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Fareed Zakaria GPS

How Much More Can Russia And Ukraine Endure; U.S. Trades Russian Arms Dealer For Brittney Griner. Germany Arrests 25 Accused Of Plotting Coup; Rise Of Far-Right Extremism In Germany; The International Impact Of The January 6th Insurrection; QAnon-Inspired Group Suspected In German Coup Plot; Iran Executes First Of Protesters Sentenced To Death; The World's Response To Protests In Iran; The Fight For Women's Rights In Iran. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired December 11, 2022 - 10:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Today on the program, understanding Russia. On the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said this week that his military would fight with all of their means at its disposal, but it's going to take a while.

Also, Moscow's prisoner swap with Washington. Brittney Griner for infamous arms dealer Viktor Bout. A fair trade?


ZAKARIA: I ask two of the best Russian experts.

And the coup plot in Germany. Dozens arrested, including a German aristocrat and a former member of parliament. Mixed in allegedly are elements of QAnon and a German conspiracy group that believes the state of Germany is actually a corporation. What in the world is going on in Deutschland? We will ask an expert.

Then, is the tide turning in Iran? This week, a former Iranian president called on the current regime to take a softer approach and recognize where their government has gone wrong. I'll talk to an Iranian actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi about what is happening on the ground.


ZAKARIA: But first, here is my take. The United States and Europe find themselves in a closer alliance than at any point in many decades. France, for example, has long been the European nation most reluctant to play junior partner in an American-led enterprise.

In his first years in office, Emmanuel Macron did his best to display his Gaullist credentials, describing NATO has brain dead and declaring his greatest priority to be developing Europe's strategic autonomy, an autonomy that he defined in part as separate from the United States.

Contrast that with Macron's remarks in November of this year when he talked about NATO as a cornerstone of French and European security. While in Washington last week, he described a new goal for the continent as strategic intimacy with Washington, and spoke of the need for even deeper corporation. When the French president starts sounding like the British prime minister, it's worth paying attention.

And it's not just Macron. Germany's Olaf Scholz has sounded a clarion wall for Western unity in the pages of "Foreign Affairs." For those wondering whether Germany's declared shift in foreign policy earlier this year was a momentary reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Scholz makes clear that he believes we are at the end of an era of peace.

He underlined the massive turnaround in German foreign policy, chiefly the creation of a roughly $100 billion fund to upgrade the German armed forces, which he called the starkest change in German security policy since 1955. The break with precedent was so dramatic that Germany had to amend its constitution to make it possible.

The epochal, tectonic shift as Scholz describes it has been triggered by the Russian invasion, but it's also a response to the dawning of a new age of great power competition.

A recognition that the rules-based international order built by the United States and Europe is in danger of crumbling, as countries like Russia and China and others break those rules, push for their own unilateral advantage and precipitate a return to a world where might makes right.

The Russian invasion explains much of this. But the Biden administration deserves much credit for how it has handled that challenge. Until now, Washington has managed to rally large parts of the world to oppose Putin's aggression, the U.S. has persuaded most of its allies to act forcefully to punish Russia and many others to at least aid Ukraine.


All this has helped to create a moment of unusual Western unity, which could help restore and rebuild a rules-based international system. But these successes can still be squandered by America's own unilateralism and pursuit of narrow self-interests.

European leaders have been dismayed by how protectionist the Biden administration has turned out to be in its economic policy. Putting buy America provisions in many of its spending bills and showering subsidies on green technology produced in the United States.

All of these measures are violations of the rules governing open markets and free trade that are at the heart of the international system that Washington has sponsored since the late 1940s. France's finance minister complained that Washington is now copying China's government-led industrial policy.

The tensions are only going to grow because Europe's pain is only going to get worse. Facing natural gas prices that are seven times higher and electricity prices 10 times higher than in the previous two decades, many European firms are finding that they simply cannot compete.

The "Financial Times" reports that there is a genuine risk of the de- industrialization of Germany if major industries like chemicals and auto manufacturing move more factories overseas to the U.S. or China.

