China: Xi Jinping caught in a trap of his ‘zero-Covid’ strategy

The recent promotion of the president’s lieutenants to the top of the state suggests that he will maintain the course despite political infighting, especially as the margins of manoeuvre in the health sector are limited.

No words on the horizon. After several days of days of mobilisation in several cities, neither the Chinese leadership nor the official press have made any reference to the questioning of the so-called “zero Covid” strategy in the country. In some places, such as Shijiazhuang (Hebei), the surge in new cases – 40,000 on 28 November – poses serious challenges to the central authorities. Questioning it would be tantamount to questioning Xi Jinping’s policies and their economic and social consequences. In May, Fudan University, working within the Shanghai full sanitary cordon, estimated that the abandonment of this policy could lead to a wave of 112 million cases in six months and 1.55 million deaths.

At this stage, the central state is stuck. By relaxing health measures to secure global supply chains and support growth, the authorities, who have claimed since the beginning of the epidemic that ‘lives are to be saved rather than economy’ – risk losing face. It’s a tricky equation. According to economist Li Daokui, the “zero Covid” strategy has saved 4 million people, while the increase in GDP and income would also
raise the life expectancy, which has not yet reached expected levels.

Other problems for the leaders: a fragile health system, an ageing population with low immunisation coverage and the ineffectiveness of Chinese vaccines against variants. This explains, beyond the desire to be well seen by the central power, the overzealousness of some local governments. Political voluntarism is reminiscent of the heyday of Maoism.

Palpable tensions between local and national cadres

For obvious reasons, it is difficult for them to question the Chinese model, often presented as superior to foreign standards, after three years of intense propaganda. The open criticism of the “zero Covid” policy by the French embassy, which is concerned about “the repercussions on French companies”, testifies to the difficulty of the exercise. The diplomats, who have no interest in the emergence of violent unrest, are content for the time being, as in Iran, to defend national interests without openly supporting the demonstrations.

At the end of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in mid-October, the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CCP seemed to be favorising the comrades close to President Xi Jinping. The tensions between local and national cadres, over the degree of implementation of health policy suggests that there is a confrontation behind the promotion of the head of state’s lieutenants, as in the case in Shanghai with Li Qiang. In appointing the latter as the future Prime Minister, the General Secretary of the CCP sends a signal of firmness. Faced with the protests in the economic capital in the spring, Xi Jinping had mobilised troops from outside the municipality. 

“The risks of political security represent a major hidden danger”, said Chen Yixin, the head of the Zhejiang government, in January. If this analysis led to his promotion to the post of Minister of state security, then little prospects of future relaxation are left.

This text has been first published in French by l’Humanité, who is Cross-Border Talks’ partner in the frame of transform!italia-led Media Alliance.

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