China is continuing with its tough zero-COVID policy. But the cracks in the economy and a discontent middle class mean that Xi’s Imperial-like governing style is under challenge, writes Kerry Brown.
China’s zero Covid strategy operates in Chinese domestic politics a bit like Brexit does in the UK. Despite complaints from business networks and broader society about the negative impact on economic growth and citizens’ freedoms, it’s a policy commitment the government is sticking to no matter what.
Of course, no one voted for the draconian lockdowns implemented across China. And, unlike Brexit, the lockdowns are very much in line with expert advice in the country, rather than running against it. The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC), the main governmental body advising the government over crisis response in this area, said in a weekly update last November that without comprehensive restraints on people’s movement and quarantines on anyone testing positive for the virus, the national health system would soon be overwhelmed with cases, and find itself in the same bind as those in the US or Europe did.
That the words of the experts have been taken so much in earnest is striking for a regime that previously hasn’t been shy to dismiss them. The Xi leadership may be confident in the way it speaks to the outside world, but it seems that it has the same profound wariness in the robustness of the country’s public health as everywhere else. Things have not been helped by clinical trials showing the Chinese vaccines – the only ones accepted in China – are not as effective as foreign ones where the length of protection is in question). On top of this, vaccine take-up by the elderly, the most vulnerable group, has been poor. It is easy to see therefore why the central government might be very cautious. What is harder to understand, however, is why the cautiousness has bordered on obsessiveness.
The Xi way of governing is increasingly almost imperial in style, with broad, high-level policy announcements made in Beijing, sometimes of almost Delphic succinctness.
One scenario is simply about the structures of decision-making in China. This was an issue right from the moment the variant started to appear in late 2019, and local officials in Wuhan stood accused of trying to hush the issue up, delaying reporting to the central authorities till things had already gone on too long. As a result of this, in February 2020 key officials in the city were sacked. But this is unlikely to change the fact that provincial officials are very risk averse under Xi, and that any central direction to manage the pandemic will be interpreted in the purest terms and executed to the letter.
This explains the completeness of the Xian government’s virtual incarceration of its 8 million population after just a few COVID cases at the end of 2021, the first of the more recent lockdowns. It also explains why the traditionally more free-thinking municipal authority of Shanghai and its similarly liberal approach was fiercely knocked back by Beijing last February, to make an example for any other provinces thinking of going their own way. The absolute prohibition on people moving from their homes there, in one of the most dynamic and lively cities of modern China modern, was perfect proof that if the government could bring about this situation there, it could do it anywhere.
This case study also reveals some important things about the Xi way of governing. It is increasingly almost imperial in style, with broad, high-level policy announcements made in Beijing, sometimes of almost Delphic succinctness, which are then handed down to various levels of government to do as they will. Exactly how and when the discussion amongst Xi and his Politburo colleagues on the best response to COVID happened is unclear. In a world where almost every political system seems to leak incessantly, the Chinese one is unique in maintaining its opacity and secretiveness - no mean achievement in the social media era.
The Communist Party is very aware of how relatively small incidents can mount up and then generate overwhelming force. It itself coined the Chinese phrase 'a single spark can start a prairie fire'.
Rumours of clashes between Xi and his premier Li Keqiang on the effectiveness of the current response remain just that – rumours, with precious little hard evidence to back them up. Who in the current imperial system might dare to speak from the ranks and say that policy must change is unclear. Scientists should deal in hard facts – but we all know that science is susceptible to politicization. Experts in China have to offer their expertise in a highly political context. A declaration that the current approach is not fit for purpose can easily be reinterpreted as an attempt to launch an indirect attack on the core leader. With an important Congress coming up later this year, at which Xi is expected to be appointed for another five years in power, sensitivities are even more intense than normal. It is little wonder that the COVID strategy status quo settled on last year has not shifted.
Things, however, may well change, and change quickly. China is moving into tricky economic territory. The impact of the pandemic on global supply chains, along with the various stresses domestically on the housing market, and productivity, have shrunk expectations for growth. A predicted 6% in the earlier part of the year now looks overly ambitious. There is a real possibility China might experience a recession. At a moment like this, the government, which after all operates as a constant crisis and risk management entity, might do what it does best and prompt rapid, and dramatic, changes.
The handling of COVID19 might look like further proof that Chinese politics under Xi is repressive and zero-sum. But even in an autocratic state like the current People’s Republic, the pandemic will not leave politics unchanged.
This doesn’t mean that China’s COVID19 bind gets any easier. Like the country’s serious demographic challenges, with a rapidly ageing population, the only thing the government will be picking an argument with is reality as it proceeds into the future. As with Europe and the US, being more liberal about facing COVID19 will involve accepting some of the harsh consequences – rising fatalities, particularly for the elderly and vulnerable, and health systems put under enormous stress. In such a huge, complex country, and of enormous geopolitically importance, a misstep could easily lead to huge and unwanted consequences, generating discontent and triggering mass protests in a way reminiscent of 1989. The Communist Party is very aware of how relatively small incidents can mount up and then generate overwhelming force. It itself coined the Chinese phrase `a single spark can start a prairie fire’. One such spark – the introduction of Marxism into China in the 1910s – led to its gaining of power three decades later.
The handling of COVID19 might look like further proof that Chinese politics under Xi is repressive and zero-sum. But I suspect that even in an autocratic state like the current People’s Republic, the pandemic will not leave politics unchanged. In particular, the middle classes in cities like Shanghai have had their patience tested in recent months. This is the key group for Xi, the heart of his new innovative, more self-dependent, higher-quality service sector workers in an urbanized economy. Their support remains crucial if Xi is able to steer China towards the moment when it hopes it will become the world’s largest economy. Policies to try to placate them by addressing imbalances, critical environmental issues and improving public health are likely to only increase. Delivery however will be key.
Faced with a potentially life-threatening infectious disease, the Party can throw out injunctions and claim it has been the victim of bad luck. But an ailing economy and no clear signs of the government knowing how to manage this will prove a toxic mixture for it. Xi and his third term in office will be all about delivery. The question is whether, even with the formidable suite of powers he has, he can do this. Governing China has always been the ultimate political challenge. COVID 19 has made that even harder.