Europeans are enraged by what they see as rank American hypocrisy. As the pain for ordinary Europeans grows and as their companies move production to America, the friction will make it harder to get sustained cooperation from Europe on Russia.

Europe will also be less likely to take a tough and united stand on China, a market that will become increasingly vital to the continent's economic future. And as Europe and others start retaliating against American protectionism with their own, the open international system will start shutting down.

Now, when people like me raise objections to protectionism and economic nationalism, we are often dismissed as being naive about the domestic politics of this issue. Democrats are doing this, so the argument goes, to help American workers and thus stem the tide of right-wing populism.

The trouble with the argument is that the working class has abandoned the Democratic Party, largely on cultural issues. It's true elsewhere, as well. Look at France, where workers are coddled, or Sweden with its generous welfare and training programs. Both have growing right-wing populist parties, largely fueled by issues like immigration, race and education.

Assuming that people can be swayed from their fervently held beliefs because of a few government subsidies might actually be the more naive view.

Go to for a link to my "Washington Post" column this week. And let's get started.

On Wednesday, in a meeting with Russia's human rights council, Vladimir Putin said of his war in Ukraine, it's going to take a while. Later when pressed on the use of nuclear weapons, Putin said Russia wouldn't brandish them like a razor, but wouldn't commit to not using them first, and said that the risk of nuclear war was rising.

I wanted to talk to two people who've spent decades studying Russia and who both have new books about the war. Luke Harding is a reporter for "The Guardian" and his latest book is "Invasion." Owen Matthews is a correspondent for "The Spectator" and a historian. His latest book is "Overreach." They join me now.

Luke, let me ask you because you've been in Kherson, you've been in Ukraine very recently, and you've spent a lot of time there. What is your sense of the state of the war in this sense, which is, you always hear about the Ukrainians having extraordinary morale.

They're fighting for their country, for democracy, and the Russians don't know what they're fighting for. So when you've been there, this question of the sort of test of morale, where do you think it stands?

LUKE HARDING, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, THE GUARDIAN: I mean, I broadly agree with that. I mean, you talk to any Ukrainian soldier and they will say the same thing, that they're fighting for their country and democracy and so on. And the Russians, it's not entirely clear what it's all about. I mean, at the beginning, it was about de-Nazifying, de-militarizing Ukraine, then it was about saving the Donbas and the east of the country.


And recently we have Putin, as you say, talking about a very long war. But my sense is actually the Ukrainians keep on surprising us. I mean no one -- I was in Kyiv on February 24th when actually most people thought the Ukrainian capital would fall, including those in the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, many of them. And we've come such a long way in 10 months to the point where actually Ukraine has evicted Russia from half the territory that it seized.

And now my sense is we'll push forward next year and in winter, perhaps in the south, less so in the east. But I think this is a dynamic situation, with both sides dug in for the long haul.

ZAKARIA: Owen, you unusually have been to Russia several times after the war began. What is your sense of the mood in Russia? I mean, obviously, it's a little bit subjective. You're not seeing the whole country. But what is your sense?

OWEN MATTHEWS, RUSSIA CORRESPONDENT, THE SPECTATOR: You're right. I see -- I've been to Moscow three times. I was most recently there in mid-October, until mid-October. The bizarre fact of the matter is that there is no sense whatsoever that you are in the capital of a country that is fighting the biggest war in the 21st century. Right up until September 21st, where I was there by coincidence, when Putin took everyone by surprise by announcing mobilization.

Until that moment, the war was completely invisible. And I should deliberately say because in the first week of the war when I was also there, there was little bit of a wave of public patriotism.

And that very quickly disappeared. And the state of the Russian people is essentially those who -- a small minority are in despair and for them the world has collapsed. They've run for the exits, about half a million based on estimates have actually gone to now, you know, to -- wherever they can get to basically.

But for the vast majority, they're either too poor to leave or too rich to leave. They have too much to lose. And the predominant mood among the elite members, the sort of upper middle class and government connected bureaucratic people, is sort of quiet despair and denial and basically they just don't want to know. ZAKARIA: Luke, what do you think happens? You mentioned that the

Ukrainians are now going to push forward. But they are going to start getting to those parts of the Donbas, which are really -- I don't want to say pro-Russian, but have mixed feelings.

