November 14, 2022

The 11th of the 11th is known as “Singles’ Day” in China. Originally an ironic student celebration of singledom (the digits 1111 resemble sticks, a slang term for bachelors), it has matured into a festival of e-commerce. Online sales are measured in the tens of billions of dollars, growing stupendously year by year — until now. This year, sales seem to have dropped substantially, and the blame is falling on the Communist Party’s Zero-Covid strategy.

The country is about to mark the third anniversary of the discovery of a strange form of pneumonia in Wuhan, but the recipe for dealing with new outbreaks remains largely unchanged. At present, the southern economic powerhouse of Guangzhou is one of several cities currently locking down millions of people to try to stop the spread of the virus, while production at crucial companies such as iPhone-maker Foxconn and electric vehicle-maker Nio has slumped, with workers either quarantined or fleeing quarantine.

Criticism about overzealous lockdowns prompted the country’s National Health Commission on Friday to criticise “one size fits all” policies and encourage local authorities to be more flexible in their interpretation of central rules. This came a day after the freshly-appointed Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China doubled down on its Zero-Covid policy. Its two instructions were for “more decisive” measures to “minimise the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development” and to “restore normal production and living order as soon as possible”. The connection of the two objectives is a sign that the top leadership recognises the growing unpopularity of Zero Covid.

These first signs of relaxation are more likely to benefit foreigners and people returning to China from trips abroad. There will be a further easing of quarantine restrictions for people entering the country. There is also an instruction to change the gradations of Covid control measures, allowing local authorities more flexibility in how they impose lockdowns. Step-by-step reopening will require different regimes in different places and restrictions on movements between them.

How likely is China to move away from Zero Covid? Despite moves to make the policy more flexible, there are two main reasons why Zero Covid won’t be abandoned, at least in the short term. Firstly, because China is woefully unprepared for the spread of the virus; and secondly, because the Communist Party loves Zero Covid.

While the headline figures on vaccination look impressive — with more than 90% of adults having received two doses — a more detailed examination shows major gaps, particularly among the elderly. Figures from May showed that only 62% of Shanghai’s over-60s had been vaccinated, and only 38% had received a booster. The problem is likely to be worse in less developed areas of the country, and is compounded by a nationalistic refusal to use imported vaccines and doubts about the efficacy of Chinese-made vaccines. Combine this with the huge size of China’s population, and any decision to allow Covid to “let rip” is going to result in millions of hospitalisations and many tens of thousands of deaths.

The consequence of such mass death on public opinion, after three years of huge national sacrifice in the name of Zero Covid, must terrify the Politburo. And this is far from the only domestic challenge facing the Communist Party. Youth unemployment stands at almost 19%, growth is slowing to European levels, and the giant game of “pass the government debt burden down the line” is approaching its $1.6 trillion denouement. It’s not hard to imagine a perfect storm of popular dissatisfaction in the not-too-distant future.

All of which means that Zero Covid will be a very useful policy in the coming years. When, for example, irate customers attempted to demonstrate outside the offices of a collapsed bank in Henan province, many of them found their health status on their smartphone apps suddenly turned red, preventing them from travelling. Such micro-targeting will enable the authorities to keep a lid on unrest.

More fundamentally, Zero Covid is an opportunity for the Communist Party to do what it loves doing most. As John Culver, former US National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, has noted, this is a chance for the Party to return to its old ways. The economic reforms of the Nineties that drove the country’s rapid economic growth also brought about the end of the Party’s “work unit” system, which had been the foundation of its control over the population throughout the post-revolutionary period.

During his decade as Party general-secretary, Xi Jinping has prioritised one thing above all: control. We can argue about whether Xi is a Marxist or not, but there can be no doubt that he’s a Leninist. For him, the Communist Party is the machine that keeps the country together and drives it forward. All the ills of the 2000s — the corruption, loose morals and the weakening of the sinews of state — can be blamed on the loss of Party discipline.

For the past decade, Xi has been revivifying Party control of society and the economy. In 2017, for instance, the Party’s charter was revised to include the line: “Party, government, army, society and education, east, west, south and north, the party leads on everything.” State-owned enterprises have been rebuilt, private firms and foreign companies have been obliged to set up Party cells.

Zero Covid, then, is a means to exert the same level of control over apartment blocks, residential compounds and private lives. Even after the tide of Covid eventually retreats, China will be left with the reinforced surveillance and the digital and physical barricades that have been constructed over the past three years. Yet if, as expected, the economy heads further south in the coming months, the Party is going to need something else to keep the people mobilised.

The most obvious contender is nationalism. So brace yourself for some intensive patriotic messaging in the coming years, whether it be over Taiwan, foreign insults, or assorted enemies within. The Party will be walking along the tricky line between nurturing the “hurt feelings of the Chinese people” and keeping a lid on popular resentment. That’s where the local Party cadres and neighbourhood wardens will earn their pay, spotting the sparks of discontent and ensuring they are swiftly snuffed out.

This seems to be the prognosis for China; a careful opening in some places but also a tightening of control wherever the leadership deems it necessary. The question worrying the Politburo is whether the online participants in Singles’ Day, awaiting their deliveries of freshly purchased consumer goods, will march in step with the Party’s mobilisation and messaging, or turn off and tune out.