Xi Jinping seems set on maintaining China’s zero-covid policy

High season in the southern Chinese beach resort town of Sanya usually coincides with National Day on Oct. 1, which across the country kicks off what’s known as “Golden Week.” During this celebration of patriotism and consumerism, residents eat, shop and travel in honor of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Li Chajia owns guesthouses in Sanya — the “Hawaii of China,” the city calls itself — and hoped pent-up spending power from two pandemic years would be channeled toward vacations there. After repeated lockdowns, markets had started to reopen in late September and dining-in was being allowed again.

Instead, China’s zero-covid campaign only became stricter and more extreme, carried out nationwide with revolutionary zeal by local officials under orders from the central government. After two cases were discovered in Sanya, officials there carried out mass testing and began quarantining tourists. Guesthouses sat empty during the October holiday.

“Not a soul was on the beach,” said Li, 38. “This year has been especially bad. Politics has had too much of an impact on the pandemic.”

China — one of the few countries still trying to eliminate the virus through aggressive lockdowns, mass quarantines and stringent border controls — finds itself in a trap of its own making. The zero-covid policy, once a point of pride, is wreaking havoc on the economy and disrupting individual lives. Increasingly unpopular at home, it poses one of the biggest challenges the Chinese leadership has faced since the pandemic began.

But fully lifting the policy could invite disaster. China’s 1.4 billion people not only have little natural immunity as a result of a low infection rate, but they have been immunized with domestic vaccines that are less effective against newer, highly transmissible variants of the coronavirus. China never approved the use of mRNA vaccines deployed throughout the rest of the world.

“If they open up now, there will be a major outbreak immediately. However, even if they do not open up, a major outbreak will sooner or later arise somewhere,” predicts virologist Jin Dongyan of Hong Kong University, who says the country’s approach is “not sustainable. I’m pretty sure someone has made a wrong judgment. They wrongly assessed the situation in the world, and they cannot come out from their own comfort zone.”

To many, that someone is Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose wisdom and experience are often credited as the driving force behind zero covid — “dynamic clearance,” in the government’s parlance. Under Xi, what began as a public health response has become an ideology, a way of setting China apart from Western countries that initially were overwhelmed by cases and high death tolls.

Unquestioning adherence to the policy is also a way to signal absolute loyalty to Xi. Public debate over pandemic measures, more common during the first two years, is virtually nonexistent. Criticism online is censored.

At a much-anticipated Communist Party congress that begins Sunday, Xi is expected to get a third term as general secretary — head of the party — breaking with established norms where leaders step down after two five-year terms. Before the meeting, local officials have pledged their allegiance to zero covid as their “most pressing mission.” For three consecutive days this week, the party mouthpiece People’s Daily published editorials on why it must be followed.

“Fighting against the epidemic is both a material struggle and a spiritual confrontation. It is a contest of strength and a contest of will. We will not waver,” a commentary exhorted on Tuesday.

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Despite such a vociferous defense of the policy, its costs are becoming more apparent. Xi’s approach has dented consumer confidence and spending — key to China’s goal of transitioning to a more consumer-led economy — while compounding such issues as rising youth unemployment and a deteriorating property market. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday lowered its 2022 growth forecast for China to 3.2 percent from a projection of 8.1 percent last year.

The policy is “a key marker of Xi’s ability to lead the country through crisis. Its success is inextricably bound with that of Xi’s rule,” said Diana Fu, an associate professor in political science at the University of Toronto.

Early in the pandemic, China’s measures were among the strictest in the world, criticized for going too far in restricting residents’ movements. But by mid-2020, the nation was declaring victory over the virus. As China donated supplies abroad, at home its covid response was hailed as an example of its superior governance and care for its citizens.

Then the omicron variant hit. In recent weeks, China has been battling new outbreaks, including from the highly transmissible BF.7 omicron subvariant. At least 36 Chinese cities, accounting for almost 200 million people, were under some form of lockdown as of Monday.

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Officials in Shanghai have ordered all districts to conduct mass testing twice a week for the next month. The region of Xinjiang has banned people leaving. Inner Mongolia locked down 26 universities in the regional capital Hohhot, stranding more than 240,000 students and 15,000 teachers and staff on campus. In Zhengzhou in Henan province, residents in one district were ordered to take PCR tests twice a day for three days.

Schools in Xi’an were closed after a few dozen cases were found in the city of 13 million. Areas in Yulin, Shaanxi conducted “lockdown practice” for three days despite having reported no coronavirus cases.

“They suffer the winner’s curse. They didn’t realize the pandemic would last this long. Now they are facing this Sisyphean battle all the time,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As the rest of the world moves toward living with the virus — including most of Asia — China’s isolation has deepened.

Some of the public may be starting to lose patience. The relentless lockdowns have inspired a wave of interest in “runxue,” the study of running away. Video emerged online last week of a woman running through the streets of Shenzhen yelling “Excessive covid controls. Give me back my freedom!”

And on Thursday, photos and video showed a banner hanging on a bridge in Beijing’s Haidian district, its protest message reading, “We want food, not PRC tests.” The images quickly vanished on Chinese social media sites.

The tragedy that occurred in September, when a bus overturned and killed 27 people while taking them to a quarantine center in Guizhou, still looms large. Students at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics argued with staff this week over being transported late at night to quarantine locations.

“Transparency is really important. We can’t accept these measures because we don’t know what’s going on. What we want is clarity about what is being done to us and a choice in it. Without that … it’s very hard to build trust,” said one student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisal.

According to Jin in Hong Kong, a feasible exit strategy would redirect resources from lockdowns and mass testing and instead prepare the health-care infrastructure, especially in rural areas, for outbreaks. It would focus on stocking up on antivirals, approving the use of mRNA vaccines and targeting the country’s unvaccinated elderly population.

But there are few signs China is preparing to move in that direction. Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist and senior government adviser, said in a recent interview with state broadcaster CCTV that there is no timetable for diverting from current policy. “We have seen the dawn of victory, but we have not yet reached the other side of victory,” he said.

Xi had a similar message for Politburo members in July. “If outbreaks appear, we must severely control them,” he said. “We cannot relax in battle.”

With the public having little choice but to cooperate and central leaders managing to blame local officials for poor implementation, the government feels little pressure to abandon the policy. Its latest tally shows barely 5,200 deaths.

“They have a lot of leeway and are not too worried,” noted Zhao Dahai, executive director of Shanghai Jiao Tong University-Yale Joint Center for Health.

The fact that zero covid provides authorities another lever of social control may be an additional factor in its staying power. In June, thousands of residents arrived in Henan province to demonstrate against rural banks that had locked their accounts. The protesters suddenly found their health codes — a three-color system tracking health status — had turned red, prohibiting them from any travel.

Li is considering whether to give up on the tourism business and move from Sanya back north to Harbin. She and her husband feel suffocated and worn out by the requirements to test daily to send their daughter to school.

“Everything revolves around the pandemic,” she said. “We live under complete surveillance.”

Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.