China’s Zero Covid lockdown strategy merely delayed the inevitable spread of the virus once it allowed itself to open up.

London: Was it the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that caused the sudden change of policy? Throughout the whole of last year, demonstrations against the strict Covid-19 policy made things difficult for President Xi Jinping’s administration as the level of anger and frustration among the Chinese people grew. Thousands of students took to the streets and university campuses of major cities from Shanghai to Beijing, Guangzhou to Chengdu, demanding an end to the CCP’s Zero Covid policy. As the demonstrations built, so they hurt Xi’s efforts to highlight China’s successes at a time when he had just taken over as the country’s leader for the third time.
China’s strict Covid limitations became the target of some of the fiercest protests the country had ever seen, generating a number of memes, slogans and catchphrases which went viral in the process. Videos on social media showed crowds in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, chanting the slogans “Communist Party step down” and “Down with Xi Jinping”, all because of a deadly fire in a Covid quarantine building that unleashed huge public outrage. Such large-scale protests are rare in China, especially in Xinjiang, given the extensive blanket of high-tech surveillance measures the authorities have imposed on the region to quell what the government sees as separatist or extremist tendencies.
Following the two-month lockdown of Shanghai’s 25 million residents early last year, which sparked outrage and demonstrations, Covid-19 restrictions became more nuanced and focused. However, in late October, China began to experience its first winter with the highly contagious Omicron variant and the endeavour became hampered by increased infections. Images on social media appeared of guards dragging people out of their homes after they refused to go. Viral footage from Hangzhou showed a man fighting off officials.
Then the policy suddenly changed. Just a week after landmark protests at the end of November, Xi decided to drop almost all Covid restrictions, leaving it to others to explain why. Many were puzzled. “Can anyone explain to me what’s happening”, said one bewildered citizen on social media. “Why the change all of a sudden and so major?” You can understand why, as right until the abrupt change, Xi was defending the Zero-Covid policy. In his October speech to the 20th Party Congress he declared: “We have adhered to the supremacy of the people and the supremacy of life, adhered to dynamic Zero-Covid, and achieved major positive results in the overall prevention and control of the epidemic and economic and social development.” It was, he insisted, “overwhelming evidence that the policy was correct and that the party cared deeply for the people”.
But how can a Zero Covid policy be correct one minute, and wrong the next? Within a breathtakingly short period, China’s people have been asked to forget that the Covid threat justified draconian lockdowns, loss of livelihood and liberty. When its borders open up today, China will have spent 1,016 days closed to the outside world. The country’s Zero Covid policy has been a social and economic experiment without precedent. A vast public-health campaign that mostly kept the disease at bay, it was Xi Jinping’s pride and joy. However, with the sudden change of policy, it’s become a waking nightmare for many of China’s 1.4 billion people. Now they must believe that it is no worse than the common cold and that traditional Chinese medicine is effective once again. Does Xi believe that China’s citizens are idiots?
As the country entered the new chapter, Xi finally attempted to explain the inexplicable. In his New Year address last week he insisted that the change was a “rational, science-based and a well prepared decision”. He repeated claims that China had managed the virus better than other countries, which demonstrated the superiority of China’s political system. Anyone who said otherwise was “an ill-intentioned foreigner, a traitor to the people or a paid provocateur”. The government’s mouthpiece, the newspaper Global Times, summed up the rationale last week with this fantasy: “the changing virus variant, accelerated mass vaccination and enhanced medical resources all laid out the foundation for a long-planned and orderly Covid response adjustment.” Really? Take a look on social media at the distressing images of body bags stacked in hospital corridors, patients on intravenous drips by the roadside, funeral homes overwhelmed, and hearses queuing outside crematoriums. Is this Beijing’s definition of orderly?
As many experts had predicted, China’s Zero Covid lockdown strategy merely delayed the inevitable spread of the virus once it allowed itself to open up. The fact that there was no natural immunity, exacerbated by severe isolation and cold-hearted quarantine incarceration, together with a slow rollout of an ineffective vaccine, has meant that the impact on health and the economy today is all the more brutal. Over the past three years, the government has concentrated its vaccination effort on the working population in order to keep the economy running. This left older people particularly vulnerable. But then, many of these were deeply suspicious of the Chinese vaccine and declined to take the risk. Out of national pride, Beijing had refused to license the more effective mRNA western vaccine, preferring to promote their low-rated Chinese product.
The result is that now hundreds of millions of people are infected with the virus. Chinese censors are struggling to staunch the flood of complaints on social media. Most have focused on the lack of forewarning or preparation for the country’s poorly resourced healthcare system ahead of the reopening. “By opening at the end of the year, what was the reason for so many cities being closed down for three months this year?” said one social media user. “Why choose to open up in winter when the virus is the most active and the people’s immunity system is weakest?” said another. Experts argue that the party leadership faces a narrative problem of how they explain to their public what is going on. Others are convinced that some serious damage is being done to public trust, with many citizens questioning the competence of the government, and even that of the supreme leader himself—Xi Jinping.
Diana Fu, an expert on China’s domestic politics based at the Brookings Institution think-tank, said last week that “Xi’s U-turn might have come too late to salvage his reputation in the eyes of critical citizens. On one hand, this reversal of policy may be evidence that the Chinese political system under Xi is still adaptive and responds to the cries of its citizens. On the other hand, it also underscores the phenomenal degree of discretionary power that the top leader wields,” she said. “The lives of 1.4 billion citizens hinge on what Xi and his coterie of advisors decide about when to shut down and when to open up the country.”
As last week developed, however, Xi’s competency suffered a heavy blow on the international stage as more and more countries decided to impose Covid tests on air passengers travelling from China when it opens its borders from today. Beijing’s insistence of just one coronavirus fatality on one day last week, despite forecasts that the winter’s wave would cause millions of deaths, did little to reassure foreign governments that they could trust official data issued by China’s government. Their biggest fear is the appearance of a new Covid variant as the virus multiplies so rapidly. Having been duped by Beijing in 2020, when millions of Covid-infected tourists were allowed to travel abroad for the Lunar New Year, which resulted in the virus getting out of control, the free-world is not going to make the same mistake in 2023.
Suddenly, Xi Jinping’s reputation has plummeted. With virology statisticians estimating that 9,000 Chinese people are dying every day from Covid, and the country’s $17 trillion economy growing at the slowest rate in nearly half a century amid the Covid disruptions, the question is—will Xi’s reputation ever recover?
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.