What does China’s zero-Covid u-turn mean for Xi Jinping?

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Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.

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For nearly three years, China’s leader Xi Jinping has staked his political legitimacy and prestige on zero-Covid.

Styling himself as the “commander-in-chief” of a “people’s war” against the virus, he has lauded the hard-line policy for “putting people and their lives first,” and held up its success as proof of the superiority of China’s authoritarian system.

Now, as his costly strategy gets dismantled in an abrupt U-turn following nationwide protests against it, Xi has fallen silent.

Across the country, Covid testing booths, health code scanning signs and lockdown barriers are being removed at dizzying speed. As infections run rampant, authorities have scrapped a virus-tracking app and given up on reporting asymptomatic infections altogether (they accounted for the bulk of the country’s official caseload). The rest of the case count has been rendered meaningless too, as cities roll back mass testing and allow people to use antigen tests and isolate at home.

While the easing of stifling restrictions is a long-awaited relief for many who have grown frustrated with the economic and social costs of zero-Covid, the abruptness and haphazardness of it has left residents startled, confused or anxious.

Having had their daily lives dictated by Covid controls imposed by the state and fear of the virus instilled by propaganda throughout the pandemic, the public is now told to be “the first responsible person for your own health” – or essentially, to fend for themselves.

Workers in hazmat suits deliver vegetables to residents at a locked-down neighborhood in Shanghai in March.

State media and health officials have flipped from preaching the dangers of the virus to downplaying its threat. Zhong Nanshan, a top Covid-19 expert and key public voice in the pandemic, suggested Thursday that Omicron should really be called “coronavirus cold,” citing its similar fatality rate to seasonal flu and limited infection in the lungs.

In Beijing, residents have rushed to stock up on over-the-counter medicines and antigen tests, leading to shortages at pharmacies and online shopping sites. Streets and shopping malls remain largely deserted, as people stay home to recover from Covid or to avoid being infected.

As the Chinese capital grapples with an unprecedented coronavirus wave, the rest of the country is expected to follow – if not in the midst of it already.

All the while, Xi has not made any public remarks on the pivotal shift, or the chaos it has unleashed.

The top leader was last quoted in state media commanding the fight against Covid on November 10, at a meeting of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo. There, he vowed to “unswervingly” carry out “dynamic zero-Covid,” while minimizing its impact on the economy and society. He urged officials to properly guide public opinion and channel public sentiments, pledging to “resolutely win the battle.”

The next day, the Chinese government issued 20 new guidelines for “optimizing” Covid measures to limit their disruption of daily life and the economy, while insisting “it was not an easing of control, let alone reopening or ‘lying flat’” – a phrase commonly used to describe doing the bare minimum.

But Xi’s directives for both virus elimination and economic stability proved to be a mission impossible for local authorities, given the high transmissibility of Omicron. As cases surged across Beijing, Guangzhou and Chongqing, local authorities reverted to strict lockdowns and quarantines, quashing public hopes for a respite from the stifling measures that have upended lives, shuttered businesses and led to a growing list of tragedies.

Then, a deadly apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi became the final straw, igniting a collective uproar from people who’d had enough. Protests against zero-Covid broke out across the country, posing the starkest challenge to Xi’s authority since he came to power.

What followed is a rapid and sweeping dismantling of the zero-Covid regime and a hasty about-face in propaganda messaging. The economic toll, financial burden and unstoppable nature of a highly infectious virus are all underlying factors that necessitated the shift, but it took an unprecedented explosion of dissent to prod the government to accelerate the long-overdue process.

“It just shows how important these social protests were in convincing the top leader himself it’s the time to move on,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Otherwise it couldn’t be explained why right before the protests, they were actually doubling down on zero-Covid and reversing the relaxation policies.”

Epidemic control workers wear PPE to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as they stand guard outside a community in lockdown on November 29, 2022 in Beijing, China.

Expert: China has failed to prepare residents when zero-Covid policy ends

Given the government’s obsession with control, it is striking how little it has prepared for such a drastic exit from the policy. The country has fallen short on preparations like bolstering the elderly vaccination rate, upping surge and intensive care capacity in hospitals, and stockpiling antiviral medications.

While experts outside of China warn of a dark winter ahead – with some studies projecting over a million Covid deaths, the party’s propaganda machine is already depicting a China marching “from victory to new victory.”

