Political scientist Valérie Niquet: 'China has sunk into a dangerous inefficiency'

The French political scientist explains how China’s Zero Covid policy reveals the regime’s fragility. She says the strategy is causing deep discontent and has proved unable to contain the virus, making it clear that the leaders’ only concern is their image.


Published on April 30, 2022 at 17h59, updated at 17h59 on April 30, 2022 

Time to4 min.


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In 1996, François Jullien, a specialist on China, published Traité de l'efficacité ("Treaty on Efficiency"), which contrasted Western rigidity with the adaptability of Chinese thinking, based on the timely seizure of the "right moment." The Beijing regime had thrived on this type of illusion, which also served to attract foreign investors. However, since the Maoist era, and again under Xi Jinping, a testament to inefficiency, a dangerous inefficiency, should be written to account for the impasse at which the People's Republic of China is stuck.

Its latest dead end was its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Far from pragmatism, policy makers’ only concern was preserving the image and power of the Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping, whose actions could not be questioned in any way. The government did not care if its decisions came at a very high price, which we probably cannot yet calculate.

If we trust the official death toll of 4,665 since the pandemic began, China has indeed done far better than the rest of the world. Its economy grew by an impressive 8% in 2021. It was able to hold the Winter Olympics, despite the pandemic, Hong Kong protests and the crackdown on Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.

Now it is all collapsing in the face of the Omicron outbreak and its variants, which are much more contagious than the previous ones. China is not the only country hit by this wave, and it seems to be faring better than others. But it only took an unprecedented increase in the number of cases and deaths – or perhaps their greater visibility – for the inefficacy of the Chinese government to be suddenly exposed to the world.

China had managed to avoid universal condemnation after Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan under unclear circumstances. There was no more talk about those doctors, muzzled whistle-blowers. (One of them, Dr. Li Wenliang, was one of the first victims of the pandemic.) Everyone marveled at field hospitals, set up in record time, which showed the regime's superiority while the rest of the world hesitated.

Outside its borders, the arsonist acted like a firefighter, distributing face masks along the new "Health Silk Road." Finally, China announced that it had developed a vaccine (the first after Russia), which would be largely used in nearby countries, like Cambodia.

The effects on the economy

Omicron reveals the limits of the Chinese strategy and the Communist Party’s responsibility for the current failures. Although it refuses to produce foreign vaccines out of technological nationalism, China bought Pfizer’s distribution license to better establish its control over Taiwan, which cannot supply itself freely. According to several studies, Chinese vaccines are much less effective than mRNA ones, but Beijing does not want to listen to reason. It has to convince the rest of the world of its system's alleged superiority, maintained by official propaganda.

And indeed, because of the bad choices made in terms of vaccines, lifting this policy would expose China to hundreds of thousands of contaminations, tens of thousands of deaths, even if Omicron seems less lethal than the first variants. . It is the whole argument of the superiority of the regime that would collapse. This is all the more so since the healthcare system also reveals its weaknesses. Behind the model hospitals, which Shanghai is nevertheless well equipped with, we recognize that the chain of care - even in the city, and even more so in the countryside - could not absorb the sick, at the risk of multiplying deaths.

 Faced with these contradictions, which are impossible to resolve because they are part of the system itself, like corruption, it is the choice of firmness that has been made, despite the economic cost, yet the only real strength of "soft power » Chinese. Migrant workers find themselves without safety nets or jobs. Production and logistics chains are severely disrupted, weighing on exports which continue to drive Chinese growth figures. Forecasts collapse below the 5.5% officially announced in March. Foreign investors are suddenly realizing, as they did in Russia, the risks that hide behind the apparent solidity of a regime serving the interests of a man or a ruling group.

 Read also: Article reserved for our Covid-19 subscribers: in Shanghai, censorship increases the anger of the inhabitants

 But the most serious, without doubt, is the spotlight on the inhabitants of Shanghai, this wealthy middle class which has long been able to put up with a regime of which it is one of the main beneficiaries. It was their frustration that the locals let out screaming from their balconies against a disorganized system. Far from Xinjiang and the often despised countryside, it is the party's support base, those who agree to exchange political freedoms for consumer pleasures, which are affected. We can think that the health situation will stabilize, but the worm is in the fruit, and it is perhaps the future of the party and its leader that is at stake today.