Xi’s iron grip on his country is stopping the Covid U-turn it so desperately needs | Isabel Hilton

Last week, Covid-related images provoked outrage on Chinese social media: one showed a young woman kneeling on the ground with her hands tied behind her back after she and a friend had picked up a takeaway meal without first donning masks.

Neither had Covid, neither was even a close contact, but both had been detained by the increasingly resented “big whites”, the hazmat-suited zero-Covid enforcers who bound the women’s hands and left them kneeling in the street, an exercise in humiliation that provoked indignation among China’s netizens.

Meanwhile, Tianxiacheng community, a residential compound in the central city of Zhengzhou, gained notoriety after a recording of a message broadcast by the management company went viral. “Outsiders will be executed on the spot with the authority of law,” it said. Zhengzhou, already in the spotlight after a mass breakout from its giant Foxconn iPhone factory, as desperate workers tried to escape an impending lockdown, is suffering one of China’s larger Covid outbreaks. It is not alone: Beijing, Guangzhou and several other cities are contributing to the highest Covid numbers in China since the first, catastrophic outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019.

On Wednesday last week, the daily total of cases reached a 2022 record of 31,527. Not only is popular resentment growing over Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy, and the economic costs continuing to mount, but its efficacy appears to be breaking down. Given the growing risks and diminishing returns, why does Beijing continue to insist on it?

Two years ago, it all looked rather different. Despite today’s signs of weariness and frustration, zero-Covid was hailed as an example of the superiority of China’s system of government. It also allowed the government to bury the memories of the bungling incompetence of the early response in Wuhan – the death from Covid of the whistleblower Dr Li Wenjiang, the images of the panic that gripped the city, and of citizens unable to get help for dying relatives.

Beijing finally moved, imposing a severe 76-day lockdown in the entire province. By March 2020, it was judged politically and medically safe for Xi to visit Wuhan to conduct a slow-motion victory lap over the virus. By April, when the lockdown was finally lifted, zero-Covid was hailed as a triumph; new cases had dried up and life could return to normal. By August, as the pandemic raged around the world, images of a mass bathing party in Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic, showed tens of thousands of people crammed into a water park, celebrating the summer with not a mask in sight.

Severe lockdown, digital enforcement and mass testing had restored social order and kept China’s death rate low, even as western democracies were struggling with the first and second waves of the pandemic, a time of mass deaths and incoherent policy responses. Even today, China has officially reported just over 5,000 Covid deaths. For more than two years, zero-Covid allowed an almost normal life to continue within its effectively closed borders, albeit a normality that might be interrupted by a positive test. Zero-Covid allowed the government to insist that, unlike western governments, it was keeping its people safe. The party cared, it said, in ways that liberal democracies manifestly did not.

Two developments changed that equation radically: the rapid development of effective vaccines in the west and the emergence of Omicron and other variants.

China has developed vaccines and conducted mass vaccinations but has not yet come up with a native mRNA vaccine and has declined to license a foreign one – apparently for nationalistic reasons. The net result is that the vaccination programme is still less effective than it needs to be. The fear that the uncontrolled virus could swiftly overwhelm the country’s limited medical provision was reinforced when an outbreak in March propelled Hong Kong briefly to the top of the global death rate league tables. Like China, Hong Kong has a large elderly population, many of whom had not been vaccinated.

Omicron altered the game in a different way. The first and second waves of Covid were so dangerous that extreme measures seemed proportionate, but the emergence of less lethal, but highly transmissible variants, which spread rapidly and often infected without symptoms, made the severe measures – the lockdowns, interruptions to production, authoritarian controls of every aspect of daily life – seem out of proportion to the threat.

There are other signs of a teetering system; since most of the cases are asymptomatic, they are only detected by constant mass testing, which imposes a heavy burden for the local authorities, which bear the cost, and the people who must stand in line for hours every week, wondering if a casual contact could trigger weeks of enforced internment in a quarantine centre. As the virus is normalised in much of the rest of the world, a policy that once seemed to guarantee security to China looks more like trying to bail out a sinking dinghy with a sieve.

It is difficult to reverse policy in any political system, but it is perhaps hardest in a top-down authoritarian model. This may seem counterintuitive; after all, can’t an authoritarian leader do what they like? Up to a point, but several factors militate against an abrupt reversal of policy: if the leader is strongly associated with it, as in this case, a U-turn implies failure – something leaders who seek to maintain a myth of omniscience and omni-competence find difficult.

There are other difficulties; in the early 1960s, an estimated 40 million Chinese starved to death in large part because junior officials had been afraid to report the truth about farm yields to their superiors. Today, junior officials recognise the leadership’s commitment to zero-Covid and therefore implement it zealously; failure to do so, especially if it leads to an outbreak, can be a career-ending move. Among the mutterings of discontent on Chinese social media are complaints about the authoritarianism of the “big whites” and opportunistic abuse by other officials.

Recent policy announcements seemed to offer hope of change, but it has proved to be fragile. China has doubled down on a policy that will have no off-ramp until its vaccines become as effective as western mRNA vaccines. For now at least, zero-Covid is not going away.

Isabel Hilton is a London-based writer and broadcaster who has reported extensively from China and Hong Kong

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