Xi Jinping’s zero-covid policy has turned a health crisis into a political crisis
cHINA ENGINEERING covid-19 lockdowns. In the first weeks of the epidemic, Xi Jinping’s government banned tens of millions of people to stop the disease from spreading out of Wuhan. Almost three years later, lockdowns have become China’s undoing. A combination of protests and rising issues means Mr Xi will have to navigate between lockdowns and pandemics – and possibly end both. The coming months will be the biggest threat to his rule since he came to power in 2012 and the biggest threat to the Communist Party’s authority since the protests around Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Occasional local pickets are common in China. But protests erupted across the country after at least ten people died in a fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where residents were said to have been sealed in a building due to covid . Last weekend in Beijing protesters demanded “freedom”; in Shanghai they called on Mr. Xi to resign. The population was small, but in a place as strong as China, it is amazing that they ever created.
If demonstrators were the only opposition, the security forces could restore order. But Mr. Xi also has an unpredictable virus. To grasp the political and economic chaos ahead, you must first understand how the Chinese epidemic went wrong.
One problem is a defect. The zero-covid policy began as a remarkable success, saving millions of Chinese lives. First, less disease also meant less economic harm. For the past three years, most Chinese have gotten on with things. Month after month, the state media trumpeted that this proves that Mr. Xi and his party are capable and humane, unlike Western politicians who presided over mass death.
These words have now turned to ashes. Mr. Xi’s policies have left China defenseless against an endemic virus that is becoming increasingly difficult to control. Almost 90% of the population has received two injections. But our modelling, based on predictions about the rate at which people will be infected and recover or die, suggests that if the virus spread without number, infections would peak at 45m per day. About 680,000 people died, even if vaccines were still strong and all received care. In reality vaccines would decline and many would go untreated. The need for intensive care beds reached 410,000, almost seven times the capacity in China.
Many of these deaths would be the result of Mr. Xi’s policies. Only 40% of people over 80 have received three covid shots, which are needed to prevent serious illness and death. Given that a healthy 80-year-old is more than 100 times more likely to die from covid than a healthy 20-year-old, that’s a terrible mistake. The party is willing to lock down millions for weeks on end, but has not addressed vaccine skepticism among the elderly. At first the government only allowed vaccinations for people under the age of 60. He cast doubt on the safety of foreign vaccines while promoting traditional medicine. And it didn’t prompt local officials to throw jabs first.
If China does not change course, its covid tolerance will disappear. The newer subvariants are more contagious than Omicron, which is more contagious than Delta. Protection from serious disease and death declines much more rapidly in those who have received the vaccine alone than in those who are also infected. Despite this, China has not yet organized a campaign for a fourth bullet. If coverage increased to 90% and 90% of cases received the best antiviral treatment, our model says deaths would drop to 68,000, even if the virus were free to spread.
In a world with an abundance of vaccines and antivirals, the benefits of Mr. Xi’s zero-covid policy are no longer emerging, even as the economic and social costs continue to mount. The number of domestic trips in China is down 45% year-on-year, road freight is down 33% and traffic on city metros has fallen 32%. Urban youth unemployment is close to 18%, almost double what it was in 2018. Unlike the last peak of infections in the spring, restrictions are currently in place in the cities until whole. Some places have been locked down and off for months. Little wonder people have taken to the streets.
And so Mr. Xi has a dilemma: to control the disease has become socially and economically costly, but to reduce the burden risks caused by an epidemic. Worse, the stable middle ground between runaway disease and intolerable lockdowns seems to be shrinking, if it exists at all. On November 19, just a week after the government tried to relax by announcing 20 less strict control measures, Gavekal, a research group that monitors the city of China, found a sharp increase in restrictions as it took disease outbreaks across the country.
The effects will go wider than covid. By making the zero-covid policy a test of loyalty, Mr Xi has turned a health crisis into a political crisis. By imposing the day-to-day mechanism of detection and enforcement, he has cut against the idea that his covid policy puts “people first” and replaced it with an unbending authoritarian state. into every home. By sticking to zero-covid despite the effects on the economy, he has cast doubt on one of the party’s main claims to power – that only stability and prosperity can be guaranteed.
This test of Mr. Xi’s leadership comes at a bad time. Winter is when respiratory diseases like covid spread more easily. As Chinese World Cup viewers noticed before the censors came to work, they are trapped when other countries are free and unmasked. As the world looks forward, failing to zero-covid is not only a life-threatening mistake, but also an embarrassment.
Mr Xi does not have an easy way out of the epidemic. The party has rightly said that they will make an effort to vaccinate the elderly. But it could take months to get the vaccine and get the antivirals. Lockdowns are hard and even then the disease can break out. In the best case scenario China will experience a tidal wave of death and disease, and economic disruption.
How Mr. Xi handles these tradeoffs will be telling. No one knows how much the Chinese people and the central government are to blame for what has gone wrong, or whether the system of investigation and control that the party has worked to create is capable of withstanding the the face of great disagreement. And no one can be sure to what extent Chinese nationalism is increasingly ensuring loyalty to the Communist Party. During his first decade in power, Mr. Xi exerted greater control over politics and the economy without paying a price. Covid puts all that in doubt. ■
All our stories about the pandemic can be found on our coronavirus hub.
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