China’s Xi Jinping Capitulates on COVID-19: Henry Gao of Singapore Management University argues that Chinese ruler Xi Jinping suddenly reversed his “dynamic zero-Covid policy,” perhaps the world’s most draconian set of disease-control measures, because he believed his own propaganda and overestimated the ability of his regime to handle the aftermath.
The aftermath will be horrific. Scientists predict 800 million people in China will get the disease this winter. Some estimate 1.1 billion will be infected. As Charles Burton of the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute told 1945, “there is a massive wave of disease and miserable death spreading all over China.”
Did Xi Jinping make a policy mistake, as Gao believes?
More likely, Xi did not “decide” anything. A better explanation is that he simply capitulated to the disease.
As an initial matter, Xi’s policy had failed to contain the disease. The World Health Organization believes the current “explosion” of cases in China is not the result of the abandonment of zero-Covid, and leaked Chinese case figures tend to support the international body’s assertion.
Moreover, the Communist Party and Chinese central government were no longer able to administer their disease-control regime. First, the Chinese people, through extraordinary protests beginning at the end of October, made it clear that after three years, they would no longer accept Xi’s harsh measures.
Second, municipalities bore most of the cost of implementing zero-Covid lockdowns and could no longer afford them. Even the capital of Beijing was running out of cash for this purpose.
Third, Xi’s policy was fast driving the Chinese economy deep—or deeper—into contraction. Zero-Covid, often implemented by extreme tactics, was also driving factories out of China because it had disrupted—in some cases, severely—both production and transportation.
Although it had been clear for a long time that Xi’s approach was disastrous, China’s willful leader stuck to it. He doubled down on the policy in his Work Report, a nearly two-hour speech that opened the Communist Party’s 20th National Congress on October 16.
The subsequent capitulation to the disease has eroded Xi’s support in senior Party circles. “His opponents have inflicted humiliation upon him,” Roger Garside, former British diplomat and author of China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom,” told 19FortyFive.
There are other indications that Xi is not as powerful as he was just a few weeks ago. The Central Economic Work Conference, held this month, apparently junked his signature “Common Prosperity” program.
While Xi has been losing his grip over the Communist Party, the Communist Party has been losing its grip over its own officials. Case in point: On the 23rd of this month, American and British media outlets reported in detail on secret deliberations of China’s National Health Commission.
The revelations were shocking: commission minutes show that almost 37 million people contracted the disease on December 20. Some 248 million people got Covid in the first 20 days of this month. Bloomberg News called the outbreak “by far the world’s largest.” Documents were leaked and have now been published online. The stunning disclosures suggest officials were so disgusted that they decided to undermine their own party state.
The Communist Party is apparently in panic mode. Relentless propaganda is seeking to accomplish the impossible: portraying both the zero-Covid policy and its complete and sudden abandonment as wise. “For three years, China has waged a savage propaganda campaign to convince the world that its draconian ‘zero-Covid’ was the most effective way to combat the virus,” Kerry Gershaneck, author of the recent Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to ‘Win Without Fighting,’ told 1945. “The narrative on zero-Covid has now shifted.”
So how does the Party escape the consequences of what people can see with their own eyes?
The regime’s strategy, Gershaneck points out, is to blame others for the disaster: “lower-level officials, vaccine makers, and ‘foreign forces.’ ” In late December, he noted, “China’s Foreign Ministry went into Wolf Warrior mode once again to attack ‘Western’ news media for ‘hype and distortion’ regarding the Party’s chaotic handling of the end of its zero-Covid policy.”
The Party, believing itself to represent the inevitable forces of history, cannot blame itself. It tells the Chinese people that it always has been infallible, “great, glorious, and correct.” This view has led to its absurd and obviously false propaganda narratives, “extreme dissembling” Burton points out. “The propaganda machinery is working overtime,” he told me.
“In any political system, whether democratic or autocratic, when a signature policy of the top leader is abandoned, it is crucial that the leader strive to maintain his or her authority by presenting the change as having been decided by him or her,” Garside observes. “Xi Jinping has failed to do this.”
So Xi did not make a mistake. He just failed. The consequence is that there is apparently intense infighting at the top of the Communist Party.
China, as a result, looks unstable.
A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.