At the recently concluded Chinese Communist Party congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping cemented his power. Breaking political norms, Xi secured another term as president, signaled his intention to rule like an emperor, and packed the seven-person standing committee with loyalists. The question he now confronts is whether to continue with his disastrous policy of controlling Covid-19 by any means necessary.
The most notable person Xi elevated to the Standing Committee was Li Qiang, the Communist Party secretary of Shanghai and a longtime protégé. Many observers thought Li’s political star had faded after Shanghai’s Covid lockdowns, during which he enforced Xi’s so-called “dynamic zero Covid” policy—seeking to minimize Covid cases through regular mass Covid-19 testing, mandatory contact-tracing, strictly enforced quarantines, and lockdowns—with a degree of cruelty and zealousness the Chinese people haven’t experienced since the Cultural Revolution. Residents found themselves locked inside their apartment buildings; many went hungry; individuals with chronic illnesses or medical emergencies missed their treatments; some died. The lockdowns were so unpopular that immigration inquiries from wealthy Shanghai residents have skyrocketed.
The question is what Li’s elevation to China’s second-most-powerful position means. Xi may be valuing loyalty, not competency. And he may be signaling that “zero Covid” is not going to be relaxed.
The policy has not only caused immense suffering but also generated widespread resentment. Though gauging public opinion in China is notoriously difficult, in locked-down cities such as Shanghai, angry and starving residents staged mini-protests against the government’s policy. Before the start of the party congress, one person in tightly controlled Beijing set tires on fire on a busy overpass and displayed two large banners with slogans reading, “Say no to covid test, yes to eat. No to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to a great leader, yes to vote!” The lone protestor was quickly removed, but the slogans went viral on Chinese social media. The hashtag #Iseeit trended—before Chinese censors took them down and scrubbed any trace of the protest from the Internet.
The backlash is no mystery, for the policy has proved economically catastrophic. Xi has presided over slowing economic growth and a market slump, owing in part to “common prosperity” reforms that increase political control over business, as well as a real-estate crisis. Yet the party has stayed the course. The official youth-unemployment rate has edged close to 20 percent this year. The World Bank forecasts that China’s economic growth will be only 2.8 percent. Even if it rises to the projected 4.5 percent next year, that would fall short of the 5 percent annual growth rate required to double the size of the nation’s economy by 2035, as Xi promised. Perhaps to save Xi from embarrassment, the Beijing government delayed the release of China’s third-quarter GDP data during the party congress. Investors are less forgiving: the Chinese stock markets reportedly “suffered one of their worst ever trading days” after the party congress concluded. Markets did, however, rebound days later, owing to unconfirmed rumors that zero Covid was on the outs—which only reinforces the economic damage the policy has wrought.
Chinese people have had to accept less political freedom in exchange for rising standards of living, employment, and economic growth. This unwritten contract has prevented mass social unrest, human-rights abuses and political crackdowns notwithstanding. But if Xi continues to prioritize his Covid policy over economic growth and human well-being, people will begin to lose hope in the future, and that contract may be breached.
Throughout China’s long history, an economically desperate population has ousted failed leaders and toppled governments many times. Will Xi’s “yes men” alert him to impending danger? Despite his obsession with personal loyalty and social stability, Xi appears intent to forge ahead with a failed policy to deal with a virus that originated from China and may have escaped from a government-funded lab. The question is whether this stubbornness will cost him the things he values most.
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