For nearly three years, China’s leader Xi Jinping has bet his legitimacy and political credibility on the absence of Covid.
Calling himself the “commander-in-chief” of the “people’s war” against the virus, he praised the tough policy of “putting people and their lives first” and credited its success with evidence of the superiority of China’s authoritarian system.
Now, when his costly strategy has been dismantled in an abrupt turn following nationwide protests, Mr. Xi has remained silent.
Across the country, Covid testing booths, medical code scanning signs and blockade barriers are being lifted at breakneck speed. As infections spread, authorities removed virus-tracking apps and abandoned reporting asymptomatic infections altogether (they make up the majority of the country’s official infections). nation). The rest of the case numbers also become meaningless, as cities return to mass testing and allow people to use antigen tests and isolate at home.
While easing stifling restrictions is a long-awaited solution for many who have become frustrated with the social and economic costs of not having Covid, the suddenness and disarray of it has startled people, confused or worried.
Their daily lives were dominated by state-imposed Covid control measures and the fear of the virus caused by propaganda spread throughout the pandemic, now the public is said to be “the one responsible for the virus.” your own health” — or basically, to protect us.
State media and health officials have shifted from preaching the dangers of the virus to downplaying its threat. Zhong Nanshan, a leading expert on Covid-19 and an important public voice during the pandemic, suggested on Thursday that Omicron should really be called a “cold corona virus”, citing the prevalence of mortality similar to seasonal flu and limited infectivity in the lungs.
In Beijing, people rushed to buy over-the-counter medicines and antigen tests, leading to shortages at pharmacies and online shopping. Streets and shopping malls remain largely deserted as people stay at home to recover from Covid or to avoid getting infected.
As China’s capital grapples with an unprecedented coronavirus wave, the rest of the country is expected to follow – if not already in the midst of that wave.
During that time, Xi Jinping has not made any public comments about the pivotal change, or the chaos it has caused.
The top leader was last quoted by state media in his fight against Covid on November 10, at a meeting of the ruling Politburo of the Communist Party. There, he vowed to “resolutely” implement a “dynamic no covid”, while minimizing its impact on the economy and society. He called on officials to properly shape public opinion and shape public sentiment, pledging to “decisively win the battle.”
The next day, the Chinese government issued 20 new guidelines to “optimize” anti-Covid measures to limit their disruption to daily life and the economy, and affirmed ” it’s not about loosening controls, let alone reopening or ‘laying down'” — a phrase often used to describe minimum employment.
But Xi’s directives on both eliminating the virus and stabilizing the economy proved to be an impossible task for local authorities, given Omicron’s high transmissibility. As cases surge across Beijing, Guangzhou and Chongqing, local governments return to strict lockdowns and quarantines, quelling public hopes for a respite from suffocating measures. has turned lives upside down, closed businesses, and led to a growing list of tragedies.
Then, a deadly apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi became the last straw, sparking a collective uproar from those who had had enough. Anti-Covid protests have broken out across the country, posing the biggest challenge to Xi’s government since he came to power.
What followed was the rapid and far-reaching collapse of the Covid-free regime and a hasty shift in the propaganda message. The economic toll, financial burden, and the unstoppable nature of a highly infectious virus are all fundamental to change, but it takes an outbreak of unrest. unprecedented political consensus to push the government to accelerate this long-delayed process.
“It shows just how important these social protests are in convincing ourselves,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. top leadership that it is time to move on.” “Otherwise it’s inexplicable why right before the protests they actually doubled zero-Covid and reversed the easing policies.”
Given the government’s obsession with control, it is surprising that the government has prepared little for such drastic withdrawal from the policy. The country has lacked preparatory measures such as boosting vaccination rates for the elderly, increasing intensive care and mutation capacity in hospitals, and stockpiling antiretroviral drugs.
While experts outside of China warn of a dark winter ahead — with some studies predicting more than a million deaths from Covid, the party’s propaganda machine portrays a China that is behaving badly. troops “from victory to victory”.
