China’s COVID-19-free turn reveals Xi Jinping’s deep paranoia

eVen for China, where the gap between official narrative and empirical evidence is often an abyss, the past few days have been jarring. On Tuesday, officials announced five deaths from COVID-19 — up from two the day before, the first recorded in the country since December 3. On Wednesday, there was Officially no. But an online look tells a different story. dozens hearse line up at a crematorium in Beijing; body wrapped in orange Plastic piles in the hospital; ventilator patient is crammed on a ward floor.

The decision by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to withdraw its strict no-COVID policy and allow the virus to proliferate has resulted in an increase in the number of cases and put a great strain on services. medican. That’s a pretty amazing reversal. On November 10, President Xi Jinping—self-proclaimed “commander-in-chief” of a “people’s war” against the virus—instructed his Politburo to “resolutely” stick to the “dynamic zero-COVID”. Residents of Shanghai have forcibly detained in an isolation facility during the summer because of a single case in a neighboring housing estate.

Read more: China’s Zero-COVID Trap

But zero-COVID was mostly abandoned on December 7, with China’s top medical advisor now compare Omicron variation into “flu”. On December 13, a tracking app that has dominated all life in China for the past three years is suddenly offline. On Sunday, officials in the central city of Chongqing law that mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 cases can “go to work.”

The screaming turn underscores the fickle nature of the powerful rule but also the CCP’s immense paranoia in the face of public discontent, such as protests broke out at the end of November in some Chinese cities. The catalyst is death of at least 10 people in an apartment fire in the western Chinese city of Urumqi that observers blamed on draconian pandemic control measures that kept people locked inside. (Officials deny this.) It spurred a wave Demonstrationwith crowds gathering on the streets and university campuses around the country, chanting “we want freedom, not PCR testing” and even “down with Xi Jinping”.

Read more: Zero-COVID protesters detained in China Share their stories

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the sudden lifting of restrictions “could be seen as a victory for the power of the people”.

However, the policy escalation is surprising. China’s security agencies quickly tracked down and arrested the protesters, who were never close to forming a political opposition. “They have never been brought together into a single, unified and actionable message,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a scholar specializing in Chinese elite politics at the Australian National University. politically. But what might terrify Xi is the level of discontent that zero-COVID has caused. Shanghai people are rich, embroiled students face bleak job prospectsand migrant workers in southern factories all against its deprivation and associated economic consequences in different but similar acts of rebellion. Their concerns are well-founded; zero-COVID proposed models There may be costs China’s economy 384 billion USD and reduce GDP growth rate by 2.2 percentage points.

A woman walks past barricades as they are scattered on the ground at a COVID-19 testing site, on December 19, 2022 in Beijing, China.  (Kevin Frayer—Getty Images)

A woman walks past barricades as they are scattered on the ground at a COVID-19 testing site, on December 19, 2022 in Beijing, China.

Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

Perhaps it is not surprising that a CCP born out of a people’s revolution is most afraid of public anger. However, in reality, more than two thirds of the 303 dictators ousted from power worldwide between 1946 and 2008 who were not overthrown by elite coups, only a small minority were supported by uprisings. rise of the masses. The lesson is that instead of fearing a crowd on the horizon, leaders like Xi Jinping should be farsighted. Obviously, he also does the latter; via take on the third leadership role breaking the protocol term in office in November, while rallying his inner circle with loyalists and minions, Xi persistently isolated himself from potential opponents.

This could be the problem. Fear has always been the identity of this new leadership that will reduce the quality of policy making. “The fact that it struggled to face its first major challenge—the smooth transition out of zero-COVID—was not helpful in dispelling those concerns,” says Sung. The government has seen the economic pain of the absence of COVID and wants to make adjustments. But local officials, who for the past three years have been most credited with stamping out the virus, were naturally hesitant. So the central leadership had to take bolder steps to force their arm such as dismantling the nationwide surveillance apparatus. Cue staggered from one extreme to another. Today, China is caught between two of Xi’s festering paranoia – the fear of the people and the challenges within the party.

Consequence could be dire. With virtually no community exposure to the virus and only a low-effective domestic vaccine, an increase in the number of cases will inevitably lead to more deaths—some models guess over 1 million—despite official denials. Zhang Wenhong, a famous Chinese doctor often likened to the American Dr. Anthony Fauci, has alert that China’s medical institutions will face their “darkest hour” next month.

Instead, a new propaganda campaign took place. Previously, the chaos of the pandemic in the West was seen as evidence of the failure of liberal democracy. Meanwhile, China’s success in eradicating the virus is evidence of a superior political system. But on December 12, the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily instead, the paper framed zero-COVID as a necessary stop to buy time while the severity of the virus dwindled and effective treatments were developed. Its dismantling is always in progress. “Be the first to take charge of your own health,” it wrote.

The problems with this account are numerous and obvious. If this opening has been planned for a long time, then more effort is definitely needed to vaccinate the elderly. Currently, only 42% of people over 80 years of age have received all three doses of the vaccine, according to government data. Today, boosters seekers are being turned away by clinics due to lack of supply. The most vulnerable may have been given more effective foreign vaccines. (On Tuesday, the United States offer China’s mRNA vaccine, although no one expects the nationalist CCP to adopt.) In addition, effective antiviral drugs such as Paxlovid should be stockpiled; a Chinese website Sold out Its deliver in half an hour.

Public health experts also struggle with the logic of opening up about six months after most Chinese get their last shot, as the vaccine’s effectiveness declines rapidly over time. Not to mention just a few weeks away from China’s Lunar New Year—humanity’s largest annual exodus, when some 200 million Chinese crammed together on buses and trains to make long journeys to ancestral villages, where medical facilities were rudimentary.

“Even the medical staff were caught off guard [by the reversal]” said Hoang.

People wait in line to see medical staff at a makeshift fever clinic set up by a hospital to treat potentially COVID-19 patients at a sports center on December 18, 2022 in Beijing, China.  (Kevin Frayer—Getty Images)

People wait in line to see medical staff at a makeshift fever clinic set up by a hospital to treat potentially COVID-19 patients at a sports center on December 18, 2022 in Beijing, China.

Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

However, the account of the CCP was written. On December 14, authorities stopped reporting infections deemed “asymptomatic”, which in China is often strictly defined as unconfirmed cases. Computerized tomography. Then, on December 20, officials said they would only put in Its official COVID-19 death tally people who tested positive for the virus and died of respiratory failure or pneumonia — excluding anyone with a complicated condition, as is often the case with elderly patients. The aim is to send the message that China suffers the lowest damage from COVID-19 of any great power.

Many Chinese will certainly buy propaganda. But a large number have been eye-opened by the mess of zero-COVID, people losing their lives to suicide and curable illnesses getting worse in a futile last-ditch effort to stamp out virus. The demonstrations are only meant to show that the party can, in fact, be wrong and react to public anger, that the people have more power than anyone thought. “This will be very encouraging for Chinese civil society, which has had very little room to operate for many years,” Sung said. The irony, of course, is that so far they have only pushed the CCP from oppressive control to callous inaction.

“I don’t know how people can trust China anymore,” a Shanghai resident told TIME on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by the authorities. “Disruption and the unexpected is one thing, but a government pulling the rug under your feet is another.”

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