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Coronavirus

Xi's Burden — Why China Is Sticking With Zero COVID

Too much has been put in to the state-sponsored truth that minimal spread of the virus is the at-all-cost objective. Xi Jinping may eventually have no choice but to renounce the harsh measures, but at this week's Communist Party Congress, the Chinese President was giving no ground.

Photo of boy being tested for covid by man in hazmat suit

COVID testing in Guiyang, China

Cfoto/DDP via ZUMA
Deng Yuwen

This article was updated on Oct. 17 at 10:45 a.m. EST

The tragic bus accident in Guiyang last month — in which 27 people being sent to quarantine were killed — was one of the worst examples of collateral damage since the COVID-19 pandemic began in China nearly three years ago. While the crash can ultimately be traced back to bad government policy, the local authorities did not register it as a Zero COVID related casualty. It was, for them, a simple traffic accident.

The officials in the southern Chinese province of Guizhou, of course, had no alternative. Drawing a link between the deadly crash and the strict policy of Zero COVID, touted by President Xi Jinping, would have revealed the absurdity of the government's choices.

At a speech Sunday to open this week's historic Communist Party Congress, Xi made clear he had no immediate plans to loosen the Zero-Covid strategy. He called the tough health measures, a "people's war to stop the spread of the virus."


Objectively speaking, Zero COVID may not necessarily be a bad policy in itself, as it is based on good intentions: to protect the health and lives of the public. During the first phase of the pandemic, and the onslaught of the Delta virus, Zero COVID did serve to protect the population, bringing the spread under control to the greatest extent possible, and allowing the economy to recover quickly.

The starting point

In mainland China, there have been just over 5,000 deaths from COVID-19, most of them were in Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic, a low proportion compared to the country's total population. This can be credited to the “Zero Covid” policy, even if it has also caused a number of humanitarian disasters, such as the lockdown of Wuhan. Ultimately, we can conclude that Zero COVID had remained successful until the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Zero COVID has had the inverse effect of the stated purpose.

Its destructive side has emerged the longer it's been held in place. Since Omicron, Zero COVID has kept China's infection rate low, but the collateral damage and social cost has long since surpassed its benefits.

The crude and brutal nature of the policy, and the harm to people's individual interests and even their own life can be seen in the strict lockdowns, large-scale COVID testing and social isolation. As witnessed in Shanghai, Xi’ An and other cities, Zero COVID has proven to ultimately have the inverse effect of the stated purpose of protecting people's lives and health.

photo of man walking with chinese writing and an arrow on the wall

What concerns the public most now is how Zero COVID will change in the future

Gauthier Delecroix

Eternal lockdowns

The examples of the harm of Zero COVID are too many to list. So the question now is, with the population extremely resentful and local officials struggling to maintain this policy, why is Xi sticking with Zero COVID? Hasn't he always taught officials to measure their governance by whether or not the people are satisfied? It shouldn't be based on sticking to a promise. Why is this criterion invalid for Zero COVID?

The answer lies in two factors: first, Xi's one-man leadership system prevents his personal will from being effectively corrected; second, his knowledge of Zero COVID's direct effectiveness in preventing the spread has kept him fixated on that goal.

During his visit to Wuhan in June, Xi declared: "If you see the overall picture, our measures to prevent the pandemic are the most economical and the most effective ... With the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the important grassroots base of local communities, we have the ability and strength to implement the Zero COVID policy until we achieve final victory."

Economic growth goals

The official party line and propaganda states that "the practice of the pandemic control in the past three years has proven that Zero COVID is scientific and in line with China's national context. This path is right and effective, and is the best option for China."

This is likely the extent of Xi's understanding of Zero COVID, which is based on the fact that China was able to contain the spread and maintain economic growth during the first phase of the pandemic. For Xi, since the approach proved to be correct back then, it is all the more important to stick to Zero COVID in the face of the Omicron virus, rather than changing or abolishing it.

The government doesn't trust the Chinese vaccine.

In addition, vaccination rates have not yet formed a sufficient barrier against the pandemic in a vast country like China with differences in local healthcare conditions. It was thought that if China followed the West's example of "mass vaccination," it would cause a spike in infections, resulting in a run on medical resources and ultimately causing unbearable losses to people's lives and property, with unthinkable consequences."

What the official media say is what officials think. The Chinese government, and probably Xi himself, don't trust the efficacy of the Chinese vaccine. But for reasons of so-called "vaccine nationalism," he is unwilling to approve the purchase of American and Western mRNA vaccines. Thus the policy of harsh lockdowns and mass testing had to be continued.

Photo of Xi Jinping waving to audience, all with white masks

Xi Jinping (and everyone) masked up in Hong Kong

Li Gang/Xinhua via ZUMA

When will Zero COVID be over?

What concerns the public most now is how Zero COVID will change in the future, and whether China will remain closed after three years of control. Some worry that China's Zero COVID could become a permanent policy.

Two days before the beginning of this week's Party gathering in Beijing, which is virtually guaranteed to hand Xi a third term, the capital was witness to a rare protest against Xi and his COVID policies, reported the BBC on Friday.

Images showed two protest banners on a bridge in northwest Beijing, before the action was quickly shut down by police.

One banner read: "No Covid test, we want to eat. No restrictions, we want freedom. No lies, we want dignity. No Cultural Revolution, we want reform. No leaders, we want votes. By not being slaves, we can be citizens."

The lockdowns may end when the economy can no longer sustain it.

Still, even in the face of growing conflict, there will be an end to the pandemic at some point, and with it a way out of Zero COVID. But when?

The scenario most likely to end the harsh lockdowns are more signs that the economy simply can longer sustain it. Now considered a consensus, China's economy is living through its worst period in more than a decade. If we don't see significant signs of growth, despite various stimulus measures, then Zero COVID might be abandoned sooner rather than later, though nothing would happen before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on October 16.

There is also a scenario of the pandemic lingering, the economy adjusting and the controls of Zero COVID never quite going away.

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