In China, has the zero-Covid strategy become a trap for Xi Jinping?

CHINA – Strict restrictions, massive testing campaigns, mass quarantine centers… For more than a month, 26 million people in Shanghai have been subject to strict discipline due to the worst wave of Covid in China since the beginning of the epidemic. The capital, Beijing, may soon suffer the same fate: A few dozen cases are detected every day, prompting authorities to paralyze the city a little further by closing dozens of metro stations on Wednesday, May 4.

This so-called “Zero Covid” strategy, which consists in stopping the spread of the virus completely, was decided by a man: President Xi Jinping. Except that this tough policy, which China has maintained only unlike Australia, New Zealand or South Korea, could turn against it a few months before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China. A crucial deadline during which he will seek a new term as party general, a first step to retaining his position as President of the Republic, a job for which he has abolished the two-term limit in order to become his possible re-election for life.

Remembers Valerie Nickett, a China specialist at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) and author of Chinese power in 100 questions (Talander). “The Chinese state also used its initial successes to show that it was superior to the Westerners, who died by the thousands, to protect their population,” she adds.

Omicron is a game changer.

China even celebrated its victory over the virus on September 8, 2020, during a party presided over by Xi Jinping. “The force shows that the president is behind the success of this war against the Corona virus. There is a cult of personality that highlights its superiority and success,” confirms Valerie Nickett.

“But Omicron changed the situation,” she continues. We understand that its progress is extremely silent and critical to Zero Covid’s business strategy. While other countries decided to take on the virus and began to live normally again, China confines it and then always dismantles at the slightest case detected. Antoine Bondaz, also researcher at FRS, puts it in perspective: “The strategy has worked well recently in Xian (centre) or Jilin Province (northeast). The problem is Shanghai, where there are still several thousand cases After five weeks of closure, but their number is decreasing, as there were more than 20,000 a few weeks ago. However, specialists agree that the force does not want to weaken, having praised its strategy so much, and rules out a change of course.

Besides the political aspect, it is difficult for China to change the paradigm when it refused to buy foreign vaccines to promote its own vaccine, called Sinovac, which is less effective. From a health point of view, abandoning the zero Covid strategy when the health system is underdeveloped, there is no herd immunity, and the vaccination rate remains low – about 20% of people over 80 receive a third dose – has greatly increased the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths .

“Shanghai problem”

However, maintaining the zero Covid strategy is detrimental to the Chinese economy. The isolation of many cities, especially Shanghai, the country’s economic capital, has taken over supply chains and closed businesses in most sectors. The port of Shanghai is crowded, containers are arriving and leaving in drops and fluids… This slowdown may prevent China from reaching its target of 5.5% growth in 2022.

This situation prompted the investment fund owner, Lijian Shan, who is known to be close to power, to sharply criticize the system during a business meeting. “We have a leadership that believes that they know what is best for the economy and what is best for people’s lives. Unfortunately, I think their knowledge and rationality have limits,” he reportedly said according to financial times. For Antoine Bondaz, this criticism will not reach power: “The opinions of businessmen residing abroad will not have an effect. At the moment, business owners in the area say nothing. In any case, if China lets the virus get away from us, the economic consequences will be worse.”

The population is tired. In Shanghai, besieged residents demonstrated their anger with pan concerts and yelling at windows. Despite the censorship, some of the videos went viral around the world. Food will run out. Antoine Bondaz further explains that these criticisms will not weaken the central state, which blames the local authorities. It’s not a Chinese problem, but a Shanghai problem. “There will certainly be sanctions in the coming weeks,” he said. To avoid protest contagion, “the country has implemented a very precautionary policy in Beijing,” he adds. Residents of the capital, for example, are tested several times a week to prevent the spread of the virus.

Reset Xi Jinping but marginalized?

Valérie Niquet asserts that people internally, within the PCC, are also beginning to speak up. “There have been articles where people, scholars or politicians have questioned the need for a Covid zero strategy. At the moment, it is not very clear, but if the situation continues with Shanghai and Beijing, it could affect the future of Xi Jinping,” according to her ruling.

Has the “zero Covid” strategy become a trap for the Chinese leader? It is not because there are problems that the system will collapse overnight. It is still difficult to put Xi Jinping at risk,” Valerie Nickett says. Yes, as long as the crisis remains local, Antoine Bondaz adds: “The Chinese strategy worked because the gatherings were restricted to certain regions, and there was no national confinement. The propaganda is going in full force, and there is no sign of weakness. But if the health crisis becomes national, Xi Jinping may indeed be in danger.

Bien qu’il soit encore trop tôt pour imagine ce qu’il peut se passer lors du XXe Congrès du PCC, Valérie Niquet n’exclut pas la possibilité de “débats à l’intérieur du parti entre ceux qui crituxiquent quit son et son Stability.” Xi Jinping seems certain to be reassigned but “his freedom may be reduced, he can be sidelined.” The end of quasi-absolute power? The answer is in the fall.

See also on The Huffpost: In China, a crazy spectacle of the glory of 100 years of the Communist Party and the Covid management

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