Michael Senger’s Snake Oil: A Review

Michael P. Senger, Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World (2021). 220pp. ISBN: 978-1957083780. $10.99.

I will never tire of typing that the whole question, of how lockdowns became the default response to Corona, is a very hard problem. Some points are nevertheless clear: There was, without a doubt and in the earliest stages, a kind of lockdown cabal, a small group of people in different countries who worked to bring some simulacrum of the Hubei response first to Italy and then to most of the globe. An insidious, coordinated information campaign accompanied their efforts, and this should warn us against easy assumptions that they had good intentions.

On social media, a swarm of manipulative pro-lockdown accounts promoted containment and attacked any prominent politician who tried to steer a moderate course. Michael Senger was among the first to point out that this campaign was operated, in part, out of China. His crucial September 2020 article on the Chinese promotion of lockdowns on social media for Tablet Magazine won him wide renown. He had over 100,000 followers on Twitter before the platform banned him; he now writes The New Normal on Substack, and you should all subscribe to him.

In his Tablet article, throughout his time on Twitter, and in his new blogging incarnation, Senger has developed a lean, straightforward thesis that aims to cut the Gordian knot of what has befallen us. He lays responsibility for lockdowns at the feet of the Chinese Communist Party, and in particular Xi Jinping. In the strictest sense, he is surely right here: None of our countries would have locked down, if China hadn’t done so first and convinced the World Health Organisation that mass containment was effective.

Senger’s thesis, however, is more precise than that. He sees lockdowns as a manifestation of fang kong, Mandarin for “prevent” or “control” – a broader, ideologically loaded concept that extends to things like the isolation or internment of political dissidents and mass surveillance. “Xi’s lockdown of Wuhan,” he writes (p. 44)

had been inspired by the CCP’s pet hybrid of public health and security policy: Fangkong, the same policy that inspired the reeducation and “quarantine” of over one million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities “infected with extremism” throughout Xinjiang and Tibet.

Xi Jinping, in Senger’s telling, then leveraged extensive Chinese relationships with political, media and academic actors throughout the West, to establish lockdowns as a “global policy” in “one of the most audacious psychological operations in all of recorded history” (p. 42).

Senger sets the virus itself to one side; it is for him a minor matter, compared to the great edifice of the lockdown information war. He proposes, along with some other dissident theorists, that SARS-2 might have been circulating as early as 2018, in which case Wuhan is unlikely to the be city of origin: “[T]he CCP could have picked literally any city to shut down for purposes of its lockdown fraud. Xi Jinping [chose] Wuhan because there was a lab there” (p. 99). The lab leak thus becomes, in the Sengerian thesis, above all a propaganda distraction:

The Wuhan lab had indeed played a key role in lockdowns. But not necessarily as a source of the coronavirus, which proved to be fairly ordinary. Rather, the CCP had used the Wuhan lab as a decoy to misdirect their opposition. … The Wuhan lab had been engaged in “gain of function” research on coronaviruses in bats … Worse yet, the Wuhan lab had lax security for one engaged in this kind of research. During gain-of-function research, so the story went, one of these coronaviruses had leaked out, causing mass death in Wuhan about which brave whistleblowers like Li Wenliang had to warn the world. But the CCP had covered it up, allowing the supervirus to spread. World leaders had to implement lockdowns and other cutting-edge measures on the advice of their best scientists and health officials. This was the narrative that preoccupied the intelligence community throughout 2020 and 2021. They knew about the virus’ unique furin cleavage site. All they had to do was prove SARS-CoV-2 came from that lab, and China could be held responsible. … It was, indeed, the perfect setup. Exactly as Xi Jinping intended.

Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist admonished in early January for spreading rumours on WeChat of a novel SARS-related outbreak in Wuhan, is also in Senger’s view an invention of the lockdown propagandists. Intriguingly, he notes that “the first time the world ever heard the name ‘Li Wenliang’ was on January 27, 2020” (p. 40), when the Hubei lockdown was just four days old and the internet was brimming with mysterious, since-debunked videos of sudden virus death in Wuhan.

Senger also sees early PCR test development as essentially fraudulent (pp. 67–72), and the collapse in Wuhan infections after February 2020 in Hubei as a lie. “China had simply forged its data and quietly adopted a herd immunity strategy” (p. 77).

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