This is why Russia was able to take them in 2014 so easily, as with Crimea. These are largely Russian speaking. Many of those people thought the Ukrainian government discriminated against them by not allowing them to speak Russian and things like that.

"The New York Times" had a good story on one of these towns where -- which has just been liberated where sort of half the people were glad they were liberated and half the people are apprehensive about it.

HARDING: Yes. I mean, it's complicated. I mean, first of all we have to acknowledge that Ukrainians are bilingual so everyone speaks Russian and Ukrainian, and I speak Russian all the time in Kyiv and it's not a problem. And also like Owen, I covered at the moment eight years ago In 2014 where the sort of Russian-backed militias seized Donetsk and Luhansk, and yes, there was a kind of pro-Russian constituency mainly of old people but others as well.

But there are also plenty of people who are pro-Ukrainian and they were driven out or they're being silenced. Some have left, some have stayed. But I think, I would say, it's interesting, listening to Owen about the mood in Moscow, the mood in Kyiv now is pretty vehement.

So many people have died. So much has been lost. You know, almost 500 kids have been killed. Cities like Mariupol have been pulverized by Russian aviation, by Russian bombs.

And there is no mood for dealing, for negotiations with Putin. They're determined to liberate everything, so there including those areas we're talking about in the east. And it also includes Crimea.

And I think it's going to be a really interesting point in this war where we sooner or later, let's say Ukraine comes close to Crimea, is that a point that Washington, whether it's the Biden administration or some other administration, phones up Zelenskyy and says, look, time to stop and settle? Or because the Ukrainians I think are determined to carry on.

And it's a question actually for the West, how far does the West back Ukraine? Way up until the end or somewhere short of that?

ZAKARIA: And Owen, from your sense, and in your book, you spent a lot of time talking about the kind of -- the mentality that let Putin to adopt these, you know, fairly extreme views on Ukraine. Is it possible that Putin is going to get to a point where he will be willing to negotiate?

MATTHEWS: I think the issue for Putin is that he just wants -- he is willing to throw as much at this war as it takes to not lose it.

[10:15:01] And he's -- it's very clear when you talk to people who, you know, second tier people who, third-tier people, who, you know, in that Kremlin administration orbit, they all assume that the West is going to lose interest. And that's not totally irrational by the way because that's what happened before.

And that's the problem with this war is that Putin assumed that the future will be like the past. And in the past, they invaded -- they took Crimea in 2014. A year later, Angela Merkel was signing a $10 billion pipeline bill. They just think that the West is cynical.

ZAKARIA: We've got a hold on for a bit. We have to take a break. And we will get back to that. But also the other big news out of Russia this week, the prisoner swap with the U.S. The notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout for the WNBA star Brittney Griner. Who got the better end of the deal? I'll ask the experts when we come back.



ZAKARIA: After news broke Thursday morning of a U.S.-Russian prisoner swap, a senior White House official told CNN it was a painful decision for President Biden. There had been two high-profile Americans wrongly detained by Moscow.

WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. But only Griner was on a plane out of Russia on Thursday, leaving Whelan behind. In exchange, the U.S. released Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer.

And we bring back our experts on Russia to talk about this swap.

Luke, what do you think? Was it a -- it feels a little unbalanced.

HARDING: It was a bad deal for the U.S., unfortunately, and a good deal for Russia because we're talking about a basketball star who was framed by the Federal Security Service, the FSB, Putin's old spy agency, versus a prolific arms dealer who's committed alleged crimes all over the world. And I think the other sort of bad thing from a U.S. perspective is the sort of precedent that it sets. Because essentially Vladimir Putin believes that anything can be traded.

Any deal can be made. That actually when the West talks about human rights, it's just kind of hypocritical, and it's all about real politic and power and money. And this confirms the sort of rather cynical Russian view that, you know, we have something, you have something, we trade. And of course, it sets a precedent for Ukraine.

