What does China’s zero-Covid U-turn mean for Xi Jinping?

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For nearly three years, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has staked his political legitimacy and prestige on zero coronavirus outbreaks.

Calling himself the “commander-in-chief” of the “people’s war” against the virus, he praised the tough “people-oriented” policy, citing its success as a testament to the superiority of the fight against the virus. China’s authoritarian system.

Now, as his costly strategy has been reversed amid nationwide protests, Mr. Xi has gone silent.

Across the country, Covid testing stations, health code scanning signs and lockdown barriers are being dismantled at dizzying speed. As infections have run rampant, authorities have scrapped a virus-tracing app and have given up entirely on reporting asymptomatic infections, who make up the majority of the country’s official cases. The rest of the case counts also became moot as cities canceled mass testing and allowed people to use antigen tests and quarantine at home.

While the easing of suffocating restrictions has frustrated many about the economic and social costs of zeroing out COVID-19, the suddenness and randomness of such measures have left residents shocked, confused or anxious.

With state-imposed Covid control measures dictating their day-to-day lives, and fear of the virus being instilled through propaganda throughout the pandemic, the public is now being told to be “first in charge of their own health” — or basically, To fend for itself.

Workers in protective gear deliver vegetables to residents in a closed Shanghai neighborhood in March.

State media and health officials have shifted from trumpeting the dangers of the virus to downplaying its threat. Zhong Nanshan, a top Covid-19 expert and leading public voice in the pandemic, suggested on Thursday that Omicron really should be called the “coronavirus cold,” citing its death rate as similar to seasonal flu and limited lung infections.

In Beijing, residents rushed to stock up on over-the-counter medicines and antigen tests, leading to shortages at pharmacies and online shopping sites. Streets and malls remained largely empty as people stayed home to recover from the coronavirus or avoid becoming infected.

As China’s capital grapples with an unprecedented wave of coronavirus, the rest of the country is expected to follow suit – if not already in one.

All the while, Mr. Xi has made no public comments about the pivotal shift or the chaos it has unleashed.

On Nov. 10, at a meeting of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo, state media quoted the supreme leader for the last time directing the fight against the coronavirus. There, he vowed to be “steadfast” in his “Dynamic Zero Covid” campaign while minimizing its economic and social impact. He urged officials to correctly guide public opinion and channel public sentiment, and promised to “resolutely win this battle.”

The next day, the Chinese government issued 20 new guidelines to “optimize” coronavirus measures to limit their disruption to daily life and the economy, while insisting that “this is not loosening controls, let alone reopening or ‘laying flat’.” ‘was’ – a phrase often used to describe doing the least.

But given Omicron’s high transmissibility, Xi Jinping’s directives on eliminating the virus and stabilizing the economy proved to be an impossible task for local authorities. As cases surged in Beijing, Guangzhou and Chongqing, local authorities reinstated strict lockdowns and quarantine measures, dashing public hopes for respite from choking measures that upended lives, shuttered businesses and led to mounting tragedies.

Then, a deadly apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi was the final straw, sparking a collective uprising of fed-up people. Protests against zero-coronavirus outbreaks broke out across the country, posing the strongest challenge to Xi’s authority since he came to power.

What followed was the swift and complete dismantling of the zero-coronavirus regime, and a hasty shift in the propaganda message. The economic toll, fiscal burden and unstoppable nature of the highly contagious virus were all underlying factors that necessitated the shift, but an unprecedented outburst of dissent prompted the government to speed up the belated process.

“It just goes to show how important these social protests are in convincing the supreme leader himself that it’s time to move on,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Otherwise it’s impossible to explain why right before the protests, they actually Doubling down on zero Covid and reversing easing.”

Epidemic prevention workers wear PPE to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while standing guard outside a locked down community in Beijing, China, November 29, 2022.

Expert: China fails to prepare residents when zero-coronavirus policy ends

Given the government’s obsession with control, it’s shocking how little it was prepared to withdraw from the policy so drastically. The country has not done enough to prepare for things like increasing vaccination rates among the elderly, increasing hospital surge and intensive care capacity, and stockpiling antiviral drugs.

While experts outside China warn of a dark winter ahead—with some studies predicting more than a million deaths from the virus—the CCP’s propaganda machine is already painting China as “moving from victories to new victories.”

