China’s leader Xi Jinping told his country it stands on “the right side of history” in a new year address on Saturday, but experts have warned that the president starts 2023 diminished by his chaotic U-turn on Covid strategy.
He may struggle to deflect blame for the human and economic costs of zero-Covid’s failure, and control the national narrative, even if public signs of dissent are crushed.
Officially, China has registered just over 5,200 deaths from Covid, but there is a yawning gap between the picture presented by the usually efficient communist propaganda apparatus and the reality reflected in social media posts and anecdotes from across China.
Hospital emergency wards are overflowing with desperate patients. Medical supplies are running low, with pharmacies selling out of drugs ranging from anti-viral to basic painkillers. Police patrolled one Beijing crematorium where Reuters reported long queues of hearses last week.
In his first public comments to the Chinese people on Covid since his government changed course three weeks ago, Xi used his speech on Saturday to claim the government and Chinese Communist party (CCP) had “put the people first and put life first all along”.
For many in China, that phrase will ring hollow, particularly those fighting for medical care for loved ones newly struck down by the disease.
Questions about why the country clung so long to zero-Covid, at such heavy cost, and did so little to prepare for opening up are likely to undermine Xi, even if the damage to his authority isn’t visible beyond the walls of the secretive leadership compounds.
“The fact that the CCP’s posture towards the pandemic has now completely reversed after a popular uprising can only mar Xi Jinping’s carefully cultivated air of infallibility,” said Orville Schell, director of the centre on US-China relations at the Asia Society in New York.
“Xi is virtually immune from public expressions of criticism within China,” he added. “But my Chinese friends are all shaking their heads in incredulity at the contrariness of Xi’s policies.”
Foreign analysts, scouring the internet and official pronouncements for clues, estimate there are already thousands of deaths a day, with more to come.
A first wave in urban areas is expected to peak in January, but a second, bigger wave will race through rural areas – where health systems are even weaker – in February and peak in early March, according to British health analytics firm Airfinity.
There may also be an economic cost to giving Covid free rein. Some analysts said they expect a small exodus of elites, alongside renewed efforts to move money out of the country. That could heap further pressure on a quickly decelerating economy.
Xi previously linked his personal prestige to draconian Covid-zero policies, vowing to stick with the harsh strictures as he cemented his personal authority and claimed a third term in power at a key Communist party summit in October.
But by November the country was roiled by mass public demonstrations against the controls. Thousands defied heavy penalties for political activity in a surveillance state to join the most widespread protests China had seen in decades.
In their wake, Beijing abruptly shifted course, abandoning controls almost overnight. Since then, spiralling deaths have caused alarm beyond China, particularly over fears that a huge number of new cases could create conditions for the emergence of a dangerous new variant.
The World Health Organization has urged more transparency from Beijing, requesting more data on genetic sequencing, hospitalisations, intensive care unit admissions and deaths and on vaccinations delivered and vaccination status.
Britain last week joined other countries, including the US Japan and Italy, in requiring negative Covid tests for passengers flying in from China.
Authorities have cited the lack of reliable data from China, although many experts have criticised the controls as kneejerk responses aimed more at assuaging public opinion than protecting public health.
“The de facto abandonment of the zero-Covid policy without preparation is now a political mission of the Communist party and therefore of the Chinese government,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “This being the case, statistics will need to be ‘patriotic’ and must uphold the official line.”
The official position may meet with as much scepticism domestically as it does overseas. But there is little chance of a challenge to Xi, after he removed potential challengers and packed the top of the party with allies at the October meeting.
“There are dissenting views within the government, such as on the best timing for opening up and the best preparation the government could have made. But they are silenced effectively,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center thinktank.
In a sign that his authority remains absolute even in the midst of his government’s struggles to contain the pandemic, Xi presided over a two-day meeting last week at which every politburo member was made to publicly self-examine their inadequacies over the past year.
Xi has also turned to a time-honoured tradition within Chinese leadership, which pre-dates communist rule, blaming problems on failures in local government implementation, rather than central government policy.
Xi’s call for more central leadership “seems to attribute blame to the local governments for inertia and generally failing to observe Beijing’s directives”, said Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer at Australia National University’s Centre on China in the World.
For years, the government defended the costs of the zero-Covid policy on the grounds that it saved Chinese lives. They could point for validation to the terrible suffering in countries like the UK where the pandemic raged out of control, and argue convincingly that Beijing was doing a better job than most other governments.
That helped temper popular anger in the earliest days of the pandemic, when Wuhan was overwhelmed, many people died and China launched the global experiment with lockdowns.
“People would like to believe the propaganda narrative, but when they see real things happening in their own circles, particularly relatives and family members, they will have less faith in the Chinese government,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“Because people can see family members suffering and passing away, government cannot use propaganda to divert attention.”