China faces uncertain future in zero-Covid endgame
The Chinese took the art of cryptic displays to new heights last week. Well aware of the dangers of protesting in an authoritarian state with around 600 minutes of surveillance cameras, the crowds of people who have gathered to criticize Beijing’s stifling “zero-Covid” regime have done so in a number of resourceful ways.
A group of students from the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing held up sheets of paper bearing a mathematical equation that describes the expansion of the universe. The message, it turned out, was that the equation was developed by Alexander Friedmann, whose name sounds like “Free Man” – and freedom is what the protesters were crying out for.
If that was esoteric, then what about a woman leading three alpacas down a street? “It was definitely a protest,” said a witness, who requested anonymity. According to Internet tradition known to hundreds of millions of Chinese, an alpaca is a “grass mud horse” or “cao ni ma– a namesake for ‘fuck your mother’. The insult was directed – but with plausible deniability – at the Chinese government.
The protests, which took place in more than 20 cities, have ended. But the demands of the demonstrators to untie zero-Covid are satisfied, at least in part. After nearly three years of subjecting 1.4 billion people to a regime of mass testing, travel restrictions and continuous urban lockdowns, Beijing is lifting or easing restrictions in cities across the country.
These are certainly memorable moments. But the sudden shift in policy is unlikely to represent a soft acquiescence to the street protests of China’s strongman Xi Jinping. A much more plausible explanation is that the change of heart was prompted by a buildup of discontent within the Communist Party’s vast hierarchy as the economy stuttered, youth unemployment rose and education was disrupted.
“Zero-Covid is a very stupid policy,” said a former official, who declined to be named, giving vent to popular sentiment last week.
The big risks, however, lie in the sequel. China is in uncharted territory: Herd immunity rush could kill as many people 1 min of people in a massive “winter wave” of infections, according to recent mathematical modeling by Wigram Capital Advisors, an Asia-focused macro advisory group.
In a scenario in which Chinese leaders continue to roll back zero-Covid, the national healthcare system would be quickly overwhelmed. With daily deaths reaching up to 20,000 by mid-March, demand for intensive care units would peak at 10 times capacity by the end of March, according to the model from Wigram Capital Advisors.
Besides the human cost, the political fallout could be intense. Xi has been hailed by state media as the “commander in chief of the people’s war against Covid”. He boasted that China’s response to the pandemic – which kept the total number of officially reported deaths at a very low 5,235 – demonstrated the “superiority” of the country’s system.
If deaths start to rise sharply, it will not just mark personal failure for Xi. It will also raise questions about his judgment and the ability of China’s highly centralized power structure to make sound decisions.
“China’s current handling of Covid measures indicates a leadership vacuum, narrow thinking and general mismanagement,” said Andrew Collier, China country analyst at GlobalSource Partners, a consultancy.
Beijing’s biggest shortcoming has been its failure to use three years of population control to ensure full vaccination coverage of the population. It has also prevented the importation of foreign mRNA vaccines, which are known to be much more effective than the local variety administered by China.
The upshot is that as the country begins to lift its zero-Covid policies, there are approximately 85mm people who remain unvaccinated or insufficiently vaccinated against the Omicron variant.
The reasons for this failure remain a matter of debate. Certainly, the reluctance to vaccinate older Chinese has been a factor. But so has nationalism; the hubris behind Beijing’s insistence on national vaccine technology is expected to cost lives. Another factor may have been economic: the constant Covid testing of hundreds of millions of people has been a reliable source of revenue for testing companies with ties to local governments.
But for now, as China prepares for its endgame of Covid, tensions are starting to show. Beijing is running out of fever medications such as ibuprofen and paracetamol as clinics fill with patients. But in the parallel universe of Chinese propaganda, all is well. Official statistics reported no new deaths on Friday and only 16,363 locally transmitted cases, less than half the peak number of cases reported last month.
The official People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist Party, was in a triumphant mood. “We have been through the worst time,” said a comment in the newspaper. “Over the past three years, the virus has gotten weaker, but we’ve gotten stronger.” Whether this force is real or rhetorical will soon become apparent.