Politics·Analysis

China eases 'zero-COVID' rules following protests — but Xi may have painted himself into a corner

China is easing draconian COVID-19 restrictions in a patchwork manner. But for reasons both medical and political, it will be hard to really end the 'zero-COVID' policy — even as the Chinese people give every sign their patience is at a breaking point.

Experts say it will be hard for China to escape the dilemma created by Xi Jinping

A protester reacts as he is arrested by police during a protest against China's COVID-19 pandemic measures, on a street in Shanghai on Nov. 27. (The Associated Press)

Cracks have appeared in China's draconian "zero-COVID" policy as Beijing reacts to a wave of protests that have at times embraced overtly political calls for greater freedom and the end of one-party rule.

As the week drew to a close and the protests slowed, major cities such as Chengdu and Guangzhou relaxed both lockdowns and testing requirements, and public transport and retail business resumed in some other areas.

Beijing newspaper Yicai reported that people with mild COVID in the city are now being allowed to isolate at home, rather than in the hated quarantine centres, and children under three are now exempt from testing requirements.

This relaxation of the rules carries a personal cost in prestige for President Xi Jinping, who unwisely made "zero-COVID" his own personal project.

Xi told visiting European Council President Charles Michel that the protests occurred because "people are frustrated" after three years of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping after taking part in the closing session at the G20 leaders summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 16. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"It was mainly students or teenagers in university. That's the explanation that was given," a senior European official told Agence France-Presse, speaking on condition of anonymity.

That explanation is not borne out by videos that have emerged from China.

WHO says 'zero-COVID' isn't sustainable

The relaxation of COVID-19 controls in China was welcomed by the World Health Organization (WHO), which had described them as "not sustainable."

The extreme nature of China's COVID-19 response has been too much even for the organization seen as a promoter of lockdowns by many in the West.

"We've all had to deal with restrictions of movement, we've all had to deal with having our lives changed. And frankly, it's exhausting," said WHO emergencies director Dr. Michael Ryan. "It's really important that governments listen to their people when the people are in pain."

But Beijing is also signalling it does not intend to let the protests pass without punishment. Pedestrians and subway travellers were subjected to random searches of their phones as police reportedly looked for photos of protests, messages about protests, banned apps or evidence of VPN use to get around China's "Great Firewall" of censorship. Some people were taken into custody following those searches.

No honeymoon for Xi's new mandate

Xi can consider himself fortunate that he does not have to render accounts in a democratic system. If he did, the first six weeks of his undemocratic mandate as de facto president for life might be hard to explain.

Instead of adhering to the top-down "social harmony" Xi has championed as an alternative to the chaotic freedom of the West, tens of thousands of Chinese have risen up in angry non-conformity.

And abroad, China has watched the movement toward "decoupling" and "friendshoring" gather pace, threatening its weakened economy with the loss of markets in the West.

This week, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared that the "golden age" of U.K.-China relations "is over."

And in Canada, the new Indo-Pacific strategy made it clear that Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland's suspicious approach to China has prevailed over the friendlier attitudes of former Canadian ambassadors John McCallum and Dominic Barton.

WATCH | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on China and human rights: 

'China knows we'll stand up for human rights,' Trudeau says

2 months ago
Duration 0:45
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau comments on the ongoing anti-lockdown protests happening throughout China.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made what may have been his first public comments suggesting that Canada wants to see regime change in China.

"We're going to stand up for our values, for our principles, the things that our citizens in the West expect us to stand for," he told Reuters. "Not just for our own purposes, but to highlight to people in China that disagree with the regime that there are other ways of doing things and there is a better future possibly ahead."

But the greatest uncertainties for Xi Jinping lie at home, and some of them still revolve around COVID-19.

Smouldering anger

The banners hung from Beijing's Sitong bridge during Xi's coronation at the 20th National Party Congress — calling Xi a dictator and a traitor and demanding "freedom not lockdowns" — were seen as a reckless gesture by one bold individual rather than a harbinger of the country's biggest protests since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. 