Because Putin would like nothing better than to sit down with Joe Biden, decide the future of Ukraine, decide the future of Eastern and Central Europe as if it's the 19th century, with a map where they kind of draw, with pelted pens, you have this, I have this.

And he basically thinks everything can be negotiated that way or it's a conspiracy. It's his classic KGB brain, and unfortunately this is a classic KGB moment involving alleged KGB operative who has been sitting in jail in the States for 12 years.

ZAKARIA: That image you have of course of them drawing up a map, that is essentially what Stalin and Winston Churchill did. They drew up a map of Eastern Europe. They literally assigned percentages of influence that Russia and the West would be allowed.

But, Owen, I got to ask you. What do you think of this?

MATTHEWS: It's a hostage situation, it's blackmail. The Russians have been at it for a long time. It's sort of classic Cold War, FSB dirty diplomacy.

ZAKARIA: Did you -- in your book your grand --

MATTHEWS: My father.

ZAKARIA: Your father was part of a swap.

MATTHEWS: My mother was Russian. She was only allowed out of the Soviet Union in 1969 after six years of trying because she was added as like to make weight in exactly the same kind of swap and that 55 years have passed, nothing has happened, nothing has changed since. That's the way the KGB men who run Russia roll.

ZAKARIA: Luke, I think you wanted to say something, when Owen was making the point that Putin's strategy is to hope that the West gets tired. And I would say and also that the price for the ordinary Europeans, particularly, of all this and the energy hikes and all that becomes unbearable.

HARDING: Yes. I mean, I just want to follow on from Owen is that one of Putin's big strategic mistakes was to think that Ukraine of 2022 was the Ukraine of 2014, where there was sort of receptive minority as we've been discussing to Russia. Now the great irony of this war is that Putin has consolidated Ukraine as a state, as a nation, as a people, and those differences have largely melted away.

And the other mistake he thought was that he thought the West would do not much like last time. And in fact what we've seen is an unprecedented anti-Kremlin coalition. And despite their calculation that we would flee, that we the West would flee, it's been pretty robust. And I think we've seen a restoration of American leadership under the Biden administration. We've seen the Germans do unthinkable things like abandon pacifism.

We've seen NATO bolstered by the Swedes and Finns joining. The U.K. more friendly towards its European neighbors. I mean it's been a real kind of turning point in history. And I think actually Putin, aging dictator, that the two decades plus out of touch to reality is behind the curve as to where we are now.

ZAKARIA: How does this end?

MATTHEWS: I think, sadly, it ends like every other war ends, which doesn't end until victory. There's going to be a negotiation eventually and acknowledge that the Ukrainians are completely determined to fight to the end, and also fatally which can be very dangerously for Ukraine, and there comes a point where Russia actually has enough manpower and enough dumb weaponry just to make any further military advance incredibly bloody. And that's what Mark Milley unfortunately said. It's not the world we want to live in, but it's the world we do live in.

Mark Milley predicted a long, bloody stalemate. And that's unfortunately -- I think that's probably what is going to happen, just because of the volume of Russian military and hardware and sort of meat that they can throw into the grinder. I'm sorry to say.


ZAKARIA: All right. We have to leave it there. We will be back. This was fascinating. Thank you both.

Next on GPS, the headlines seemed like they were straight out of fiction. But the fact is dozens of people were arrested this week for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of Germany. We'll explain the story behind the headlines in a moment.


ZAKARIA: What do three police officers, a judge, and a minor German nobleman all have common? Well, this week, they're among 25 arrested in connection to a plot to overthrow the German government and, get this, establish a monarchy with that aforementioned noble at the helm. They're suspected to be part of a movement known as the Reichsburger or citizens of the Reich. The group believes the German's state today is illegitimate. That it's actually a corporation setup by allied governments after the Second World War. The Reichsburger is believed to have more than 20,000 followers around the country. Is this a January 6th moment for Germany?

Joining me now is Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King's College, London, and an expert on global terror. Peter, let me ask you first to just explain to us who are these people and what do they believe?