On Thursday, a front-page commentary on the People’s Daily, the party’s flagship mouthpiece, gave a glowing review of the country’s fight against Covid over the past three years. The conclusion: Xi’s policy has been “completely correct” all along.

“The reality has fully proved that our pandemic policy is correct, scientific and effective. It has won the endorsement of the people and can stand the test of history,” said the 11,000-word article, which cited Shanghai’s painful two-month lockdown as a notable achievement.

“After three years of efforts, we have the conditions, mechanisms, systems, teams and medicine to lay the foundation for an all-round victory in the fight against the epidemic,” it said.

By the official narrative, the party – and by extension its supreme leader Xi – is infallible. But no matter how much the party attempts to rewrite history and doctor the collective memory of the Chinese people, parts of the public will always remember their lived experience during zero-Covid – the frustration of being confined to home for weeks or even months on end, the desperation of losing jobs and income, the heartbreak of seeing loved ones being denied emergency medical care due to draconian lockdowns. For some, their trust in the government has forever been dented.

“In China, going back decades now, society has gone through a lot of scars,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “There have been quite a few of those scars that are generational. And in some ways this is one of them,” he said, referring to people’s suffering under zero-Covid.

Chinese officials, health experts and state media have framed the abrupt retreat as following science, citing the less deadly nature of the Omicron variant.

But Omicron emerged nearly a year ago, and experts say the government has wasted much resources and time over the past months on mass testing and building makeshift quarantine facilities, instead of vaccinating the elderly or improving ICU capacity.

“Stop whitewashing. Do you really not know what triggered the reopening?” a Weibo comment said.

“So tell me, why did (the government) choose to back off and open up in the winter? Why couldn’t it have done so in the spring or summer? Why did it have to wait until after the important meeting?” a Weibo comment said, referring to the Party Congress in October.

Some people who have not been personally affected as much – or deem the impact as a worthy sacrifice – are still supportive of zero-Covid, and are dreading living with the virus. Instead of asking why the government had not made adequate preparations before it suddenly abandoned the restrictions, they have shifted blame on those who called for reopening – including protesters who took to the streets to make their point.

Police officers block Wulumuqi street, named for Urumqi in Mandarin, in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, in the area where protests against China's zero-Covid policy took place the night before following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Chilling’: Protester tells CNN what the atmosphere is like in China

Some experts believe Beijing needed a political off-ramp to exit from zero-Covid, and the protests offered it a timely excuse – although it couldn’t publicly acknowledge to the Chinese public the protests took place. In addition to an end to Covid lockdowns, some protesters also called for political freedoms and demanded the party and Xi to step down – an unimaginable act of political defiance toward the country’s most powerful and authoritarian leader in decades.

Unsurprisingly, a senior Chinese diplomat has accused foreign forces of “seizing the opportunity for politicization” and fanning a “color revolution.”

“At first, people took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with how local governments were unable to completely and accurately implement measures introduced by the central government, but the protests were quickly exploited by foreign forces,” Lu Yashi, China’s ambassador to France, told French journalists at an embassy event last week.

Blaming local governments and foreign forces is the party’s go-to response to public dissent. But having centralized unprecedented power into his own hands, Xi inevitably holds personal responsibility for the party’s policies and their implementation. And by tying himself so closely to zero-Covid, he is also tied to any potential fallout from the abrupt exit from it.

If the wave of mass infections leads to a surge in deaths, especially among the vulnerable elderly, the party’s boasting about “putting people’s lives first” will ring hollow. Authorities could try to obscure the Covid death toll (experts have long questioned China’s arbitrary standards for counting Covid deaths), but it will be more difficult to hide the long lines and body bags at funeral homes.

For now, Xi has continued to remain silent – as he often does during times of uncertainty, such as the initial days of the Wuhan outbreak, and the bruising weeks of the Shanghai lockdown.

Huang, the expert with the Council of Foreign Relations, said Xi appeared to be temporarily distancing himself from the zero-Covid U-turn.

On December 7, the day the government announced a drastic retreat from his zero-Covid strategy, Xi boarded a flight to Saudi Arabia for a state visit and regional summits.

“Maybe he wants to avoid finger pointing. He doesn’t want to tie himself too closely to the abrupt reopening, in case it leads to mass deaths,” Huang said.

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