On Thursday, the People’s Daily, the party’s flagship mouthpiece, ran a front-page commentary offering a glowing review of China’s fight against the coronavirus over the past three years. Conclusion: Xi’s policies have been “perfectly correct”.

“Reality has fully proved that our epidemic prevention policy is correct, scientific, and effective. It has won the approval of the people and can stand the test of history,” the 11,000-word article stated that Shanghai’s painful two-month blockade was A remarkable achievement.

“After three years of hard work, we have the conditions, mechanisms, institutions, teams and medicines, laying the foundation for an all-round victory over the epidemic,” it said.

Officially, the party — and its top leader, Xi Jinping — are absolutely right. But no matter how much the CCP tries to rewrite history and falsify the collective memory of the Chinese people, parts of the public will forever remember their experience of living during a zero-coronavirus period—the frustration of being confined to their homes for weeks, if not months, losing their jobs and income The desperation, the heartbreak of seeing loved ones cut off from emergency medical care due to the draconian lockdown. For some, their trust in government has been permanently eroded.

“In China, going back decades, society has suffered a lot of scars,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “A lot of these scars are generational. In some ways, this is one of them,” he said, referring to the suffering of people with zero Covid.

Chinese officials, health experts and state media have described the sudden retreat as following science, noting that the Omicron variant is less lethal.

But Omicron emerged nearly a year ago, and experts say the government has wasted resources and time over the past few months on mass testing and building makeshift isolation facilities, instead of vaccinating the elderly or increasing ICU capacity.

“Stop whitewashing. Do you really have no idea what triggered the reopening?” read one Weibo comment.

“Then tell me, why (the government) chose to back down and open up in winter? Why can’t it be done in spring or summer? Why wait until after an important meeting?” said one Weibo comment, referring to the party congress in October.

Some people who haven’t been too affected – or think the impact is worth the sacrifice – still support zero Covid and are terrified of living with the virus. Instead of asking why the government was not adequately prepared before it abruptly dropped restrictions, they blamed those calling for reopening — including protesters who took to the streets to make their point.

Police block off the streets of Urumqi, named after the city of Urumqi, in Shanghai, Nov. 27, 2022, the night before protests against China's zero-Covid policy, following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang.  (Photo by Hector Retamar/AFP) (Photo by Hector Retamar/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Chilling’: Protesters tell CNN what’s the mood in China

Some experts think Beijing needs a political escape The protests provided a timely excuse for exiting from zero coronavirus – even though it was unable to publicly acknowledge to the Chinese public that the protests had taken place. As well as an end to the Covid lockdown, some protesters are calling for political freedom and calling for the resignation of the party and Xi Jinping – an unimaginable act of political defiance against the country’s most powerful and authoritarian leader in decades.

Unsurprisingly, a senior Chinese diplomat accused foreign forces of “taking the opportunity to politicize” and instigate “color revolutions”.

“At first, people took to the streets to express dissatisfaction with the inability of the local government to fully and accurately implement the measures introduced by the central government, but the protests were quickly exploited by foreign forces,” Lu Yashi, China’s ambassador to France, told an embassy event last week. French journalist.

Blaming local governments and foreign powers is the party’s preferred response to public dissent. But by concentrating unprecedented power in his own hands, Xi inevitably takes personal responsibility for party policies and their implementation. By tying himself closely to zero Covid, he also ties himself to any potential consequences of abruptly withdrawing from it.

The party’s vaunts of “putting people’s lives first” will ring hollow if a wave of mass infections leads to a surge in deaths, especially among vulnerable elderly people. Authorities may try to cover up the Covid death toll (experts have long questioned China’s arbitrary standards for counting Covid deaths), but it will be harder to hide the lines and body bagging at funeral homes.

For now, Xi continues to remain silent — as he often does in times of uncertainty, such as the early days of the Wuhan outbreak and the stirring weeks of the Shanghai lockdown.

Huang, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Xi appeared to be distanced from the zero-Covid U-turn for the time being.

On December 7, the day the government announced a major rollback of its zero-Covid strategy, Xi Jinping boarded a flight to Saudi Arabia for a state visit and regional summit.

“Maybe he wanted to avoid finger pointing. He didn’t want to associate himself too closely with the sudden reopening, lest it lead to mass death,” Huang said.

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