You know, when we see something like this in Germany, we imagine that this is, you know, the sort of neo-Nazis or the -- you know, this feels to me almost like "Babylon Berlin," that wonderful series is about to -- at least in the English speaking world is about to have season four preview in a week. It feels like the preview began one week early.

PETER NEUMANN, SECURITY STUDIES PROFESSOR, KING'S COLLEGE LONDON: Yes. I think the closest comparison in an American context is probably the sovereign citizens. They're basically espousing similar beliefs. They don't believe the state really exists or it is legitimate.

They produce their own passports. They refuse to pay taxes. They produce their own driving licenses. And their narrative is that basically they want to go back to monarchy.

Monarchy ceased to exist in Germany in 1918. They want to re-create that system, because they say that every German state that has come into existence, including, by the way, the third Reich, the Nazi government, was illegitimate. So, they are far-right because they are against democracy. They do want to create an authoritarian government. But they are not neatly fitting into the neo-Nazi category, because they want to create a different kind of authoritarian government.

ZAKARIA: Now, to what extent does this say something about the stability of German politics that we have taken for granted? We think of Germany as being the most stable country in the West, really. You know, unlike almost every other western country, there is no significant far-right populist movement. You know, the AfD is a small party in Germany. Does this -- should this shatter that sense of what is going on in Germany?

NEUMANN: Well, I think there have always been people around like this. I mean, that movement came into existence in the 1980s. It didn't, however, have a lot of followers until let's say about 10 years ago. And especially during the pandemic, this kind of movement took off to some extent.

There has been like in America and like in a lot of other European countries, a lot of interest in conspiracy theories, a lot of interest in people saying the state is oppressing us, is the state really legitimate? Are we governed by a global cabal, secretive cabal? And that's what the Reichsburger are playing into.

And to some extent Germany has experienced that like a lot of other countries. The difference to America, I guess, is that the center right, the mainstream center right in Germany is not supporting this. It is completely against it, so in that sense they do not have support from within the mainstream of the political system.

ZAKARIA: And it's a fairly small movement, I think 20,000. But to what extent did they look at something like January 6th and get inspired, do we know?

NEUMANN: That certainly was an inspiration for them. I mean, it has to be said, they have 20,000 supporters. Around 10 percent of the German domestic intelligence agency, around 2,000 people are supposed to be potentially violent.

What's really important about this movement is that in contrast to the rest of German society, they are heavily armed. They are people who are hoarding arms in the basements of their houses. They are waiting for day X, just like the QAnon movement in America, and they've all been watching the storming of the Capitol. And that's what they were trying to re-create. They were essentially trying to do the same thing.

Now, I don't believe for one second they would have succeeded. But they would have caused a lot of damage, both to people, but also to the trusted institutions as a consequence.

ZAKARIA: So is this something that is more akin to QAnon? I mean, a slightly more visible version of QAnon, and are there any connections between the two? NEUMANN: Well, it is, I think, quite similar in the sense that it's driven by conspiracy theorists that are so laughable. If you listen to them as an outsider, you'd think this can't be true, they must be weirdoes, they must be nutcases.


But it is a serious political movement, at least that's how they consider themselves. They are heavily armed and they are listening very heavily to QAnon. German is the most translated into language of QAnon content, and you would have never thought that this takes off in any national context outside of the United States, but it did in Germany. They are closely following QAnon and they are trying to imitate it to some extent.

ZAKARIA: Peter, this is fascinating. Thank you so much. You've really shed a lot of insight on a puzzling, bizarre story. Thank you.

NEUMANN: Thank you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, Iran has started executing protesters. Will this disturbing escalation rise up the people in the streets or take them off those streets? Answers when we come back.



ZAKARIA: The government announced that it executed 23-year-old Mohsen Shekari on Thursday. He is one of 12 protesters who have been sentenced to death by the regime, according to the U.N.

On Friday, a top Iranian official suggested more executions were imminent. The protest was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini. She died after she was arrested by Iran's morality police.

I want to bring in the British-Iranian actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi. Nazanin, tell us first what you think these announced executions and the actual execution do to the situation on the ground? What are you hearing?

