As Chinese authorities botched their response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, a quote from the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” went viral on the Chinese messaging app WeChat: “What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
The analogy between the 1986 nuclear accident and the 2020 pandemic—Communist regimes trying to cover up the truth of a disaster and thereby worsening it—may seem a little pat. It may also seem wishful: After all, the Chinese Communist Party, unlike the Soviet one, emerged from the unrest of 1989 with a tighter grip on power. Edward Luttwak doesn’t exactly agree with the analogy, but he takes it seriously. “The Wuhan virus has made it impossible for Xi Jinping to continue with this program of staying in power for another 10 years,” he says. “Impossible.”
Mr. Luttwak, 77, knows a thing or two about regime change. A military strategist and historian, he may be best known for his 1968 book, “Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook.” Rumor has it that a copy was found on the body of Moroccan Gen. Mohammad Oufkir after he failed to overthrow King Hassan in 1972.
Over a half-century, Mr. Luttwak has produced a significant body of work on international affairs and military strategy. He also has built a lucrative career advising businessmen, political leaders, even the Dalai Lama. Along the way the Romanian-born polyglot made powerful friends across the world—from liberal democratic civil servants to party apparatchiks. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm once wrote that “like Machiavelli himself, he enjoys truth not only because it is true but also because it shocks the naive.”
Mr. Luttwak has come to believe that “regimes fall because of stylistic failure.” That happens “when the more alert members of the ruling elite are prompted to realize that the regime’s official ideology and style of government have become totally outmoded, obviously irrelevant and even ridiculous.”
The Soviets are a case in point. “I visited the Soviet Union almost every year for years and years. It didn’t fall for material reasons. And in Chernobyl itself, it didn’t fall for moral reasons,” he says. “Even at the end, the Soviet regime was able to summon people to sacrifice themselves for the system.” Instead, he argues, the Politburo sealed its fate in 1984 when it appointed the ailing, 72-year-old Konstantin Chernenko general secretary.
“He could barely talk. He could barely walk. However, the requirements of the Soviet system were that when a new general secretary is installed, his colleagues are filmed saying that they swoon with delight, as if it’s a beautiful 19-year-old girl in a bikini coming out of the water,” Mr. Luttwak says. Chernenko “never did anything. His name is associated with nothing. And now, they’re all pretending that they are swooning with delight.”
People throughout the Soviet Union, including party elites, were disgusted with the spectacle. They wondered, in Mr. Luttwak’s words, “What is this absurdity?”
When Chernenko died a year later, the Politburo moved in the opposite direction and chose Mikhail Gorbachev, 54, in what Mr. Luttwak calls “a desperate attempt to overcome stylistic failure.” But Mr. Gorbachev “had been harboring these revolutionary thoughts.” By 1991 the Soviet Union had dissolved. Mr. Gorbachev had sought to save it, but Mr. Luttwak insists stylistic failure had already broken the system.
In China today, Mr. Luttwak sees ample evidence of stylistic failure. Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, shifted power away from Beijing and promoted “peaceful development.” Mr. Xi, who took power in 2012, has made himself the most powerful Chinese ruler since Mao. “Prior to this great disaster in China,” Mr. Luttwak says, “he had chosen to redefine his role from first among equals to being the all-powerful and therefore all-responsible.” That put him “in charge of two great disasters.”
The first was “waking up the world to protecting its technological assets.” Mr. Xi’s Made in China 2025 initiative sought to displace the U.S. as the world’s paramount technological and economic power through forced technology transfer and aggressive state subsidies for Chinese firms. Beijing dropped the program’s name last year as criticism grew, but the program already had alienated many U.S. supporters—or, as Mr. Luttwak puts it, “killed off the panda huggers from the American system.” Other countries were taken aback by China’s new brashness. Mr. Luttwak says the international backlash was a “disaster that’s not felt by the man on the street but precisely by alert members of the ruling elite.”
Then came Wuhan, where doctors first noted the novel coronavirus in December. Mr. Xi didn’t speak publicly about the outbreak until Jan. 20, when Beijing acknowledged human-to-human transmission of the virus. But he had been leading the response since at least Jan. 7. As the virus spread, 40,000 families attended a massive Lunar New Year banquet on Jan. 18. Millions continued traveling out of Wuhan without screening.
The Communist Party’s subsequent spinning of Wuhan as evidence of Mr. Xi’s exemplary leadership enraged everyday Chinese and elites. Italy made similar mistakes in handling the virus, but “nobody in Italy is ordering embassies around the world to proclaim the genius of Prime Minister Conte,” he says. “This is the stylistic failure.”