On Thursday, a front-page commentary by People’s Daily, the party’s top mouthpiece, offered a positive assessment of the country’s fight against Covid-19 over the past three years. Conclusion: Xi Jinping’s policy has long been “absolutely correct”.
“The facts have fully proven that our pandemic policy is sound, scientific and effective. This policy has won the support of the people and can stand the test of history.” The 11,000-word article stated, citing Shanghai’s two months of painful blockade. a remarkable achievement.
“After three years of efforts, we have the conditions, mechanisms, systems, teams and medicines to lay the foundation for a comprehensive victory in the fight against the epidemic,” the statement read.
According to official accounts, the party — and by extension its supreme leader Xi Jinping — is infallible. But no matter how hard the party tries to rewrite history and repair the collective memory of the Chinese people, a section of the public will always remember their life experiences in the absence of Covid — the frustration of being confined to your home for weeks or even months. Finally, there is the despair at the loss of jobs and income, the heartbreak of watching loved ones being denied emergency medical care due to the draconian lockdown. For some, their faith in government has been forever chipped.
Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said: “In China, in recent decades, society has experienced a lot of scars. “There have been quite a few generational scars. And in a way, this is one of them,” he said, referring to people’s suffering in the Covid-free conditions.
Chinese officials, medical experts and state media have deemed the abrupt retreat to be scientific, citing the less lethal nature of the Omicron variant.
But Omicron emerged almost a year ago, and experts say the government has wasted a lot of resources and time in the past months on mass testing and building makeshift isolation facilities, rather than injecting them. immunization for the elderly or improve the capacity of the ICU.
“Stop bleaching. Do you really not know what triggered the reopening?” a Weibo comment said.
“So tell me, why did (the government) choose to step back and open in winter? Why can’t it do so in spring or summer? Why wait until after an important meeting? ” a comment on Weibo said, referring to the Party Congress in October.
Some people who have not been personally impacted much – or see the impact as a worthy sacrifice – are still in favor of zero-Covid and are fearful of living with the virus. Instead of questioning why the government was not fully prepared before abruptly lifting restrictions, it blamed those calling for reopening – including protesters who took to the streets to demonstrate express their views.
Some experts believe Beijing needs a political turn to get out of Covid-19, and the protests have provided a timely pretext – although they cannot openly admit to the Chinese public that demonstrations took place. In addition to the end of the Covid blockade, some protesters also called for political freedoms and demanded the resignation of the party and Mr. Xi – an unthinkable political challenge to the leader. the country’s most powerful and authoritarian leader in decades.
Not surprisingly, a senior Chinese diplomat accused foreign forces of “seizing the opportunity to politicize” and fueling a “color revolution”.
“Initially, people took to the streets to express their displeasure at the inability of the local government to fully and correctly implement the measures put in place by the central government, but the protests were quickly abandoned by the local authorities. Foreign forces take advantage,” said Lu Yashi, China’s ambassador to France. told French journalists at an embassy event last week.
Blaming local governments and foreign forces is the party’s response to public dissent. But in concentrating unprecedented power in his own hands, Xi inevitably bears personal responsibility for the party’s policies and their implementation. And by tying himself too closely to zero-Covid, he is also bound to any potential consequences from getting out of it abruptly.
If the wave of mass infections leads to an increased number of deaths, especially among vulnerable elderly people, the party’s boast of “putting people’s lives first” will become so meaningless. Authorities could try to hide the death toll from Covid (experts have long questioned China’s arbitrary standards for counting Covid deaths), but it will be more difficult to do. conceal long lines of people and body bags at funeral homes.
So far, Mr. Xi has remained silent — as he often does in uncertain times, such as the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan and the tense weeks of Shanghai’s lockdown. .
Huang, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr. Xi appeared to be temporarily moving away from the Covid-free turnaround path.
On December 7, the day the government announced a drastic withdrawal from its Covid-free strategy, Xi boarded a flight to Saudi Arabia for a state visit and to attend regional summits.
“Perhaps he wants to avoid criticism. He doesn’t want to tie himself too tightly to the sudden reopening, in case it leads to mass deaths,” Huang said.