in the effort to oust Trump at any cost. I do not believe the deaths of millions of people around the world due to lockdowns and ensuing economic collapse was a worthwhile price to get rid of Trump.

A third critique is that Senger paints a picture of a truly Machiavellian Xi and his cabal that is not only evil in its intent but also highly competent and powerful. We have seen, however, with the 2022 extended lockdowns in Shanghai, Beijing and other major Chinese cities, that China’s “Covid zero” policy has been failing pretty badly under its own terms, after seeming to succeed in 2020 in “eliminating” Covid-19 from China through extremely aggressive policies. Senger could and perhaps would argue that these 2022 lockdowns were reassertions of centralized control, in China’s primary urban centers of power, by the CCP in advance of the all-important election for Xi to serve a third five-year term as head of the CCP, coming up this fall. But Senger’s argument starts to get fairly strained at this point and it seems more likely to me that Xi and the CCP have become victims of their own paranoia and have long passed the point where China’s extreme Covid zero policies are effectively cutting off China’s nose to spite its face.

Xi’s June 2022 appearance in Hong Kong, conditioned on widespread serial testing of officials who would be in attendance, as well as strict bubbles for the two weeks prior to Xi’s arrival, suggest also that he and his inner circle may believe their own hype about the severity of the virus and the need to stamp it out once and for all, no matter what the cost in every other dimension of life and economy.

China’s economy has been significantly slowed in 2022 and may even see negative growth due to these extreme policies. The relative advantage that China achieved after the first two years of the pandemic in relation to its peers around the world may have been frittered away rather abruptly.

In short, it’s starting to look more like China put in place a set of policies that are as damaging as they are farcical — rather than some mastermind plan from the genius of Xi and his CCP.

A final critique is that the book is short on solutions. As a policy lawyer, the diagnosis is only half of the job and the recommended solutions are the other half.

In terms of domestic solutions to both end this pandemic for good, and to avoid the next pandemic and the next one and the next one, I’ve recommended four key policy changes: 1) change the PCR test cycle threshold to 30 instead of 40 in order to avoid massive numbers of false positives; 2) change the “case definition” for Covid-19 and any new illnesses that come along to require a positive PCR/antigen test PLUS symptoms in order to tally a “case”, again to avoid massive numbers of false positives; 3) do not test asymptomatic people because this also leads inevitably to vast numbers of false positives; 4) change the definition of a “Covid-19 death” to require that Covid-19 is a significant contributing factor in the death, rather than simply a factor, and to not allow a simple PCR test positive to be the sole basis for tallying a death as a Covid-19 death, which is the current CSTE definition.

Using a more reasonable definition of a Covid-19 death will lead to a very significant reduction in “Covid-19 deaths” in the US, as we’ve already seen in part when Massachusetts recently changed their definition slightly, leading to a 21% reduction in Covid-19 deaths.

I’d like to see similarly specific recommended solutions for ending or significantly reducing China’s influence on epidemiology and pandemic policy, including at the WHO.

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Tam Hunt

Tam Hunt

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