Mr. Luttwak likes Caixin Global, a Beijing-based investigative outlet that the Chinese authorities tolerate. “I read the English edition,” he says. “But I always look at the Chinese edition to make sure that the pictures and so on are the same.” He recently noticed Caixin running “story after story with things like, ‘China needs more than one opinion.’ ” The story of coronavirus whistleblower Li Wenliang—the ophthalmologist who was punished for warning about the virus, which later killed him—appeared across the country “again and again as a case of the cost of suppressing the truth.”
Along with Chernobyl comparisons, Chinese citizens online started describing the regime as “ridiculous,” Mr. Luttwak says. “Not evil, not bad—ridiculous. Suddenly, they’re ridiculous.” Some elites joined in. “I saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who stripped off his clothes and insisted on continuing being an emperor,” billionaire Ren Zhiqiang, a retired real-estate tycoon and Communist Party member, wrote of triumphant February remarks by Mr. Xi. “Without a media representing the interests of the people by publishing the actual facts, the people’s lives are being ravaged by both the virus and the major illness of the system.” Mr. Ren has been arrested, but his words circulated widely.
Mr. Luttwak doesn’t go so far as to foretell the fall of Chinese communism, but he’s bearish on Mr. Xi. Elites are “going to say, ‘Xi Jinping is too much. Let’s go find our Gorbachev, who is more reasonable, and sits around the table and listens to opinions.’ And from then on, who knows which way they’ll go. I’m not a prophet,” Mr. Luttwak admits. But “it will be either Gorbachev, or something bigger happening.” Whatever happens, “people will go back to the events of the coronavirus in Wuhan and thereafter” for an explanation.
Mr. Luttwak joined Twitter in March after avoiding social media for years. The short-form platform suits his astringent sense of humor. His first tweet: “Anti-semites are dumb—so let me try. Obviously the Rothschilds launched the pandemic to depress stock prices to buy up the world economy cheaply. All I want to know is when the bars will re-open. Good news: the Bank of Israel just called me: it will all be over by June 15.”
His Twitter bio describes him simply as a “Historian and Rancher” based in San Joaquin, Bolivia, though he spoke to me through Skype from his home in Maryland. Ranching has been more than an investment. It has helped him understand the fundamental weakness of post-Soviet Russia. “Between Vladivostok and the North Korean border, there is the most wonderful grassland in the world,” he says. “I wanted to go there and bring some angus cattle.” He met with Vladivostok’s governor in 2017.
“He says to me, ‘You should go talk to this guy who is an agriculture expert.’ ” The “expert” eventually made clear “that the only way that I could do this investment was by giving a 70% share to his friends.” Mr. Luttwak says he replied: “I went to school in Palermo, Sicily, and I see now that Russia badly needs to have technical assistance from Sicily—to learn how to do extortion properly.” Such clumsy corruption kept him from investing in the country. “And I’m a guy who has access to the governor! This is happening to the guy who is trying to open a sandwich stand.”
Mr. Luttwak notes Russia still produces plenty of highly educated and sophisticated workers, but “the problem with the overall thing is that it is actually a gangster regime.” This leaves the country “as dependent on oil as if it was a [expletive] Arab emirate with nothing but sand.” Vladimir Putin remains in power because he can pay off a large undergrowth of corrupt elites and “has a wonderfully coherent message to his people.”
Mr. Luttwak says Mr. Putin essentially acknowledges that “you will never be living so well as the Western Europeans. You will not have big cars, but you are an imperial people. You hold the largest country in the world. You rule many nationalities peacefully. Well, there’s the Chechens, but nobody can deal with Chechens.” Mr. Putin has convinced the Russian people that his predecessors “lost part of your inheritance. And they allowed chunks of it to fall off. I will not do that.”
But this style of governance is susceptible to failure. “We know that another two years of $20 oil would mean that the Russian state would not be able to pay its people, except in ever-more-inflated rubles,” Mr. Luttwak says. “The Russian elite is very import dependent. They consume foreign things. They have their mistresses and wives in Mayfair apartments that they have to pay for in pound sterling. So $20 oil could bring an end to it.”
Mr. Putin’s departure from power could prove anticlimactic, in contrast with the Soviet Union’s fall. Mr. Luttwak thinks the “Chernobyl” miniseries may be “the No. 1 film ever made in the history of mankind.” He says it’s “right up there with films like ‘Seven Samurai,’ which contain universal teachings.” As for the Wuhan outbreak, the history and its teachings are still being written.
Adam O’Neal is a London-based editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal.