Analysis | Xi Jinping trapped in 'zero COVID' | Coronavirus
China was the scene of protests against health restrictions from November 26 to 28, 2022.
As a result of a massive deployment of Chinese law enforcement and intimidating protesters, demonstrations against the “zero COVID” policy became rarer on Tuesday, November 29 in China.
< p class="e-p">The day after an outbreak of demonstrations from November 26 to 28, mainly concentrated on Sunday 27 in a dozen Chinese cities with political opposition rallies, the regime brought out heavy artillery to kill in the bud a beginning of popular rebellion.
Was this November outbreak just a short episode with no future?
Protesters hold white sheets of paper to protest against health restrictions imposed by Chinese authorities.
The grievances heard in the streets of Beijing, Shanghai and Urumqi express a serious, deep and substantial challenge to the policy of systematic confinements applied by the government since the beginning of the pandemic. In this, this movement calls into question the legitimacy of the regime.
However, the Chinese state has considerable means of surveillance and repression, among the most sophisticated in the world.
These demonstrations are audacious, unprecedented and directly political. These weren't just bread-and-butter protests, or protests focused solely on the issue of lockdowns. resignation! in several cities at the same time. Stunning in the Chinese context: the embryo of a movement, with slogans that identify one-party dictatorship and lack of freedoms as sources of evil.
These demonstrations have remained numerically modest: a few hundred protesters per demonstration, and perhaps a few thousand at times in a country of nearly one and a half billion people.
People's frustration with the zero-COVID policy is real, and far more widespread, in China than this small number of protesters suggests. A significant fraction of the population can no longer take this frenzied policy of strict and prolonged confinements, which are disproportionate to what we have experienced here.
A man was arrested in Shanghai during a rally.
In China since 2020, building entrances have been padlocked, fenced off blocks and locked workers in their factories.
On one side: a very widespread frustration, which has begun to express itself. On the other: the hesitation between relaxing controls in the face of popular grievances, or ruthless repression as the Chinese state knows how to do.
Where does stubbornness come from? power to maintain this policy?
We have to look back over the last three years. The zero COVID policy was, at the start of the pandemic, associated with real success. By confining cities like Wuhan at the start of 2020, isolating Chinese regions from each other, and sealing China off from entering and leaving the country, we have managed to avoid the essentials of a pandemic – yet born in Wuhan! – which ravaged much of the world.
For months, the entire first year and beyond, this policy worked. Cases were almost non-existent: two sick people in a building? Boom! they were confined to death; PCR tests were generalized throughout the neighborhood or even the city; we tracked down contact people… But also, a new Chinese concept, contacts of contacts: that is to say, in the end, almost everyone and all the time (every 48 hours, or even every 24 hours).
Illustration of this obsession with testing and control: in May 2022, the Nomura Group (Japanese financial holding company) estimated public spending on PCR tests at nearly 2% of Chinese GDP since the start of the pandemic! Just the tests… not the overall effects of the lockdowns which also cost Chinese growth several percentage points.
This policy was very tough. In some places, exasperation filtered through… But this malaise, in 2020 and 2021, was overwhelmed by triumphant ultra-nationalist propaganda, that of a China proving its superiority. A China beating the virus, while Europe and North America were crumbling with infections.
In China, the deployment of law enforcement in major cities has deterred protesters from gathering. The government is maintaining its zero COVID policy, but it is focusing on vaccination and relaxing its health measures. The story of Lise Villeneuve.
This method worked for about a year and a half, two years, as new waves became less virulent in the West and vaccines began to visibly increase the level of herd immunity. But nothing helped: Beijing was staying the course, despite an obvious change, outside of China, in the nature of the pandemic and the responses to it.
Behind this stubbornness in maintaining zero COVID, there is also an ideological phenomenon. The desire to prove that our system is the best. With also, in the case of Xi Jinping, an additional element: the dread of losing face.
We saw this, for example, in the stubborn refusal to import vaccines to messenger RNA, which nevertheless won the game against Chinese vaccines. Another element: the absence of systematic vaccination campaigns. Which a priori seems surprising in a country as authoritarian and supposedly disciplined as China.