NAZANIN BONIADI, AMBASSADOR, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL U.K.: I mean, people are outraged, Fareed. And, you know, there's a slogan, a popular slogan that for every person who is killed, a thousand people will rise up behind them. And that's why I think we've seen these protests last for three months now and there's no sign of them slowing down. So every image, every report that we're hearing and seeing of people being executed, wrongfully killed is basically galvanizing Iranian society at large to protest the government even more.

ZAKARIA: Is the government making any concessions? Because we heard about the disbanding of the morality police. But that actually turns out to be something of a red herring, right?

BONIADI: That's exactly right. It wasn't a legal edict. It was something that was just floated by an official that had no real purview or jurisdiction to make that call. It should be something the ministry of interior is deciding on, and there have been no changes inside Iran. And it came at a time conveniently for the regime that was -- just before the nationwide strikes that were being planned and has already taken place. And also the call for the Islamic republic to be expelled from the commission on the status of women at the United Nations. So, these things seem to be somewhat strategic but also haphazard at the same time.

ZAKARIA: Do you get the sense that there might be splits within the regime? Because, you know, the last time around when the Green Movement came into being around that contested election, there were reformist members of the government -- of the regime, who seem to be calling for, you know, they were seemed to be breaking with the regime.

So, could you imagine that somebody like Mohammad Khatami, the former president who was regarded as a reformist, or Zarif, the former foreign minister, who is regarded as a moderate, do you think these -- these people might peel off, or is it really -- they're all in this struggle for survive together?

BONIADI: I think the latter, Fareed. I think, we've now had a 43-year case study on the Islamic republic. And the slogans on the streets say it best, the people are saying what they want. They want this regime gone.

And frankly, I think the statements by former President Khatami where he said that a change in the system is neither possible nor desirable goes against everything that the protestors are demanding. So, there's not just a disillusionment with the reformist movement. There's an actual animosity towards them for perpetuating the regime and the brutalities that exist today.

ZAKARIA: Steven Levitsky, this Harvard scholar has a new book out with the co-author whose name I'm unfortunately forgetting, but it tries to examine when do dictatorships fall. And one of the points it makes is -- one of the central conclusions is that regimes that come to power through revolution are the hardest to dislodge, because I suppose they kind of know -- they know what to do in terms of a mixture of repression and, you know, opening up some escape valves here and there and, you know, exiling dissidents. So when you think about that and you think about this regime that has so much control and has been around for 43 years, is it realistic to think that these protests could actually snowball into something much, much bigger and much more deadly?

BONIADI: That's a very valid question, Fareed. I think, no popular uprising of our time has really been predicted accurately. And that's possibly because human behavior is unpredictable. And in a situation like this, it's very easy to liken it to the Arab Spring and the outcomes there, or Sri Lanka perhaps.

But I would encourage a little bit less cynicism, and maybe what we can strive for in support of this movement, because the margin between success and failure is very slim. And we as the international community, I think, have that ability to tip the scale in the favor of the protesters and pro democracy and freedom in the similar way that we did for South Africa. And if you look at the David and Goliath revolutions of, you know, the Singing Revolution of the Baltic States, of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and of course the fall of the Soviet Union we have to have that hope and we have to keep hope alive for the protestors.

ZAKARIA: What do you want the West in particular to do?


BONIADI: I think what we can do is -- I think, the words of Michael McFaul who -- the former ambassador -- U.S. ambassador to Russia, he said it wasn't arms controller who ended the -- caused the fall of the Soviet Union, it was freedom fighters, basically of soviet states. And Karim Sadjadpour, our friend at Carnegie, said something similar about Iran. That it won't be American diplomats, it won't be western diplomats who would do that for Iran, who cause an end to the Cold War with Iran, it will be the small d democrats on the ground in Iran. So our job is to empower the small d democrats inside Iran to achieve self-determination.

ZAKARIA: And do that by?

BONIADI: I mean, there are a number of ways. I think, the Human Rights Council session was a very good first step. I think, strategic sanctions, Magnitsky sanctions have to continue. My hope is that we sanction the supreme leader. We haven't done that yet.

