Tens of thousands of people took part in unprecedented protests in major cities and university campuses across China last month, demanding freedom and an end to zero-Covid policies. This followed violent clashes in Zhengzhou between fed-up iPhone workers and the police.
How did it come to this?
After local prevarication in Wuhan in 2020 about the seriousness of the virus, Beijing resorted to an intense national mobilization campaign to keep Covid-19 under control. This response enabled an economic rebound in late 2020 and 2021.
But China’s response to the Omicron variant this year has become all-encompassing, unpredictable, and economically ruinous. A logic of political control has pushed aside pragmatic health and economic policy. China’s urban public is frustrated.
The nature of Omicron and the political calendar played a role in the intensification of technocratic and digital zero-Covid controls.
Upholding the policies became a performance indicator for officials in China’s political system as they jockeyed for positions before the 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October.
Covid-19 was portrayed as a huge threat despite Omicron’s relatively lower pathogenicity compared to earlier variants.
Public health measures were ramped up, while prominent experts and critics of the response were silenced, including the former president of China’s Medical Association, Zhong Nanshan.
Covid-controls became vectors for political control, no matter the mental health or economic costs. When local officials resorted to full social control to gain political currency in the case of Zhengzhou, it resulted in policy overreaction, anxiety, and uncertainty for the public.
People have been repeatedly locked down without prior notice or end dates in sight, as was the case in cities such as Sanya and Guangzhou. Buildings were fenced while ordinary people were left to obsess about the color of their electronic health code.
As for citizens close to those infected, they were taken to remote quarantine centers for between seven and 10 days under potentially harsh conditions.
Tragedies have multiplied, prominently in the cities of Lanzhou, Guiyang, Sichuan province, and, most notoriously, in Urumqi, where the death of 10 people in a burning high-rise triggered protests. Individuals ended up losing control over their daily lives.
For China’s businesses, the policy left uncertainty, while young people have struggled to find jobs. Youth unemployment surged by 19% in the summer.
In April, former Shanghai CCP Secretary Li Qiang presided over the city’s poorly administered lockdown. Instead of the policy failures tarnishing Li’s reputation, he was promoted to the second highest position on the Politburo Standing Committee.
Now, he is in line to become China’s premier in March 2023.
But then, the costs of zero-Covid closures have become acceptable for local CCP bureaucrats. This is because they need to follow the Party’s campaign-style implementation of zero-Covid measures to survive politically.
In contrast, other Asian neighbors have turned to vaccinations and normalized life during 2022. There was a real cost to this, but one that was seen as lower than staying closed.
For example, between January 1 and November 8, cumulative deaths per million in Singapore went from 147 to 300. This happened despite a capable medical system and high double vaccination and booster rates with mRNA vaccines of around 90% and 79% respectively.
In comparison, China’s mortality rate is 3.7 deaths per million. Its double vaccination rate with non-mRNA vaccines – was 89% in November. But booster vaccine doses have only been given to 57% of the eligible population, leaving China vulnerable to future virus waves.
The low public trust in China’s vaccines and an unwillingness to import foreign mRNA serum leave China stuck in an Omicron trap.
Six further observations can be made about the politics of China’s pandemic policy in 2020:
- First, the Covid-19 pandemic has become a justification for movement away from China’s past era of reform and opening.
- Second, Covid-19 restrictions have not materially relaxed following the CPC’s 20th National Party Congress. Although China’s National Health Commission released a memo on optimizing virus response measures, there have been few major changes in the management so far.
- Third, 2022 has exposed the nation’s deficits in healthcare, welfare, and mental health support. It has also demonstrated China’s capacity for surveillance, digital control, and policing.
- Fourth, the international appeal of China’s human security discourse that emphasizes human life over individual freedom remains doubtful, considering the painful human experiences China’s people endure.
- Fifth, 2022 has seen a fragmentation and localization of China’s economy, as officials implement zero-Covid measures in an ‘overly-firm manner’ (zuofeng guoying) to signal political loyalty towards Xi.
- Sixth and overall, export-oriented cities like Shenzhen have faced lighter restrictions than financial centers like Shanghai and Hong Kong.
At the close of 2022, despite the zero-Covid measures, Omicron is spreading across China. The Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo reaffirmed its policy approach, but citizens are exhausted.
Their anger finally spilled over at the end of November in an outburst of social medial rebellion and protests across the country, taking the party leadership by surprise.
China’s economy is underperforming compared to the rest of Asia for the first time since 1990. Whether Beijing can find a pragmatic and peaceful way out of its zero-Covid approach remains an open question.
Dustin Lo is a MA candidate in political science and a research assistant at the University of British Columbia. Yves Tiberghien is a Professor of Political Science and Director Emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. He is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.