Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 8 January 2022


After a blowout extravaganza in 2008, China has dramatically lowered expectations for the Winter Olympic Games that begin in just a few weeks. During a recent inspection tour of the snow-and-ice venues, President Xi Jinping set out his modest ambitions for the event in three words: “Green, safe, and simple.”

Of the three, safety is key. It’s arguable that Chinese officials will be happy if athletes just come and go without an omicron outbreak.​

For China’s supreme leader—who is maneuvering to rule for life at a Communist Party congress later this year—the pandemic poses a far greater danger thanager thana U.S.-led diplomatic boycott. The former could damage his political credibility; the latter is a nuisance, explained away as Western sour grapes and yet another attempt to embarrass a rival.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on a monitor during​ ceremonies​ marking the centenary of the Chinese Community Party in July. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

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Covid risk has come full circle for the Chinese president. When the pandemic erupted in Wuhan, he looked vulnerable—perhaps for the first time since he rose to power in 2012. Public outrage over the official bungling that allowed the virus to spread and efforts to silence local doctors sounding the alarm reflected badly on him. But Xi quickly recovered by locking down the city—a bold strategy untested since medieval timesEurope—andmesEurope—and then implementing an improbable “Covid-zero” policy for the entire country of 1.4 billion people.

In doing so, Xi adroitly turned vulnerability into strength. “Covid-zero” became a measure of regime performance. State propaganda organs trumpeted the success of the policy in preventing infections and deaths. They proclaimed it​ evidence of the superiority of China’s top-down political system over Western democracies, particularly the U.S., where Covid has run​ virtually unchecked, killing more than 800,000 people.

The message: democracies are so decayed that they can no longer fulfill the basic function of government: protecting human life.​

People wait for a Covid-19 PCR test outside a hospital in Wuhan, China, on​ Dec. 23. Photographer: Andrea Verdelli/Bloomberg

In fact, Beijing officials now boast, China practices “whole-process democracy,” defined by the authoritarian government as “true democracy that works,” including against pandemics.governmentvernment as “true democracy that works,” including against pandemics.

There’s rich irony in a self-described “people’s democratic dictatorship” claiming to outdo the West at its own liberal game. But it’s a handy way (oxymoron notwithstanding) to both mock America and head off popular discontent at a draconian approach involving rolling lockdowns, travel restrictions​ and blanket surveillance. Following a Covid flareup, the city of Xi’an and its population of 13 million was sealed up tight, an echo of the vaults that once housed its famous Terracotta Warriors.

Omicron, however, now calls into question the viability of these methods. The Eurasia Group put China’s “Covid-zero” policy at the top of its list of risks for 2022. The strategy will “fail to contain infections, leading to larger outbreaks, requiring in turn more severe lockdowns,” the New York-based consultancy predicted.​

Yet there may be no elegant way for Xi to retreat from what state media calls an all-out “people’s war” against Covid. As Lu Ting, the chief China economist at Nomura points out, pulling back now “could be perceived as conceding that the strategy did not work in the first place.”

Xi is stuck: Covid is an unpredictable foe that calls for a flexible public health response.​ But Chinese bureaucracy can be rigid, sometimes at enormous social cost. For instance, China stuck with its one-child family planning policy long after it became clear that a falling birth rate was leading to a demographic disaster.

A Covid catastrophe in China can’t be ruled out: omicron is multiple times more infectious than previous variants, a fact that could outweigh its reported lower severity in outcomes.​

If China relaxes Covid controls, an inevitable wave of infections could swamp the country’s still rudimentary healthcare system. The Chinese population has virtually no natural immunity, and home-grown vaccines​ produced in the traditional way—using an inactive form of the virus— aren’t nearly as effective against omicron as mRNA shots.

Hence, Xi’s focus on safety at the Olympics, and the extreme precautions. These include guards in hazmat suits patrolling the Olympic “bubble” to armpit thermometers and thick plastic shields that will separate athletes from reporters. Foreign sports fans are barred. And if local audiences are allowed in at all (the decision is still up in the air) they’ll be encouraged to clap, not cheer.

The “green” in Xi’s “green, safe, and simple” is a manageable goal, though some question a decision to stage the games in a parched region of China with little natural snowfall (it will require 49 million gallons of water to create fake snow and ice). On the plus side, a number of the venues, including the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, are being recycled from the previous Games, a perfect example of the circular economy in action. And the air over Beijing is also more breathable than it was in 2008.

But for Xi, pulling off a “safe” Olympics will be anything but “simple.”​

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