Just a few months ago, the thought of questioning the strength of Xi Jinping’s leadership was unthinkable. He had just secured his third term in office, carried out a brutal purge of factional rivals, and ensured that he and his beliefs were inextricably and existentially linked to the Chinese Communist Party. The zero Covid policy – despite some societal grumbling – was entrenched as the best and only way out of the pandemic.
But zero Covid already became unpopular in China in the second half of 2022. It wreaked havoc on people’s lives with increasing lockdowns and quarantines, and a series of tragedies had been linked to the enforcement of the policy. Then, in early December, after protests in major Chinese cities and rising cases of Omicron, the government suddenly ended the policy. Travel restrictions, quarantines, mandatory tests and other restrictions were drastically scaled back or removed altogether.
The move seemed to boost the outbreak. Cities have reported infection rates of up to 90%. There are outside estimates of more than half a million deaths, economic figures fell short of already low expectations and people are cautiously heading to Lunar New Year gatherings amid warnings to stay away from elderly relatives.
Xi and his government are now being criticized for not preparing and being honest about the consequences. Critics also say authorities have struggled to justify the decision to end the policy so suddenly.
“Certainly Xi Jinping’s prestige and thus authority has been tarnished,” said Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
After consolidating more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, analysts say Xi’s leadership is unlikely to be affected by any dissatisfaction with him. However, his absolute grasp of power raises concerns about where his whims might take China.
Prof Carl Minzner, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the results of the dramatic policy shift are a worrying sign of the dynamics created when Chinese policies are implemented – or changed – at the “whims of a single leader”. to Mao leading China to famine, or the Cultural Revolution.
Local authorities were largely responsible for the confusing and inconsistent measures, but they tried – almost competitively – to achieve the broad and ambitious aims of Xi’s national policy. That policy was considered indisputable, and when things went wrong local officials were blamed for poor execution. But the turnaround can’t be blamed on them.
“The policy was so tied to Xi that a reasoned discussion of the merits of the policy between 2020 and 2022 was almost impossible,” said Minzner, who also wrote End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise.
“It also meant careful preparation for what might follow after zero Covid was also impossible – it would have required lower level officials to recognize that zero Covid could end.”
Xi and his officials are aware that things have gone wrong. In public statements, they have spoken about the challenges of this new era, about the need for local authorities to ensure supplies and improve hospital capacity. But the statements contain no apology or accountability, and Xi maintains that the path taken was still the right one.
There is some truth to the argument: Zero Covid protected China through its worst strains and, as far as it is possible to tell, the death toll appears to be well below that of many other countries. But the result of lifting it so suddenly has led to accusations that the hardships of the previous three years were for naught.
‘This is a mess’
Publicly, the Chinese government maintains that the “adjustments” to the Covid policy were planned, well prepared and based on science. But there are signs that the reversal was ill-prepared at best, or a reckless knee-jerk reaction at worst.
The restrictions were lifted in winter, just before the biggest holiday of the year. Many hospitals were under-resourced and quickly overwhelmed, with governments advertising new staff long after the surge began. Drug production could not keep up with demand, leading Chinese diaspora communities to send it from abroad. Vaccination rates were still dangerously low in older groups, while others had been vaccinated for a long time. Some residents rushed across the border to get the foreign-made mRNA vaccines that Xi refused to approve. Data collection quickly declined — last week the government updated its official death toll from a few dozen since December to more than 50,000, but it still fell far short of international estimates.
“I think what everyone thinks: this is a government mess,” a 33-year-old marketing executive in Shenzhen told The Guardian. “What was the point of last year? We were all vaccinated, but nothing was open, so what was the strategy?”
Lam says the major protests in November marked a turning point. China has hundreds, if not thousands, of small protests a year, but they tend to be from people from what Lam called “disadvantaged sectors.”
“But this time you could see…people from all industries, all classes, including celebrity professors, parents of middle-level if not upper-level executives, people across the political and economic spectrum have been hurt. Both before and after the policy reversal.”
Discontent among Chinese people is almost impossible to quantify, but there has been a notable increase in complaints and inquiries on social media, often using code or language tricks, and conspiracy theories circulating that – without evidence – speculate about nefarious government plots behind the reopening .
“No matter how the propaganda machine spins, most saw what they saw and couldn’t help but see how Xi screwed up,” said Professor Steve Tsang, director of the Soas Institute. “But will it significantly undermine his grip on power? Not at all, at least in the short term. Xi’s grip on power is based more on fear and passive acceptance than on love and admiration.”
There has been concern within China’s political elite about Xi’s direction since at least 2018, when Xi abolished term limits, said Jeff Wasserstrom, a China expert and history professor at UC Irvine.
“There are more and more reasons for people to be dissatisfied with what Xi Jinping has done… It’s a small segment of the population, but it’s influential.”
But, Wasserstrom notes, it’s also a segment Xi has long focused on. Those most likely to be dissatisfied with his leadership were likely among those ousted at the party congress or previous purges.
Minzner says the ease with which Xi reversed such important policies seemingly overnight “makes you worry about choices he could make elsewhere.”
One obvious fear is about Xi’s plans to annex Taiwan — considered unlikely for now — but Minzner says there are other issues as well.
Several analysts the Guardian spoke to described a catch-22 in Xi’s leadership, but one from which he ultimately benefits. He has consolidated power so successfully that he essentially is the party. It means he acknowledges its mistakes as well as its successes, but since he has effectively destroyed the prospects of any opposition, it is of little consequence. There may be dissatisfaction with Xi, but not with anyone powerful enough to do anything about it.