Why Xi Jinping ended the Zero-COVID policy abruptly
The recent COVID crisis and the sudden change of Zero-COVID policies could all be a part of the unseen political undercurrent within the party. 2023 is the last year of Xi’s second term as the president of China. Even though Xi has removed the term limits on presidency, he has not been the president for the third term yet. It has not been realized, and it is not said and done. Getting elected for 3 times as the president of China is unprecedented. When a unprecedented change is about to happen, it always comes with upheaval and possibilities. There are other members of the party who also wants seek more power and become the president of China. Once Xi is successfully secures a third term, it suggests that Xi would stay on that position for as long as he lives. Members of the party who also look to become the president would want to stop Xi from securing the third term. However, they could not do it explicitly since it would lead to retaliation by Xi. Implicit undermining without revealing their identities and true intentions would be their best strategy.
The Zero-COVID policy
The Zero-COVID policy is innately defective when it comes to execution. China uses performance evaluation system for officials when it comes to promotion. During the Zero-COVID period, the execution of Zero-COVID is a part of the performance evaluation. A simple metric would be how many new COVID cases increased under the local officials’ management. State-owned medias would post each region’s new increased cases on the internet. This is like the record on their transcripts. In order to do well, many local governments carried out the Zero-COVID policy stricter than what it should have been. Some officials even implemented means that are more harsh than necessary just to be excused when there were new COVID cases. They could show that they already put in the hard work in executing the Zero-COVID policy and the new increased cases were not in their control.
The dissatisfaction, tragedies and protests
The unnecessarily strict and harsh execution of the Zero-COVID policy has caused dissatisfaction in the Chinese people. When there was one COVID case, the whole neighborhood or district where the patient lives in are subject to lockdown. This big lockdown because of a few cases had caused many troubles in the daily lives of the Chinese people, especially their economic conditions. Many could not go to work or do business because of the lock down.
In March 2022, the whole city Shanghai lock downed. The residents living in Shanghai were forced to stay home. The people didn’t have sufficient living resource and it caused many discussion on the internet. However, many resources were donated and distributed to Shanghai from other places, why would the city still lack food resources? During the lockdown most of the resources were distributed by the neighborhood committees. There are Shanghai residents provided pictures and videos suggesting that some neighborhood committees harbor the resources and resell them for higher price.
In Sep 18, 2022 a group of people were being transferred on a bus for quarantine because of the Zero-COVID policy. During the transfer, the bus crashed and 27 people were killed. In Nov 24, 2022 a fire accident happened in Urumqi. The fire truck couldn’t get in timely because of the lockdown due to the Zero-COVID policy, 10 people were killed.
The built up dissatisfaction and the Guizhou Bus Crash and Urumqi Fire tragedies lead to the White Paper Protests break out in Nov 26, 2022. Many people protested across the country asking the government to end the Zero-COVID policy and no more lockdowns.
Another perspective to look into the Crisis related to the Zero-COVID policy
China has been quick in dealing with public matters that are considered sensitive to the government. Such sensitive matters would disappear or be dealt with on the internet and real life real quick. However, there were many discussion about the Shanghai Lockdown, Guizhou Bus Crash and Urumqi Fire on the internet to be seen. All the discussions are negative and shadow the government and Xi’s ability to leading the country to go through the COVID difficulty. Moreover, the living resource shortage in Shanghai during the lockdown was not difficult to deal with, but it was only dealt with near the end of the lockdown.
It seems Xi didn’t do much to stop the negative news about the government. The question comes: China is a regime that has strong control over the news and media. Why would Xi let such negative news go so viral?
Furthermore, the White Paper Protest is the biggest protest that broke out across the country in recent years. Protests in different regions with similar demands, campaign slogans, and white papers. Such organized and big in size protest happening across the country seems difficult with a centralized government, except if there are people within the party help making these things realized.
If we take a look in the timeline of the major crisis regarding the Zero-COVID policy, they almost happened right before the end of Xi’s second term. They are like consecutive matters happening one by one to make Xi look bad to the Chinese people right before he can get his third term.
After the White Paper protest, Xi took a significant turn regarding the COVID policy by completely rescind the Zero-COVID policy. It seems like he’s finally listening to what the Chinese people want in terms of the COVID policy. However, after the rescind of Zero-COVID policy the general public opinion didn’t seem happy as expected. Many are complaining about the increasing death of the elders. The public opinions change to thinking the zero COVID policy is protecting them.
However, the surge in death is due to the sudden lift of Zero-COVID policy. The people neither want too much protection nor no protection at all, they want the right amount of protection. Xi could have lift the policy gradually and let the people have time to prepare for the incoming change, but why he had to do it so abruptly?
The reason is simply he wants the people to feel the pain. Imagine if everyone’s lives become easier and happier after withdrawing the Zero-COVID policy, what would people feel about three years of strict regulation and lockdowns? They would simply think the Zero-COVID policy is a wrong decision and the past 3 years of strict regulation and suffering are useless and unnecessary. This will lead to the Chinese people questioning the government and Xi’s ability to reign the country. If Xi wants to secure a third, especially when there other members in the party who also want his position, he will not want the pubic opinion turn against him. Therefore, removing the Zero-COVID policy unanticipatedly is the strategy Xi could use the turn the situation around.
The Chinese people was kept in a strict protection environment from the COVID virus. Suddenly expose them to the COVID virus without giving them anytime to prepare and adapt would no doubt cause pain. After many deaths of the elders and well-known people, the public opinion does turn around and think that the Zero-COVID policy is good and the government did a good job in protecting them from COVID, totally ignoring all the suffering and tragedies caused by the Zero-COVID policy. Xi is, therefore, free from the political challenge and one step closer to his third term.