China & the business of COVID protests
America’s corporate-funded 'movement' comes for Beijing
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Protests in China pushing against the country’s strict COVID protections have enthralled markets and the U.S. political class alike over the last week. Investors have bet big on China joining Western countries and others in giving up on large-scale virus prevention, only to later slump on fears of new short-term disruptions to commerce.
More broadly, editorial pages and social media have speculated that the exceptional demonstrations centered around college campuses, many using blank sheets of paper as protest signs, will soon threaten the Communist Party’s rule or at least the tenure of President Xi Jinping.
The biggest surprise: that none of these observers recognize phenomena they’ve seen time and time again with well-established business interests obviously at play. But unlike protests against pandemic protections in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Europe, and elsewhere, “progressives” have now joined with the right to push an agenda which threatens millions of lives.
The left/right divide on COVID response has become so entrenched in Western politics that it can be hard to remember that in the first weeks of the pandemic, there was wide, bipartisan consensus on the need for a bold response. Three-quarters of U.S. residents supported stay-at-home orders in late March of 2020, including 72% of Republicans.
Things shifted in April of 2020 after a series of protests at state capitols, demanding that governors “liberate” those states from COVID protections. These protests were organized and funded by conservative organizations tied to big business:
Events in various states had nearly identical Facebook pages, indicating a national organizer.
Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party was one of the main organizers, operating alongside conservative activist Stephen Moore’s “Save Our Country” group. Save Our Country’s website was registered by “In Pursuit Of,” a P.R. firm connected to the Koch brothers.
The Michigan Freedom Fund organized the first protests in Michigan, the most notable early demonstrations. The Fund is closely tied to the DeVos family, founders of multi-level marketing retailer Amway.
FreedomWorks, one of the main organizers of Tea Party protests in 2010, was also a core part of Save Our Country. FreedomWorks was a recipient of Koch and DeVos money as well as major donations from tobacco companies and the American Petroleum Institute.
At the time, even minimal investigation exposed the protests as a ploy to escalate controversy around COVID responses for the sake of business. The gambit worked, and two years later the right-wing position -- no masks, no lockdowns, no vaccine requirements -- is official, bipartisan U.S. policy. Hundreds of people still die every day from the virus.
Big business pushed the same anti-protection agenda in other countries too.
In Brazil, protests began almost simultaneously to the first U.S. protests, on April 19. Business owners led the march.
Later, truckers led mass demonstrations, with one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s largest donors -- Marlon Bonilha, owner of the trucking company Pro Tork -- funding the action.
Truckers also led a “Freedom Convoy” in Canada, led by the group “United We Roll” whose founder, James Baudler, had previously threatened to run over striking drivers.
Most of the Canadian truckers were actually owner-operators, with the protests’ leadership drawn heavily from former police and military intelligence operatives.
In the United Kingdom, the former Brexit Party organized early protests and underwrote a popular anti-public health media company, all funded by the wealthy fund manager Ben Habib.
It would be remarkable if China was the only country in the world where anti-lockdown protests were not a front for business interests, but all evidence points to the same elements at play: the demonstrations bear unmistakable hallmarks of “color revolution” demonstrations funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a self-confessed “second CIA” responsible for pro-business regime change pushes around the world.
The viral protest images -- e.g. the blank papers -- aimed at a Western liberal audience and reliance upon elite university students indicate very likely NED involvement. These tactics and others were developed by Gene Sharp, a U.S. political scientist based at the Center for International Affairs (CIA) at Harvard in the 1970s. This CIA was funded by its better-known namesake, as well as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, Standard Oil, and IBM. Sharp admitted that his work was backed by the Pentagon in his own 1973 book.
As of 2016, the NED had given at least $96.5 million to groups in China, with millions more certain to have been invested there since then. Chinese officials identified the NED’s hand behind violent liberal demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019, where the group had been funding student organizations since at least the 1990s.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce made the NED’s value to business clear when it lobbied for increased funding in 2019. “NED enjoys support from the business community because of its cost-effective investments that advance U.S. national and economic interests,” the Chamber said. “NED is especially important because it funds programs in countries that federal government agencies cannot reach.”
Any thoughts that these protests threaten the Communist Party of China are delusional, however. Harvard Kennedy School researchers found party approval rates over 90% in 2016, and University of California San Diego researchers found Chinese citizens giving the party’s COVID response a score of 8.9 out of 10 -- zero-COVID has saved more than three million lives.
The party now admits that some local officials have overreached, and changes to the policy have already been under way. What they will not compromise: their commitment to protecting lives.
“China's social system, history and culture, values and ethics do not allow us to watch our fathers and grandfathers and children face death threats and simply give up,” the Communist Party’s Zhejiang Provincial Committee wrote on Tuesday. “It is selective forgetfulness to envy the freedom and revelry of Western countries, but ignore the painful price they have paid.”
Before cheering on protests in China against these efforts to prevent COVID’s spread, perhaps Americans should ask this: why didn't we protest just as much when more than a million of our people died?
Our only investment advice: Don’t be like Sam.
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