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Can China let go of Zero Covid? A perfect storm of popular dissatisfaction awaits

The ultimate form of surveillance. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The ultimate form of surveillance. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


November 14, 2022   4 mins

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.


Bill Hayton is an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of The Invention of China, published this month by Yale University Press

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Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 year ago

“Any decision to allow Covid to “let rip” is going to result in millions of hospitalisations and many tens of thousands of deaths.” This didn’t happen in Sweden. In fact, Sweden’s all cause excess mortality has proved to be the lowest of all countries ranked.

Newsflash. It isn’t COVID that’s the problem. It is non-COVID excess deaths caused by the economic dislocation (and a mysterious other factor that PHE aren’t quite ready to research) that are the problem, creating a long tail of excess mortality far worse than even the most fevered COVID mortality forecasts.

The experts and media (including the pages of the Spectator) predicted armageddon when COVID regulations were relaxed in the UK. Armageddon never materialised and those those doom laden forecasts have all been quietly forgotten.

The biggest fear for China relaxing its COVID regulations is relaxing regulations per se. For a certain kind of commentator and expert and government wallah in China and the UK, the regulations took on an almost religious belief status. Letting go of belief is hard.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nell Clover
Sam Brown
Sam Brown
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Sweden is a far, far less densely populated country than China with few Swedish cities even approaching “small” towns in China. Population density and temperature are shown to have an affect on spread; Sweden is probably just lucky to be Sweden.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Sam Brown

Yet population densities are :
Stockholm 4.1K per square km.
Beijing 4.6K per square km.
Shanghai 3.8K per square km.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

PHE?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“(and a mysterious other factor that PHE* aren’t quite ready to research) that are the problem, creating a long tail of excess mortality far worse than even the most fevered COVID mortality forecasts”:
NOT the dreaded Vaccine surely?

(* Public Health England.)

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“In fact, Sweden’s all cause excess mortality has proved to be the lowest of all countries ranked.”
Errr No.
S Korea comes top of the pops (2 year age adjusted excess mortality -30286) followed by Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Finland and then Sweden. See https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0013935122010817#sec4 for a proper grown up discussion about mortality stats from different countries.
As for China they have potentially a big problem if they allow any version of Covid to freely transmit within their population.
With Covid the largest factor by orders of magnitude in terms of mortality and morbidity is age.
12% of the total population in China (2010 census) is > 65 years of age. This doesn’t sound much to Brits but remember they have a HUGE population (1,452,447,451 according to Worldometer this year) 166.37 million > 65 years of age in 2010.
According to Statista they have 35,394 hospitals. This equates to 4 million population per hospital (compared with the UK figure of aprox. 53,500 per hospital).
I suppose one could argue that historically in China, losing a few million of your population here and there has been irrelevant when it comes to the Grand Plan but clearly, someone in the CCP has done some sums.
They have an ageing population. They need to keep their wrinklies and crinklies economically active for as long as possible to prop up their economy.
No rocket science here.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

“With age-adjustment, however, in our calculations several other countries such as Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and South Korea also showed no excess deaths.” (Quote from your source.)

Some years ago the London Stock Exchange used to boast “ My word is my bond”. Those days are long gone!

Now we have “ Trust me, I ‘m a Doctor”.
No longer sunshine, the medical ‘profession’ is at its nadir, particularly when it seeks to exculpate itself from the fiasco of COVID.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

That’s an odd position to take in being sceptical about qualified experts (with which I don’t actually disagree) after you previously referenced the validity of your own expertise based on reading 2000 odd books.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

The mention of 2,000 books was a reference to you, or at least someone calling himself Ian Stewart on another website.

I forget precisely which but NOT Twitter or Twatter or whatever it is called. As I recall ‘you’ were boasting about ‘your’ immense knowledge of WWII, and the fact that ‘you’ had read 2,000 books on the subject.
So much for “self praise is no recommendation”
eh?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

I wish I had read 2000 plus books, but no I haven’t. I don’t believe I have ‘immense knowledge’ about anything – in fact much of my career was spent querying and challenging expert people about their hubris in this regard.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Thanks for that insight Elaine, and the link, which provides a better explanation than the other commenters.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

You simply cannot compare Sweden with China. There are too many differences even if population densities are much the same. Epidemics are non-linear phenomena. You can’t just take the population ratio and multiply them out to get the equivalent infection numbers (which Freddy tried to do a while back). The very fact that the population of Beijing is 20 times the population of Stockholm makes a difference even if the densities are the same. I see it like an atomic bomb. Keep increasing the mass (not the density) and eventually you reach critical mass and you get an explosion.

