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China’s COVID-19 About-face Exposes the Dysfunction of its Regime

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image Credit: CCP.
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image Credit: CCP.

Since 2020, China has maintained the strictest pandemic controls on the planet. It justified its draconian lockdowns on the grounds that they were necessary to preserve lives and proudly pointed to its ability to keep infections and fatalities low as evidence of the superiority of its political system.

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Three years later, Beijing abruptly scrapped its failing zero-COVID policy, leaving an under-equipped healthcare system and a disoriented public to grapple with a rising infection wave that experts warn could result in well over a million deaths. Rather than saving its people from the worst of the pandemic, the Communist Party merely delayed their agony, leaving residents questioning whether their sacrifices over the past three years were worth anything. Far from highlighting the effectiveness of the CCP, the COVID-19 fiasco serves as the latest reminder of how ineffective and irresponsible the regime is.

The most telling aspect of the CCP’s about-face is how little is known about how the decision was made. There was no public debate about its merits and drawbacks or any official acknowledgment that it was being considered. Many outside observers assume it was a last-minute decision spurred by the protests that broke out across China in late November. However, revelations that Beijing lost control of the outbreak well before the protests started and had solicited advice on easing restrictions from Hong Kong experts earlier that month suggest there is likely more to the story. One possible explanation is that infections were already spreading so fast that continued adherence to the policy would have exposed it as a failure.

Whatever the reason, the CCP scrapped its pandemic controls before China was prepared to cope with the consequences. While no accurate data are available and most people are no longer being tested, estimates reportedly leaked by Chinese health officials indicate that around 250 million were infected in the first 20 days of December alone. Throughout the country, cold medicine and other essentials are completely sold out. In many locations, hospitals are overfilled, and though the official death toll remains low, reports indicate that crematoriums can’t keep up with demand.

What shocked people the most isn’t that Beijing scrapped its zero-COVID policy, but how suddenly it did so. Observers expected it to eventually ease restrictions, but most thought this would be done gradually over a period of months, allowing the government time to build up ICU capacity and vaccinate its vulnerable elderly population. That would have been in keeping with Beijing’s carefully crafted image of a responsible government that puts its people’s lives ahead of all other considerations.

At the very least, observers expected to see adjustments in the propaganda narrative to lay the groundwork for the policy to be rolled back. Instead, they saw the opposite. Days before the policy shift, officials continued to insist that zero-COVID was the only way forward, and state-run media even censored World Cup soccer matches so images of unmasked spectators wouldn’t cast doubt on the official narrative. Only after the policy was scrapped did the narrative change.

In retrospect, it was naïve to expect China’s reopening to be anything but chaotic. Zero-COVID was, at its core, a CCP political campaign, and as is common with such campaigns, there was so much at stake politically that it couldn’t be walked back in an orderly fashion.

As the omicron variant spread in 2022, the government started to recognize zero-COVID was unsustainable. But the CCP had tied its legitimacy to its ability to keep the virus tightly controlled, and it couldn’t find a viable offramp. It tried to relax some restrictions in mid-November, likely as the first step of a gradual reopening. But these adjustments resulted in even more disruption, as the virus spread to a growing number of locations, where officials remained under pressure to keep outbreaks tightly controlled.

The main flaw of China’s zero-COVID policy, as with previous political campaigns, is that it required so much effort that those charged with implementing it had little choice but to treat people as mere statistics. The stakes were so high that little thought was paid to practicalities or to the consequences of their actions. This is why officials and medical personnel took such drastic measures during lockdowns, such as sealing residents inside apartment buildings and denying life-saving medical care to chronic disease patients.

The political nature of zero-COVID also prevented officials from preparing for what would follow the campaign. Between mid-2020 and early 2022, China had the coronavirus largely under control within its borders. As the pandemic showed no signs of easing overseas, a responsible government would have used this time to build up ICU capacity and vaccinate its vulnerable elderly population. However, governments at all levels were so busy implementing the zero-COVID policy that they failed to do this critical work. As a result, China is opening back up unprepared for the surge in infections and hospitalizations its own studies warned would result.

It’s too early to tell how the unfolding COVID-19 crisis will affect the CCP and its General Secretary, Xi Jinping. Given how vigorously the Party had tied its legitimacy to its ability to keep COVID-19 infections low, significant challenges are likely on the horizon.

But these challenges are unlikely to threaten the CCP’s grip on power or Xi’s authority within the Party. The CCP has faced massive policy failures before, and none of these failures seriously affected the standing of the Party or its leader. Mao Zedong oversaw one failed campaign after another, and not even the Great Leap Forward – which resulted in tens of millions of deaths amid the worst manmade famine in recorded history – had such a long-term impact on his standing.

The breakdown of zero-COVID may cause Xi to temporarily retreat from the public eye, as he did following the initial cover-up in 2020. But Xi emerged from that crisis more powerful than before, and there is no indication that this time will be any different. After all, he still controls the propaganda and security services, and he has plenty of time to rebound before the next leadership reshuffle in 2027.

China’s unfolding COVID-19 nightmare will eventually pass, but the lessons learned should not be forgotten. Everything about Beijing’s response to the pandemic—from its initial coverup, which directly contributed to a localized infection turning into a global pandemic, to its dehumanizing zero-COVID policy, which brought so much disruption to China’s economy and its people’s well-being, and now its abrupt decision to abandon pandemic controls and leave those same people to fend for themselves against a virus it had conditioned them to fear—flies in the face of its narrative of effective governance and shows what an ineffective and irresponsible regime it is.

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Expertise and Experience of Author: Michael Cunningham is a research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, where he focuses on China’s domestic politics and foreign policy. Prior to relocating to Washington, D.C. in 2021, Michael spent over a decade in the Greater China region, where he advised multinational businesses on the political, operational, and security risks associated with their business activities in China and Northeast Asia. Michael obtained a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in international affairs from American University. He has lived extensively in both mainland China and Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and Portuguese.

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Michael Cunningham is a visiting fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.