The China Challenge: China’s Zero-COVID Reckoning

COMMENTARY Asia

The China Challenge: China’s Zero-COVID Reckoning

Jan 10, 2023 7 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Michael Cunningham

Research Fellow, China, Asian Studies Center

Michael is a research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
Patients wait to fetch medicine at Peking University Third Hospital on January 3, 2023 in Beijing, China. VCG / VCG / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The abrupt end to zero-COVID has opened a Pandora’s box that could easily become the greatest challenge of Xi’s career.

Three years after the initial outbreak, China is just as unprepared for a wave of hospitalizations as it was in January 2020.

Xi is likely facing the greatest challenge yet to his leadership. He will probably come out on top, but the months ahead will be precarious.

Last month, residents of several Chinese cities took to the streets to protest the country’s draconian zero-COVID policy. Some openly demanded that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leader, Xi Jinping, step down—an almost unthinkable expression of revolt given the risks associated with openly defying such a powerful and brutal regime. The protests ended almost as quickly as they started, but the CCP’s problems are only beginning.

Following the protests, the government made a nearly 180-degree shift in its approach to the pandemic. After almost three years portraying zero-COVID as superior to the approaches of other countries and vowing never to “lie flat” and let the virus run its course, the government now appears to be doing just that. The abrupt end to zero-COVID has opened a Pandora’s box that could easily become the greatest challenge of Xi’s career.

Scrapping Zero-COVID

The pivot away from zero-COVID was necessary. The highly infectious Omicron variants simply made the policy unsustainable. However, the abrupt way in which the policy ended caught both citizens and officials off guard. Almost overnight, “dynamic clearing,” the official name of zero-COVID, disappeared from official policy speeches. Senior leaders began comparing the current strains with a seasonal cold. Authorities now allow people with mild cases to isolate at home rather than herding them into makeshift hospitals, and negative nucleic acid tests are no longer required before taking public transportation.

>>> China’s COVID-19 About-Face Exposes the Dysfunction of Its Regime

It is unclear what role the protests played in the decision to scrap zero-COVID. They were certainly a factor, but they probably only accelerated a shift that was already in the works. How exactly the decision was made may never be known outside Beijing’s halls of elite decision-making. Was it purely the shock caused by the protests that convinced Beijing to make such a hurried shift, or was this a rare example of Xi being overridden by his colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee, all of whom are his allies but may not agree with him on all policy matters? Or had the current surge of infections in China simply strained resources so much that it was impossible to continue adhering to zero-COVID?

Even before the protests, there were signs that Beijing was seeking a face-saving way to phase out zero-COVID. The government has for months recognized the economic and social costs of clinging to this policy in the Omicron era. Especially worrying has been the economic impact on cash-strapped provincial and local governments. Beijing may have also feared that continuing disruptions to businesses in China would jeopardize the country’s strategic role at the center of global supply chains.

The Financial Times reported that, in early November, officials met with Hong Kong public health experts to discuss ending the pandemic restrictions. On November 11, the government rolled out 20 measures aimed at making zero-COVID less disruptive. The goal was likely to relax restrictions little by little until conditions were right to declare victory and move on in an orderly manner. But this well-intentioned adjustment only resulted in even more disruption, as infections spread rapidly and local officials remained under pressure to keep cases low.

What’s at Stake for China

Many outside China struggle to grasp the stakes associated with scrapping zero-COVID. One reason China clung to the policy for so long, despite its economic and social costs, is that the country lacks the medical resources to deal with the hospitalization rates other countries have experienced. Furthermore, while China boasts a high vaccination rate overall, its domestically produced vaccines—the only ones currently authorized in China—are believed to be less effective than those used in the West, and its elderly population is dangerously undervaccinated.

Beijing had plenty of time to make up for these deficiencies in preparation for an eventual reopening. It brought its initial outbreak under control by April 2020, and infections remained controlled for almost two years. But rather than use this time to patch holes in its healthcare system, Beijing continued to put all its eggs in the zero-COVID basket. As a result, three years after the initial outbreak, China is just as unprepared for a wave of hospitalizations as it was in January 2020. This failure to act when it had the chance was a huge blunder, and the CCP must now face the consequences.