Deac Manross
Deac Manross
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I rarely put my tin hat on
.in fact never before this topic. What if CHina’s “Zero Covid” initiatives are really aimed at preparing their citizens for true biological warfare

..i.e. getting them used to this biological ‘bomb shelter’ life now before they unleash the REAL weapon in their labs. What’s the old saying? “Generals are always fight the last battles”

..think the Maginot Line while Germany was thinking Blitzkrieg. Not a zero probability

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago

Don’t trust any policy with “zero” or “one” in it. Zero Covid, Net-Zero, Zero tolerance; One Health, One World, One Belt, One World. They’re devised by people thinking like computers, unable to see beyond the false binary created by digitisation and disconnected from the real, and therefore analogue, world. And Coke Zero tastes rubbish.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Those seeking to implement such strategies in the West are binary, it would appear, in everything but gender. Or perhaps, that’s the stage on which they “doth protest too much”.

Patrick Nelson
Patrick Nelson
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

I support a zero-tyranny and zero-statism policy.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago
Reply to  Patrick Nelson

Actually, you know, I don’t. I don’t like statism and I really don’t like tyranny, but trying to achieve literally zero of both them would come at huge cost and it wouldn’t be achievable, human nature being what it is. I am in favour of policy which leans hard against both but doesn’t attempt to wipe them off the face of the earth.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 year ago

Letting omicron rip is what we’re all doing and it doesn’t matter, so I don’t think China is unprepared. There’s nothing to prepare for.

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
1 year ago

Control is at the root of the Covid hysteria all over the world, China being just an extreme example. Lockdown-lovers and mask-zealots were invariably Remoaners and leftbots who hate democracy and individual freedom.

Patrick Nelson
Patrick Nelson
1 year ago
Reply to  Katy Hibbert

Spot on. Look at Hong Kong before and after convid19.

j watson
j watson
1 year ago

Problematic story for those who get so angry about how many western countries handled the pandemic i.e: ‘look what happens when you don’t take action of the type we did’.
Doesn’t mean we got everything right of course, but could have been much worse by looks of it.
The zero Covid strategy just a ruse to exert greater surveillance control? Not sure the Communist Party needs a ‘cover story’. Seems more likely real fear that if Covid did let rip they would be overwhelmed with much greater social unrest. Whether they should worry maybe a debate we can have, but fairly clear they are worried and not yet prepared to take the risk
Separate issue – the excess deaths in western countries, esp UK, that may result from the Lock Downs etc – hopefully the Public Enquiries will get some proper statistical discipline into this and then some serious scientific analysis of the cause and what we can do better to avoid in the future. Going into a Lock down with a health service already creaking and at max capacity, a Lock Down with many schools with rubbish infrastructure etc, probably wasn’t the best.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  j watson

Off course the Chinese were TERRIFIED, they had made the damn thing after all and knew what it was potentially capable of.! (fortunately they seem to have, all too predictably, bungled the science.)

As for us ( UK) thanks to that autistic t**t Dom Cummings, we went onto a completely unnecessary lockdown, and jettisoned our national pandemic plan of Herd Immunity!

Result? Average of a UK Covid death 82. UK life expectancy 81!
Brilliant!
,

Patrick Nelson
Patrick Nelson
1 year ago

We could be forgiven for the first few weeks of covid caution – but carrying on the lying, tyrannical, hysterical, money redistributing, business destroying, freedom ending – covid bandwagon for nearly two years after it became clear nonsense was unforgivable.

Patrick Nelson
Patrick Nelson
1 year ago

Why would China ever let go of zero covid when it gives them the perfect excuse to detain anyone or any community which the digital ID analysis algorithms identify as a likely nexus point of resistance to the tyranny of the CCP?

Last edited 1 year ago by Patrick Nelson
Patrick Nelson
Patrick Nelson
1 year ago

Why would China ever let go of zero covid when it gives them the perfect excuse to detain anyone or any community which the digital ID analysis algorithms identify as a likely nexus point of resistance to the tyranny of the CCP?

Last edited 1 year ago by Patrick Nelson
Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
1 year ago

I may be reading too much into this, but it is interesting that vaccination rates for older people are relatively low and relatively high for the young. Almost as if the soon to be unproductive and a burden were less valued.