Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 29 November 2022

 Zero-Covid and Xi Jinping’s Deal With the Devil

China’s lockdown strategy was aimed at helping a new Mao consolidate power.

China's President Xi Jinping arrives to attend the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 19, 2022.PHOTO: JACK TAYLOR/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Vladimir Putin has a rival for most obtuse authoritarian. Or perhaps it’s no contest at all. Mr. Putin can always plead contingency. The outcome of his Ukraine gambit couldn’t be known until it was tried. Xi Jinping has no excuse for not knowing that a highly contagious, flu-like virus would have to be accepted as a fact of life.

But this is unfair and misses the point. Mr. Xi has always known what he’s doing. His purpose in zero-Covid was to delay China’s Covid reckoning until he could complete his dismantling of the only true modernizing constitutional reform of the post-Mao era, the now-defunct term limit placed on the top leader, meant to prevent China from sinking back into a one-person dictatorship cult.

Everyone has kept saying China’s zero-Covid policy is unsustainable as if Mr. Xi didn’t know it. He knew it. He wanted to lock in his dictatorial dominance before his rise could be threatened by the Covid explosion he knew his country would have to endure sooner or later.

I doubt Mr. Xi drinks deeply of the mentality of the Western media, whose zero-Covid delusions amounted to indulgence in the prerogative of the harlot through the ages. Western politicians weren’t asking what made the most sense for society, but what made the most sense for themselves at a specific moment, in terms of career preservation.


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President Trump extended his social-distancing guidance in March 2020 based on polls that showed the public, however unrealistically, wanted and expected to be spared the virus altogether. A World Health Organization official returning from China unhelpfully gushed: “Here we have a disease for which we have no vaccine, no treatment, we don’t fully understand transmission, we don’t fully understand case mortality, but what we have been genuinely heartened by is that unlike influenza, where countries have fought back, where they’ve put in place strong measures, we’ve remarkably seen that the virus is suppressed.”

All but unasked was the obvious question: Was Covid really so different and more containable than the flu, or was China simply trying to do something few others in their right mind would try? After all, at some cost the flu might be contained too, but the cost wouldn’t be tolerable and then the flu would spread.

Any theoretical interest in such questions soon evaporated anyway. The virus was seen to be rapidly evolving. Vaccination was seen to be imperfect and waning. By the time of the great Shanghai lockdown earlier this year, the real question, given these variables and dwindling public patience, was whether China’s megacities were actually going backward in their readiness to encounter the virus.

The only strategy that ever made sense was the one that long ago filled the respiratory-pandemic handbooks: Flatten the curve. Accept that the virus will become endemic. Find the best combination of measures to let this happen without overwhelming the healthcare system.

Mr. Xi will have to default to this approach too, albeit after zero-Covid bought time to consolidate his repressive power. But his zero-Covid strategy also created today’s possibility of a threefold catastrophe: The virus is on the verge of an uncontrolled breakout even as an exhausted public rebels against anti-contagion measures; soon their discontent may be joined by anger as China’s lagging medical infrastructure remains unprepared to meet the wave, with parents and grandparents dying for want of care in hallways, waiting rooms and parking lots.

Mr. Xi, since Wuhan, has known such a moment of truth was coming. The Chinese see millions elsewhere shaking off Covid like it’s no worse than the flu or a cold. They see foreign hospitals able to provide attentive care to the relative few who need it. On their TVs, they see joyous fans from every corner of the world mingling at the World Cup without masks or paralyzing fear of a virus.

To understand what’s going on, finally put aside the image of Chinese regime supercompetence in which pundits have long indulged. China scholar Perry Link should have buried this delusion with a sentence 13 years ago: “The Communist Party credits itself with ‘lifting millions from poverty,’ but it is more accurate to say that the millions have lifted the Party.”

A dictatorial, power-monopolizing regime benefited immensely from the productive and entrepreneurial energy of the Chinese people after removing its foot from their neck. But Mr. Xi’s program now is to stop any more progress if that’s what it takes to the keep the Communist Party in control and him at the top.

He never believed he was saving China from Covid, which he knew was an unrealistic goal. He was using zero-Covid to delay the virus’s passage through Chinese society until he could insulate himself behind a Mao-like position of dominance.

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