For three years, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, fought a remorseless battle against COVID-19. He called it a “people’s war”—a national struggle to defeat an unseen foe and save lives. The contest locked families in their homes for weeks, strangled the economy, and closed the country to the world. Other governments that failed to contain the pandemic may be indifferent to death and suffering, the message was, but not the Chinese Communist Party, which cares about life above all else.
And then, poof! Xi gave up.
“Zero COVID,” the policy that mandated all of the stringent lockdowns and rigid quarantines, is dead. Officially, the Chinese government will never admit that. The party paints itself as infallible and won’t acknowledge that it erred. The government insists that the fight against COVID is not over. But the new approach, announced on Wednesday, is no longer fixated on suppressing infections to nil—and may not be able to contain them at all. The public quickly realized that, reached its own conclusion about the risk of an explosive outbreak, and began panicked purchases of at-home COVID tests and flu medications.
By switching so suddenly from one extreme position to another, Xi may, in fact, be exchanging one crisis for another. The strict controls had become such an onerous burden on society that protests calling for their removal erupted across the country in late November, raising the prospect—terrifying to the Communist Party—of widespread unrest. Now, however, Xi may face the political risks of an epidemic that could claim hundreds of thousands of lives, which is exactly what the party intended to avoid with zero COVID.
Flexibility in policy is a hallmark of good leadership, and, regarding COVID, the acknowledgment of reality was long overdue. Yet the rapid reversal also raises serious questions about how well governed China actually is. The perception of China’s government as a well-oiled machine was always exaggerated, but at the same time, its policy makers usually displayed a certain pragmatism and commitment to known priorities. Today, the fate of the country depends on the calculations of one man: Xi Jinping. The travails of zero COVID show how the centralization of power in Xi has rendered policy making unpredictable. Xi and only Xi could have decided on this sudden change of direction, and the nation will continue to suffer as a result. [Continue reading…]