Opinion: Why Xi can’t quit zero-Covid

China, she said, would stick to its “zero-Covid momentum” strategy “without hesitation or hesitation”.

Unsurprisingly, we see Shanghai – well known for its targeted and flexible approach to the pandemic – now turning to drastic measures to control the virus.

In addition to several rounds of citywide mass testing and the lockdown of 25 million people, he is moving close contacts and sub-close contacts to other cities. And build perhaps the largest quarantine center in the world, with 40,000 beds.
Covid-positive children in quarantine have been separated from their parents. A person in a hazmat suit reportedly intentionally killed a corgi on the street on Wednesday, fearing the dog would spread the virus after the owner was quarantined after testing positive.
The country’s central leadership no longer tolerates the implementation of iconoclastic policies – instead, local governments are instructed to “do everything possible to control the spread of the virus as soon as possible”.

The new directive – which was apparently ordered by President Xi Jinping – promotes heavy-handed pandemic control measures, such as mass PCR testing, forced quarantines and citywide lockdowns.

It marks a new chapter in China’s zero Covid policy started two years ago, after the situation in Wuhan was brought under control. In order to secure what China had achieved, while buying time for mass vaccination, it relied on mass testing and aggressive contact tracing to identify new cases and their close contacts for isolation. and quarantine, before resetting local cases to zero.

Until last summer, this strategy proved effective in keeping infection levels extremely low. But he started facing problems with the spread of the Delta variant. The arrival of the Omicron wave this spring makes such an elimination strategy even less feasible.

In late March, the government began tweaking the strategy by approving rapid home antigen test kits and issuing new guidelines that no longer require hospitalization of asymptomatic or mild cases.

This gave the impression that the country had begun to favor a more focused and flexible approach that would eventually help it to emerge from zero-Covid. But the recent surge in Covid-19 cases in Shanghai has highlighted the failure of a targeted approach to contain the spread of the new variant.

Today, the renewed focus on zero-Covid also reinforces the perverse incentive structure of the Chinese political hierarchy.

With power concentrated at the top of the system, local government officials concerned with their career advancement are rushing to jump on the political zero-Covid bandwagon – demonstrating their loyalty to Xi and his preferred political agenda.

The incentive becomes much stronger for the politically ambitious who covet a seat on the Communist Party of China Central Committee, or, better yet, the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, where a reshuffle is due to take place at the 20th Party Congress this year. Xi is believed to be seeking an unprecedented third term, contrary to longstanding limits on the party secretary’s longevity in power.

Nationally, city after city rushed to mass testing, even in the absence of cases. Containment measures have been imposed even though the cases are in single digits. Recalling the nationwide mobilization of healthcare workers during the outbreak in Wuhan, more than 38,000 medical personnel from 15 provinces have been deployed to Shanghai to support its fight against the virus.
While Xi hoped to minimize the cost of a zero-Covid strategy, this renewed campaign will quickly and exponentially take a heavy economic toll. Economically, this further suppresses domestic consumption, exacerbates supply chain disruptions and encourages investor exodus.
Socially, the resolute pursuit of zero-Covid has ripple effects, such as lack of access to ordinary and emergency health care. As more people fall victim to politics, popular dissatisfaction with zero-Covid could go viral. Fear-induced behavior (as shown by the panic buying in Shanghai) would threaten socio-political stability, which could disrupt the transition of leadership before the congress.

Epidemiologically, by protecting the population from the virus and making vaccination a side issue, China would maintain its huge immune gap with the rest of the world – which paradoxically also makes coming out of zero-Covid harder to justify. Instead of living with the virus, the Chinese may have to live with an extremely expensive policy.

So what is the breaking point of China’s zero Covid policy? As Zeng Guang, one of the government’s top health advisers, said last summer, China would begin to open up and coexist with the virus when the cost outweighs the benefits.

What he did not foresee is that the weighing of the costs and benefits of politics is now highly politicized. As part of performance-based Chinese legitimacy, moving away from zero Covid due to the high socio-economic cost would undermine Xi’s personal leadership even as he seeks a third term. And he tied his personal interest to politics.

Indeed, a recent Xinhua article reiterated that Xi was “personally issuing orders and personally arranging deployments” in China’s battle against Covid-19.
Moreover, abandoning politics would also harm the legitimacy of the regime since it can no longer claim that the Chinese political system is superior to Western systems. In January 2021, Xi said, “Judging by how this pandemic is being handled by different leaders and [political] systems. . . [we can] see clearly who did better.”

The party, and Xi himself, have benefited greatly from limiting the spread of the virus in China despite the initial mishandling of the Wuhan outbreak.

A recent article published in a Shenzhen newspaper framed the debate between zero-Covid and coexistence with the virus as “fundamentally” a competition between political systems. If China manages to use a zero-Covid approach to avoid large-scale outbreaks when all other nations choose to live with the virus, it will make arguments about the resilience and ingenuity of the Chinese state that much more compelling. .

With the political stakes so high, the huge cost associated with politics becomes a secondary concern, and zero-Covid becomes an approach by any means and at any cost.

Unless senior management changes its zero-Covid mentality, the policy is here to stay. In the words of a nationalist blogger, China should “prepare to live with zero-Covid for at least ten years”.


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