China is reeling under a massive resurgence of the coronavirus, affecting an estimated 400 million people and their livelihoods. People are seething with anger, and China’s growth rate, currency, stock markets are all down. Major cities are witnessing “hard lockdowns”, forcible mass testing, border controls, travel curbs, excessive quarantines, massive surveillance measures, hoarding of food stuffs, and millions of migrant workers are suffering, just as Indian migrant workers did during the lockdown here.
Even as the pandemic situation has worsened in the 25-million people commercial capital, Shanghai, the epidemic threatens the 20-million people political capital, Beijing, with its Chaoyang district coming under lockdown. Having propagated the virtues of its ‘Zero Covid’ policy since the Wuhan lockdown, China’s leadership is at pains to explain to its people, and to the world, why infections have risen and why they are being forced to bear the overall disproportionate costs.
As the pandemic spread across the globe, killing six million and infecting half-a-billion people, China reported only 120,000 infections and some 4,000-odd deaths – figures that are suspect due to the utter lack of transparency. Today, infections are said to have jumped to 900,000, as per the same non-transparent official figures, affecting nearly 50 cities.
In June 2020, China released a white paper crediting President Xi Jinping’s “personal command” and “decisive” leadership in its “victory” over the spread of the virus. It also mentioned the “swift, effective and comprehensive” response for containing the virus across the country, although the then Wuhan Mayor had stated that over five million people had left the city before it was locked down on January 23, 2020.
Subsequently, China carried out one of the most intensive holier-than-thou propaganda campaigns globally, critiquing democracies as inefficient and downright callous in addressing the pandemic. At the same time, China took pride in its ‘Zero Covid’ policies of total lockdowns, app-based intensive and intrusive surveillance methods, mass testing, constructing temporary hospital beds, vaccination, and oppressive quarantine procedures. The Communist Party organs even lampooned India for our death toll in April/May last year.
With the current resurgence in the epidemic across the country, China insists on following its draconian Covid policies as it sees the political legitimacy of the Communist Party is increasingly being questioned. When the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests erupted, the Communist Party tied its legitimacy to ensuring economic growth rates which, of course, have declined from an estimated 14% in 1994 to 10% in 2010 to 2.2% in 2020. Managing the virus has now become the new goalpost for the Communist Party — at the cost of people’s livelihoods and aspirations.
Of course, the internal blame game is shifting as well. Politburo member and Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, spearheading the Covid-related campaign since late 2019, stated that Shanghai has no “solid foundation” in anti-epidemic work. With the 20th Communist Party congress due this November, political factional struggles are intensifying. While Xi Jinping may escape demands for political accountability over the spread of the pandemic across the country, Shanghai party leader Li Qiang and others may be ‘disciplined’.
The virus has spread despite 85% of the population being vaccinated – suggesting its ineffectiveness, although the Covid death rate may be low. Indeed, Brazil found Chinese-supplied vaccines to be only 54% effective. It was also critiqued that the vaccination drive in China has been uneven, with the elderly and those in remote areas left out. China also refuses to allow vaccines from abroad, given its negative propaganda about them earlier.
A major casualty of the ‘Zero Covid’ policy is the economy. China’s growth rate fell to 2.2% in 2020 but regained to 8% in 2021. The IMF has predicted 4% for this year, well below China’s own target of over 5%. The Politburo announced a stimulus package on April 29.
The Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets have nose-dived. The China Securities Index 300 has fallen from over 5,211 points in 2020 to just over 4,016 points now. Supply chain disruptions continue with production at Tesla, Foxconn and others due to the ‘Zero Covid’ lockdowns. The real estate and technology sectors have been unable to rebound, thanks to the demands of Xi’s “common prosperity” campaign. Investors are pulling out.
Thus, while many countries have successfully experimented with mass vaccination, herd immunity, and relative and non-lethal dispersal of the virus, China’s hard lockdowns are testing the patience of hundreds of millions of its citizens.
This article was first published in Deccan Herald as Xi’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy: The pitfalls of authoritarianism on 30 April 2022.
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About the Author
Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor, Center for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India