Just a few months ago, the thought of questioning the strength of Xi Jinping’s leadership was inconceivable. He had just secured his third term, conducted a brutal purge of factional rivals and ensured he and his beliefs were inextricably and existentially tied with the Chinese Communist party. The zero-Covid policy – despite some societal grumblings – had been enshrined as the best and only way out of the pandemic.
But zero Covid was already growing unpopular in China in the latter half of 2022. It was playing havoc with people’s lives with increasing lockdowns and quarantines, and a string of tragedies had been linked to the policy’s enforcement. Then in early December, after protests in major Chinese cities and rising cases of Omicron, the government suddenly ended the policy. Travel restrictions, quarantines, mandatory tests and other restrictions were drastically scaled back or dropped altogether.
The move appeared to supercharge the outbreak. Cities have reported infection rates of up to 90%. There are external estimates of more than half a million dead, economic figures have failed to meet already low expectations, and people are warily heading off to lunar new year gatherings amid warnings to stay away from elderly relatives.
Xi and his government are now facing criticism that they failed to prepare and are not being honest about the fallout. Critics also say the authorities have struggled to justify the decision to end the policy so suddenly.
“Certainly the prestige and therefore the authority of Xi Jinping has been dented,” says Dr Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
After consolidating more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, analysts say Xi’s leadership is unlikely to be affected by any dissatisfaction with him. However, his absolute hold on power raises concerns about where his whims might take China.
Prof Carl Minzner, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the results of the dramatic policy change are a worrying sign of the dynamic created when Chinese policies are implemented – or changed – on the “whim of a single leader”, likening it to Mao leading China into famine, or the Cultural Revolution.
Local authorities were largely responsible for the confusing and inconsistent measures, but they – almost competitively – were aiming to meet the broad and ambitious objectives of Xi’s national policy. That policy was considered unimpeachable and if things went wrong the local officials were blamed for poor implementation. But they can’t be blamed for its reversal.
“The policies were so tied to Xi that reasoned discussion on the merits of the policy were nearly impossible from 2020 to 2022,” says Minzner, who also wrote End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise.
“It also meant careful preparation for what might follow after zero Covid was also impossible – it would have required low-level officials to acknowledge that zero Covid might end.”
Xi and his officials are aware that things went wrong. In public statements they have talked of the challenges of this new era, of the need for local authorities to ensure supplies and improve hospital capacity. But the statements carry no apology or accountability, and Xi maintains that the path taken was still the right one.
There’s some truth in the argument – zero Covid protected China through the worst of the variants and, as far as it is possible to tell, the death toll appears to remain far below many other nations. But the result of lifting it so suddenly has drawn accusations that the hardships of the preceding three years were for nothing.
‘This is a mess’
Publicly, China’s government maintains the Covid policy “adjustments” were planned, well-prepared, and based on science. But there are signs the reversal was ill-prepared at best, or a reckless kneejerk reaction at worst.
Restrictions were lifted in winter, just before the year’s biggest holiday. Many hospitals were under-resourced and quickly overwhelmed, with governments advertising for new staff well after the wave had started. Medication production couldn’t keep up with demand, prompting Chinese diaspora communities to send it from abroad. Vaccination rates were still dangerously low among older groups, while for others it had been a long time since their last shot. Some residents rushed over the border to get the foreign-made mRNA vaccines that Xi refused to approve. Data collection quickly fell over – last week the government updated its official death toll from a few dozen since December to more than 50,000, but it still fell far short of international estimates.
“I think what everyone thinks: this is a mess by the government,” a 33-year-old marketing executive in Shenzhen tells the Guardian. “What was the point of the last year? We were all vaccinated but nothing was open, so what was the strategy?”
Lam says the major protests in November marked a turning point. China has hundreds, maybe thousands of small protests a year, but they are usually by people from what Lam termed “disadvantaged sectors”.
“But this time you could see … people of all sectors, all classes, including famous professors, parents of medium-ranked cadres if not senior cadres, people from across the political and economic spectrum have been hurt. Both before and after the policy reversal.”
Dissatisfaction among Chinese people is almost impossible to quantify, but there is a noticeable increase in complaints and questioning on social media, often using codes or tricks of language, and conspiracy theories are spreading that speculate – without evidence – about nefarious government plots behind the reopening.
“However the propaganda machinery spins it, most saw what they saw and could not have failed to see how Xi messed it up,” says Professor Steve Tsang, director of the Soas Institute. “But will it significantly undermine his hold to power? Not at all, at least in the short term. Xi’s hold to power is based more on fear and passive acceptance than love and admiration.”
Inside China’s political elite, there has been concern with Xi’s direction since at least 2018, when Xi abolished term limits, says Jeff Wasserstrom, a China expert and UC Irvine history professor.
“There are more and more reasons for people to be discontented with what Xi Jinping has been doing … It’s a small segment of population but it’s an influential one.”
But, Wasserstrom notes, it’s also a segment Xi has long targeted. Those most likely to be unhappy with his direction were likely among those ousted at the Party Congress, or in previous purges.
Minzner says the ease with which Xi reversed such a significant policy seemingly overnight “does make you worry about choices he can make elsewhere”.
An obvious fear is for Xi’s plans to annex Taiwan – seen as unlikely for now – but Minzner says there are other issues too.
Several analysts the Guardian spoke to described a catch-22 in Xi’s leadership, but one he ultimately benefits from. He has consolidated power so successfully that he essentially is the party. It means that he owns its mistakes as well as its successes, but having effectively destroyed the prospects of any opposition, it’s of little consequence. There may be dissatisfaction with Xi, but not among anyone powerful enough to do something about it.