On the epidemiological level, we also speak of a weak protection of the population against the virus, of the fact that – more than any other country – China lived through the pandemic under glass, reducing its contact with the virus to a minimum.< /p>
Factor to which we can add a (relative) low rate of vaccination compared to the West, particularly among the elderly, and in any case with a vaccine clearly inferior to those of Pfizer and Moderna. Hence the insufficient immunity of individuals, less exposed and less vaccinated against the virus and its variants. With a possible epidemiological backlash.
Other countries, democratic ones (Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia and a few others), have also practiced zero COVID. But by mid-2021, they recognized that this policy had become unenforceable, less and less effective against new variants, in addition to being economically harmful.
In these countries, there are several things that China does not have: elected governments, independent media, public opinion that can and regularly protests, scientists speaking freely.
As the pandemic progressed, economic, social and health costs and closures increased, as did popular discontent. Meanwhile, the (relative) benefits of vaccination campaigns in Europe and North America were changing the game.
Without forgetting the incessant mutations of a virus that has become – obviously, and until proven otherwise – both less virulent and more contagious… All these accumulated factors have pushed these countries to abandon their zero COVID policy, to put themselves to vaccinate more, to relax controls, etc.
On May 10, 2022, Chinese people get tested for COVID-19 near a residential complex in Shanghai, as part of a massive testing campaign to to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Not the Middle Kingdom. China which, on the contrary, in 2022 during the outbreak of a few cases in Shanghai, redoubled the controls, imposing on the great Chinese metropolis, in April and May (but also on Beijing, in June) extremely severe confinements .
Also in the spring, the economic figures (albeit a little disguised) began to show that things were hurting badly on that side as well. We don't even know if China will reach 3% growth in 2022, which has been hovering around 8-10% for decades.
It all adds up to give this what we can safely call today: China's zero COVID policy debacle.
It was expected that, faced with such a damning record, the Communist Party congress in October would announce a change of course. Instead, Xi Jinping, before the congressmen who gave him his famous third term (of quasi-dictator for life), reiterated the Communist Party's unwavering adherence to this health strategy.
< p class="e-p">A strategy that always claims to strangle the dragon in order to kill it – thus eradicating COVID – in addition to showing Chinese superiority.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivers his opening speech at the Communist Party Congress.
Can these November demonstrations shake the regime? It seems a prioriunlikely. Xi Jinping's regime, especially since 2017 during its second term, has perfected its tools of surveillance and repression, taking them to an almost unimaginable level.
George Orwell himself n Never could have predicted what the Chinese regime can do with its 21st century high technology: facial recognition, centralized registries, spyware in every cell phone, etc. The actions and gestures of each citizen are scrutinized, recorded in several ways simultaneously.
We see it today. Authorities spotted nearly all of the protesters on November 26, 27, and 28 and began calling or visiting them, while cordoning off the scene of the weekend protests.
Isn't there a way for Xi Jinping to order a quiet, gradual withdrawal from the zero COVID policy… without humiliating himself?
This question is undoubtedly at the heart of his reflection on the way forward, after these demonstrations against a dictator and a regime who believed they had crafted, once and for all, for eternity, perfect social control.
< p class="e-p">Is there currently pressure in high places to let go? Are there counterweights to the seven-member Standing Committee (which before Xi Jinping was a real collective leadership)? Or maybe, in some important cities, people who can resist the dictates of Beijing?
This is not what recent political developments suggest, with this 20th Congress in October, which has been described as a totalitarian turn.
Beyond omnipotence totalitarian, there are objective difficulties which can cause the most perfect dictatorships to stumble. An economy that is going badly, and even more so with zero COVID. Immense ecological difficulties, in a country which remains the biggest consumer of coal, and the biggest producer of CO2, on a par with the United States…
And now this zero policy COVID – symbol and emblem of the regime – which seems to be heading for shipwreck… A policy which, if started to be loosened, could unleash far greater forces of protest than those we have just seen.
This is Xi Jinping's dilemma.