Furthermore, since 2020, the CCP had tied much of its—and Xi’s—legitimacy to keeping the virus under control. The cover-up of the initial outbreak in Wuhan plunged the CCP into its greatest legitimacy crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Party then put all its force behind eradicating the virus. Within two months, life had largely returned to normal in most of the country; public anger had turned to exuberance, and an intense propaganda campaign contrasting China’s success at containing the virus with the high infection and death rates in most of the world gave Xi and the Party more public support than ever.

This triumph came at a high cost, though. Xi and the Party tied their legitimacy to results that couldn’t be preserved with Omicron on the loose. Furthermore, a byproduct of three years of the zero-COVID narrative is that most Chinese citizens remain frightened of the virus. Anecdotal reports indicate that many in the country feel abandoned and wonder if their sacrifices over the past few years were worth anything. These sentiments will likely further spread as infections, hospitalizations and deaths increase. The fallout of a disorderly withdrawal of zero-COVID could thus be much worse than the crisis experienced in 2020.

Xi appears to be facing an imminent legitimacy crisis. The easing of zero-COVID coincided with the worst outbreaks yet in Beijing and several other locations. Since most people aren’t being tested, no one knows how many infections there are. In Beijing, streets are largely empty, as residents stay home because they either have COVID-19 or fear getting infected. Many businesses and stores are closed because most of their employees are home sick.

Credible reports state that many healthcare workers have been infected and hospitals are filling up in ways reminiscent of previous infection waves in other countries. Unconfirmed social media reports indicate morgues and crematoriums in Beijing are experiencing similar capacity issues, a sign that the death toll might already be significantly worse than officially recognized. Government advisers are warning that upwards of 840 million people could be infected in the coming months, and some forecasting models indicate that more than 1 million could die. As public health conditions deteriorate, public anger could boil over, and a reescalation of last month’s unrest is possible.

The Party’s Future

But if Xi or the Party didn’t believe these risks could be managed, they wouldn’t have ended zero-COVID so abruptly. While the weeks and months ahead will probably be the most difficult of Xi’s career, he is well positioned to overcome these challenges. Xi’s proteges dominate all major CCP leadership bodies, including the propaganda and security apparatus, making any credible threat to his authority unlikely. Also, with nearly five years before the next CCP leadership reshuffle, he likely has plenty of time to absorb the fallout even if the direst predictions play out.

>>> China Paying a Price for Xi’s Zero-COVID-19 Policy

Furthermore, while most had expected Beijing to seek a gradual, orderly transition from zero-COVID, radical deviations from failing policies are more common in China than many realize, and they don’t tend to affect the paramount leader’s standing. Mao Zedong remained China’s undisputed leader for decades after his “Great Leap Forward” created the worst man-made famine in recorded history, resulting in tens of millions of deaths. Xi himself survived the ill-advised effort to cover up Wuhan’s COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. He even emerged more powerful than before.

Finally, one must not underestimate the CCP’s control of information within China and its ability to use propaganda to its advantage. As in 2020, Xi proteges control the propaganda apparatus, and they are already hard at work shaping public perceptions of the zero-COVID wind-down. If they are successful, most Chinese people will believe that zero-COVID allowed China to sail through the most difficult periods of the pandemic mostly unscathed and that the government wasted no time in restoring the people’s freedom as soon as the science said it was possible. No matter how many people eventually die of the virus, state-run media will make a convincing case that it would have been worse without Xi’s guidance.

The task ahead for Xi and his CCP colleagues won’t be easy. Few governments made it through the pandemic completely unscathed, and the sudden reversal of what was arguably China’s most important propaganda narrative in the past three years is bound to experience hiccups. Make no mistake—Xi is likely facing the greatest challenge yet to his leadership. He will probably come out on top, just like he did in 2020, but the months ahead will be precarious.

This piece originally appeared in Discourse Magazine