Protests in big cities, disappointing economic indicators and rampant resentment online – China’s zero-covid policy is morphing from a campaign victory to a political liability for President Xi Jinping.
Strict lockdowns, mass testing and tight border controls have repelled the virus for two years and caused relatively few deaths in the world’s most populous country.
While much of the Western world is experiencing a massive outbreak, the Chinese “Dynamic Zero-Covid” approach has been upheld as the emblem of Xi’s agile leadership and celebrated the centenary of the ruling Communist Party last year.
Fawning television specials and orchestrated ceremonies put Xi in the forefront of the avant-garde, intelligent and Chinese success story.
But as he bids for an unprecedented third term at the party congress this autumn, a virus wave driven by the Omicron mutation poses strange, unexpected questions.
Hundreds of people have died, according to official figures, mainly in Shanghai, where the population has plunged into lockdown, partially easing after about two months.
Beijingans fear they will be the next, but economic dynamos from Jilin to Shenzhen are jammed by sanctions as the economy loses puff.
Leadership fidelity “now makes China’s performance look just as stubborn, but dangerously inventive and unwise,” Vivienne Shu, professor of Chinese studies at Oxford University, told AFP.
Still, Xi says the country should “adamantly” follow zero-covid, insisting that Chinese life is more valuable than economic pain.
But the official enforcement of virus controls has provoked anger and ridicule, especially in Shanghai where ironic memes are strewn across the Internet and quarrels with hazmat-wearing officials have taken to the streets.
Hundreds gathered in Beijing’s elite Peking University last week to protest the Kovid rules, the birthplace of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest.
But experts now say that Xi has waged too much of a zero-covid to move on in the past.
“To challenge the policy means to challenge him,” said Alfred Wu, a co-professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
– Drumbeat to Congress –
This has been an important year for Xi.
The Chinese establishment is expected to wave for a third term as leader of the party when it meets the 20th Party Congress to select the country’s top decision-makers in Beijing.
Experts say that the sudden disassembly of Beijing’s Kovid narrative presents a challenge, but it is unlikely to undermine China’s indefinite effort to rule.
“They have already consolidated their energy base through anti-corruption and other campaigns,” Wu said.
Xi’s priority is to maintain the status quo in the Congress, he said.
China has so far survived deaths that have hurt other major countries by increasing the credibility of the zero-covid.
Leading leaders – most notably Premier Li Keqiang – are pushing to assure that the economic pull of the Kovid-19 controls is temporary.
Li said on Wednesday that local governments should increase their “sense of urgency” in correcting the economic malaise, days after the country posted its lowest retail sales and factory output in months.
Their importance has sparked a rift or challenging speculation on Xi’s power by party factions dissatisfied with the virus-driven collapse.
Others caution against reading too much of the information that the Communist Party spoon-fed to the public through secrecy and storytelling.
“Xi himself may have authorized Li to implement the course amendment,” said Joseph Torrijian, an elite political expert at the American University.
– Bad Kovid, good Communists –
The zero-covid policy has a strong political dimension.
The party’s career depends on the success of the outbreak, and officials have been dismissed or reprimanded for failing to control the virus as Xi’s power reaches across the country.
Shanghai’s chaotic lockdown has challenged Li Qiang, the secretary of the city’s Communist Party, who has long been seen as one of Xi’s prime choices for Prime Minister after Li Keqiang retired.
But as long as Xi is in power and has enough political power, Li Qiang will have a better chance of joining the Politburo Standing Committee, ”wrote analysts at SinoInsider Consultancy, referring to a select group of Chinese leaders.
Beijing observers say that the rumblings of breakups and backstage movements are easily overstated but not always wrong.
“Like most governing parties around the world, the CCP strives to show that the CCP has naturally and consistently integrated itself fully into its mission,” said Shu.
“And like most ruling parties around the world, the CCP is almost always in reality … surrounded by internal disagreements that affect party policy.”
Experts say it is difficult to see how they can abandon policy without losing political capital because Xi has welded to zero-covid.
But Congress is still several months away and it is premature to count on any damage to China’s most powerful leader since Mao.
“It is difficult to judge whether the party’s elite has different views on the zero-covid,” Torrijian said.
Moreover, “Chinese politics is not a contest of popularity,” he said.