When President Xi Jinping was seen unmasked at the G20 summit in Indonesia, he maintained a largely positive tone with President Joe Biden and other world leaders. This left an impression that China was on the verge of withdrawing its zero-Covid strategy.
A set of loosening policy measures introduced by Beijing seemed to further suggest that China was on track to reopen. As outlined in the 20th party congress, Xi wants to forge a pathway towards economic modernisation and this means building economic resilience and a further increase in household incomes.
However, a series of displays of public defiance against the government’s zero Covid policy has left the rest of the world perplexed. Some loosening of restrictions announced on 11 November by the central government, with the number of new cases still rising rapidly, left the provincial governments in confusion as to which direction to turn.
The persistent slogan of “zero Covid” was in stark contrast to the slackening of restrictions. Local officials decided to double down on stringent Covid measures as a way of displaying absolute political loyalty to the top, which inevitably caused daily agonies among large parts of the Chinese population.
This decision-making process sheds some light on the way the Chinese bureaucracy approaches crises at a time when the party leadership is tightening political control. Lower-level officials avoided making important decisions and instead decided to wait for instructions from the top. As the rules were unclear, they implemented policies according to past precedents, in this case zero Covid, which had worked relatively well for China in 2020 and 2021.
For decades, local governments have been major political actors in China and have known what works best under local conditions. But with tighter regulation being exercised by lower-level bureaucrats and civil servants, there is less opportunity for the input of local knowledge, increasing the risk of ineffective policies being implemented.
Away from Beijing, those not employed by the state have been hit particularly hard by zero Covid measures. The strategy has intensified economic pressures, exacerbated rising levels of youth unemployment and tested the patience of the entire country. Billions of Chinese people want to have their life return to normal without the fear of having the wrong colour – yellow or red – on their Covid health QR code or endless mandatory testing. Only a green code shows that a person is healthy and able to move around freely.
China is still balancing its twin aims of containing the spread of Covid and re-engineering its economy along similar lines to the rest of the world. It is difficult to see how China’s economy can crank up again until the country reduces its internal restrictions and reconnects with the world.
With the economic and social costs mounting from conflicting policy directives, Beijing needs to set explicit criteria for reopening based on vaccination coverage for the most vulnerable, clear communication on the nature of this virus from respected epidemiologists and the availability of more intensive care units for treating an inevitable exit wave of cases.
Zero Covid was once a signature policy to demonstrate the supremacy of China’s governance system and to meet the public expectation of pandemic control, but it has now left Beijing between a rock and a hard place. To meet this ever-growing public frustration, Beijing urgently needs a sound path to economic recovery and a plan to reopen society that works for everyone.