And also there are a number of other ways. For example, you know, why are the children of these regime officials living freely and comfortably in democratic countries, while people like Roya Piraei who need refuge in the West don't get the same? And so, we have to make a very clear distinction of who we're supporting, and stop supporting and empowering the regime in that way, and start empowering the civil society in Iran through internet access and things like that.

ZAKARIA: Fascinating to hear you, and you have extraordinary courage to be doing this.

BONIADI: Thank you.

ZAKARIA: Thank you for being here.

BONIADI: Thank you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, as China emerges from draconian COVID restrictions, I will explain why the country is at a dangerous moment.



ZAKARIA: And now for the last look. Remember that idea of herd immunity? At the beginning of the pandemic, anti-lockdown voices wanted to let the virus run free. They argued the population would build so much immunity that COVID would stop spreading and life could go back to normal.

It was a reckless idea at the time, when there were no vaccines or good treatments. But today, most countries have built up protection through a combination of vaccination and exposure. It isn't exactly herd immunity, but it's enough that the virus, while still spreading, doesn't pose a colossal threat to the population.

In China, however, the situation is totally different. Tough and effective COVID restrictions have kept people from getting sick. But as a result, also from acquiring natural immunity. There isn't enough protection from vaccines either, particularly among older people. And now, after a stunning wave of protests, China is suddenly loosening its restrictive COVID policies.

This could get very dangerous. If China completely ends its zero COVID policy, "The Economist" estimates the country would hit 45 million new daily infections after just one month. Virtually everyone would get infected, 680,000 people would die, assuming enough ICU beds for everyone, which there definitely are not. Another model reviewed by the FT, predicts 1 million deaths. Other projections go even higher to 1.6 million or 1.7 million dead.

Now, it may not get that bad if China reopens gradually and uses masks and vaccines to gradually flatten the curve. But just to put this in context and China's figures can't be completely trusted, China has reported a few thousand COVID deaths over the whole pandemic. Within months, it could rival America's death toll of 1 million. The big question is, why China stuck to the testing and lockdown strategy for so long while the rest of the world moved on?

One off-cited reason is vaccine nationalism. Two doses of western mRNA vaccine are far superior to two doses of the Chinese vaccine which uses old technology. Yet Xi Jinping is apparently too proud to import western vaccines. So he's been playing for time while China could develop its own mRNA formula.

But that's not the whole story. Chinese vaccines are hardly useless. In fact, a study in Hong Kong early in the Omicron wave found that three doses gave full protection against severe disease. But getting the whole population up to three doses would require a major vaccine push. And China's zero COVID strategy was so extensive that it sapped the state's resources for vaccinating the population.

Mass testing carried an astounding cost of nearly 1.5 percent of GDP. China spent vast sums building and running quarantine facilities rather than letting people quarantine at home. Another problem has been vaccine hesitancy, particularly among older people. Despite its authoritarianism China did not follow western nations in mandating shots.

Local officials in Beijing floated a vaccine mandate and then quickly dropped it after a backlash. Senior citizens have partly resisted vaccines because of past scandals of tainted vaccines and drugs, and with a zero COVID policy in place, they worried more about side effects from the vaccine than contracting the virus. Plus, in the West, the vaccines were seen as the way to end lockdowns. In China, there was no sense that vaccination was a ticket to freedom.


As the zero COVID policy is finally being lifted, the government is making a renewed vaccination push. Immunity isn't China's only issue. I mentioned ICUs. In the event of uncontrolled spread, China would need seven to 16 times the number of existing ICU beds to accommodate the peak number of patients. The country also doesn't have enough supplies of anti-viral drugs and rushing to increase stockpiles of those.

Remember, the whole point of the lockdowns at the start of the pandemic was to buy time, to fortify the medical system and vaccinate the population. Xi Jinping bought oodles of time but he squandered it. Alas, the Chinese people will pay the price.

That's it for this week. Thanks to all of you for being part of my program. I will see you next week.