6 Dec 2022

Xi Jinping's face-saving exit from signature Covid-19 policy

9:51 pm on 6 December 2022
China's President Xi Jinping attends the closing ceremony of the 20th Chinese Communist Party's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 22, 2022. (Photo by Noel CELIS / AFP)

Xi Jinping. Photo: NOEL CELIS / AFP

By Stephen McDonell

Analysis - If you want to know what the government's Covid-19 plan is in China, look at what it does rather than what it says.

Take Beijing for example. There has not been a significant drop in infections, yet public transport now no longer requires a PCR test result, bars and restaurants are slowly reopening, and in some cases people are being allowed to isolate at home after catching Covid instead of going into centralised quarantine facilities.

So when you examine what is happening here right now, the trajectory seems clear - the government appears to have quietly dumped zero Covid as a goal.

This does not mean that all Covid-related restrictions have ended. It also does not mean some restrictions won't be around in, say, half a year.

But the stated goal of reducing each outbreak to zero new infections… gone.

The new plan appears to be to slow the spread of the virus, hopefully enabling the health system to cope, rather than trying to crush the disease. This may involve monitoring the virus as it spreads in an attempt to manage the flow of infections, serious illness and deaths.

At times it may also mean the reimposition of certain measures, but cities will not have to record zero cases to remain open.

Beijing is not alone in removing some measures - and they vary widely by region.

In south-eastern Zhejiang province for example, there is to be no more regular testing apart from for people working certain specific jobs.

Shandong province in the east will no longer require checks to buy cough medicine or drive on a highway; central Henan Province will no longer require PCR tests to enter housing communities.

Similar easing is also happening in the massive cities of Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu.

Urumqi, capital of western Xinjiang region, has reopened supermarkets, hotels, cinemas and gyms. Public transport has resumed in Tibet.

Just a few weeks ago, the Chinese government was urging the population to stay the course with the zero-Covid approach.

Despite overwhelming evidence that China's epidemic control measures were hammering the economy, smashing people's livelihoods, Xi Jinping stood up at the Great Hall of the People during the recent Communist Party Congress and restated that there would be no swerving from his signature policy.

Then came the protests. A tower block fire in Urumqi killed 10 people, triggering a wave of public fury.

Protesters during a rally for the victims of a deadly fire as well as a protest against China's harsh Covid-19 restrictions in Beijing on 28 November, 2022.

A protester at a rally in Beijing against strict Covid measures in China, 28 November 2022. Photo: AFP

On social media, the deaths were blamed on Covid restrictions, which are said to have hampered the access of fire crews and blocked escape routes for residents. Beijing denies this and the BBC has not been able to verify the claims, but that the fire led to demonstrations across the country is not in dispute.

In city after city, protesters demanded an end to zero Covid. They wanted their old lives back. Some people started calling for Xi Jinping to resign.

There have not been such widespread acts of public defiance against the party since the 1989 political upheaval which led to the bloody crackdown in and around Tiananmen Square.

Suddenly changes are being made - and Chinese people are making jokes about how protests do actually work.

Last week's death of former leader Jiang Zemin put even more pressure on the government. His era is viewed by many, nostalgically, as a period of reconnecting with the outside world and high-speed growth. The comparisons with the current situation are stark.

The other danger for Xi Jinping's administration was that acts of public mourning could transform into yet more protests. This had happened decades earlier after reformist leader Hu Yaobang died and crowds gathering to mark his passing transformed into the Tiananmen Square protest movement.

All this has led to a government that had drastically underestimated public anger at its Covid measures now abruptly changing tack.

A face saving way of doing this has been required.

Officials in China were never going to come out and apologise to people for keeping them cooped up much longer than necessary. But the party is beginning to change its public messaging via state media, now saying that new strains of Covid are not nearly as deadly.

This is a clear change from the previous line that the rest of the world was going through Covid hell and citizens should consider themselves lucky to live in China where they were being kept safe.

Two significant challenges remain. Firstly, the effort to get more people vaccinated, especially the elderly and those in high-risk groups, has been inadequate. Official figures show just 40 percent of people over the age of 80 have had a booster shot. Elderly unvaccinated people made up huge swathes of the deaths in Hong Kong.

Secondly, officials have had years to expand China's hospital ICU capacity. This remains inadequate, so a rush of emergency patients following any dramatic escalation in Covid cases would really test the health system.

For this reason, the goal will be to move forward slowly, trying to ensure that hospitals are not swamped. If they are then restrictions can always be reimposed.

China's new path will evolve step by step, even if it sometimes means going backwards again.


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