China’s Zero-Covid Policy: Beyond Pandemic Management                                  

On 7th December, almost a fortnight after the tragedy of the Urumqi apartment block fire and the ensuing nationwide protests, the Chinese Communist Party, led by president Xi Jinping, finally began rolling back the country’s draconian Zero-Covid policies. The new measures mean that for the first time in months, Chinese citizens will be able to go to the supermarket or take public transport without proof of a negative PCR, and those with mild or asymptomatic infections will be able to quarantine at home rather than being taken to centralised facilities. This change in policy finally brings China in line with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and much of the rest of the world attempting to co-exist with Covid-19 in a ‘new normal’.

While Zero-Covid has, undoubtedly, helped China to have an extremely low Covid-19 mortality rate, its lack of a clear exit plan and botched implementation has led to a considerable number of tragedies, with the Urumqi fire being the latest addition to a worrying list of failures. On 18th September 2022, a fatal bus crash en route to an enforced quarantine facility in Guizhou killed 27 and injured 20. Local officials in Chengdu prevented people caught in a 6.8 magnitude earthquake from escaping to safety in the name of pandemic prevention, ultimately resulting in a death toll of 93.

Across China, multiple children have died in quarantine centres due to delayed and insufficient emergency medical help. Throughout this litany of shortcomings, the CCP’s responses have followed a familiar pattern of censorship and denial. When repudiation has failed, there has been a distinct lack of empathy and acknowledgement of responsibility from the authorities. History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce: During the Great Leap Forward, for example, officials would export grain to maintain the illusion of plenty even as peasants starved to death in droves. Whether in 1962 or 2022, the people have consistently paid the ultimate price for the indifference of the authorities.

Why then did Xi doggedly pursue Zero-Covid at any cost, affirming this stance as recently as the party congress in October, even as the natural economic cost was compounded by the human cost? The answer lies in the dual purpose of this policy: Not only fighting the virus but also consolidating the power of both the CCP and Xi himself. Since becoming General Secretary in 2012, Xi has enacted a gradual crackdown on civil society, shutting down independent NGOs, increasing online censorship, and intimidating dissidents.

Any threat to the CCP, be it online dissent or Covid-19, has been shut down hastily. Aiding and abetting his efforts is relentless propaganda and some of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance technology. With such infrastructure already in place, the pandemic has afforded Xi a handy mandate for furthering his unprecedented level of control over the citizens’ lives. Arbitrary detention might appear slightly more acceptable dressed head-to-toe in protective equipment and when done in the name of public health, particularly when state media have spent the pandemic conditioning people to view Covid-19 as a national threat.

Zero-Covid is also part of Xi’s track record of disregarding the views of the international community, exemplified by the network of Uyghur ‘re-education’ concentration camps in Xinjiang and China’s belligerent rhetoric on the sovereignty of Taiwan. As China’s international isolation has become more pronounced, so too has the CCP’s emphasis on self-reliance: Self-reliance in the stubborn insistence on home-made vaccines, despite lower efficacy, leading to widespread vaccine hesitancy; self-reliance in the shutting of borders to all but a trickle of travellers, exacerbating the pain of diaspora populations unable to return home; self-reliance as a core tenet of the ‘Chinese Dream’ Xi has sold to the people. However, the pandemic has demonstrated that the dream might be more adequately described as a nightmare: Cue dystopian scenes of entire apartment blocks locked down for days on end, with people at their windows pleading into the night for food instead of PCR swabs. An unfortunate reality manifested in ‘Zero-Covid China’.

Despite growing signs of dissatisfaction, the CCP appears to have underestimated the desperation of the Chinese people, taken aback by the strength and fervour of the first nationwide protests against their rule since 1989. Once again, students and Chinese youth have been at the forefront of these protests, risking arrest and reprisal to demand freedom. Many from their parent’s generation, mindful of 1989, will have watched the protests with hearts in their mouths, fearful of a similar brutal crackdown.

While it would be easy to attribute the student protestors’ idealism to mere naivety, the reality is much more complex. Many of the current youth are politically savvy, accustomed to playing cat-and-mouse with online censors and ‘climbing the Great Firewall’ with VPNs to access banned foreign media. Now, they have shifted the frontline of the battle for truth from the internet to the streets, with various creative protest symbols inspiring hope not only at home but also abroad. For Xi, controlling the people’s thoughts has proven significantly more challenging than their actions.

What Comes Next?

The cracks in the fragile post-1989 Chinese social contract have never seemed clearer. If the CCP is no longer able to maintain China’s growing prosperity and economic growth, then why should their heavy-handed rule be excused? Why should the people maintain a political system unfit for purpose, one that has repeatedly prioritised the interests of the state over the well-being of the people? As demonstrated during the pandemic, China’s centralised bureaucracy harbours local officials who offer a potent mix of ruthlessness, incompetence, and deference to superiors. Ultimately, they become more concerned about protecting their own positions than those they are meant to serve, regardless of the outcome.

Now that Xi has chosen to part with Zero-Covid, he will have to contend with the simultaneous threat of the pandemic, and the protestors against his regime. China may still pay the price for Xi’s delayed decision as the spectre of an inevitable spike in infection and mortality looms, given the low natural immunity and vaccination rates, especially among the elderly. Public health systems, stretched thin under repeated lockdowns, may not have the ability to cope with this influx, but any attempt to reintroduce wholesale restrictions could lead to further unrest. Now that the psychological hurdle of mobilising to protest has been overcome, momentum is arguably with the citizens, and they will be emboldened in their demands. The CCP’s response to further protests, and the success or failure of the new Covid-19 measures, will ultimately indicate the type of future that China is barrelling towards.