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