But among the wider population, horror stories of children dying unattended in bleak COVID internment camps were already spreading, stoking the anger of ordinary citizens dealing with the restrictions and the indignities of forced testing, arbitrary lockdowns and other violent and invasive tactics.

Then came the fire in Urumqi that killed at least 10 people in a locked-down highrise building.

The population's reaction didn't merely conflict with the government's propaganda portrait of a stoic and obedient China marching in lockstep with the party.

A protester shouts slogans against China's strict 'zero COVID' measures in Beijing on Nov. 28. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

It also clashed with a similar image of Chinese people painted by former Canadian ambassador Dominic Barton, who told a parliamentary committee that "China values unity and the needs of society at large, rather than freedom of individual choice. We just have to understand that."

"The protest is remarkable and is different from the protests that we used to see in the last three decades," said Ho-fung Hung, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of Protest with Chinese Characteristics.

"It's simultaneous protests in different places at the same time. And another remarkable thing about the protest is that it is not only restricted to a particular policy or targeting only local officials," he said.

"In some of the protests we see some people even start to call for the stepping down of Xi Jinping, or the stepping down of the Communist Party of China, and asking for freedom of expression and freedom in general."

Xi paints himself into a COVID corner

With an official COVID per-capita death rate nearly 1,000 times lower than that of the United States, it may have seemed like good politics to the image-conscious Xi to put his own signature on China's "zero-COVID" policy.

In the early days of the pandemic, that approach played into Xi's larger narrative of a Chinese model of government and development that offers a more efficient and pragmatic alternative to Western democracy.

Over time, though, it became clear that "zero-COVID" has no endgame.

A worker in protective gear collects a sample from a resident at a coronavirus testing site in Beijing on Nov. 29. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

The United States has had far more COVID-19 deaths than China — but it also deployed a far more effective vaccination program.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 93 per cent of Americans over 65 have received a full course of mRNA vaccines. China's National Health Commission, meanwhile, reports that only 40 per cent of people over the age of 80 in China have had a full course of its much less effective vaccine, which confers little immunity to the Omicron strain.

The WHO estimates that 90 per cent of the world's population now has some form of immunity to COVID-19, whether naturally acquired or through vaccination. But in China that number is far lower — and it's estimated the country could see hospitalizations shoot as high as 15 patients per available bed if it abruptly lifts all COVID-19 restrictions.

That would demolish Xi's claim that he's kept China safer than other countries. It might also make Chinese people even angrier about the harsh sacrifices of the past 30 months.

"The Chinese leadership really cornered itself with a phrase that is very difficult to get off," Hung said. "If they open up like many, many other places in the world, there will be a large surge in cases that the hospitals, the public health system cannot handle.

"But if they continue with 'zero-COVID,' it has a huge impact on the economy. And then people are tired and frustrated and asking why the Chinese government could not come up with more effective vaccines and more effective vaccination programs like everybody else in the world."

Xi's early decisions return to haunt him

'Zero-COVID' "has affected our employees, it's affected our clients, it's affected everything," said Dane Chamorro, whose consulting firm, Control Risks, advises Western corporate clients on how to navigate the disruptions of China's policy.

"But remember that the narrative in China is the 'party protects the people. And look at what a disaster this was in America, in Europe, where democracy didn't protect the population. You had a million people die in America, you had a million die in Europe, but we've only had a handful of people dying in China,'" he said.

"So it's very hard for them to go back on that narrative by allowing the economy to open again, particularly in the run-up to the Lunar New Year, which is the end of January this year, when typically people travel all around China in the biggest migration of human beings on the planet."

Chinese police officers block access to a site in Shanghai where protesters opposed to China's strict 'zero-COVID' policies had gathered on Nov. 27. (The Associated Press)

Chamorro said Xi's decisions early in the pandemic have come back to haunt him.

China's vaccination program has been as weak as its lockdowns have been heavy-handed — and that, too, is a problem that Xi will have to wear personally.

"This is really the decision of one person in the early days of the pandemic not to allow mRNA vaccine technology into China for production," Chamorro told CBC News.

"There was already at least one deal initially struck to do that with a foreign player and a domestic player manufacturing mRNA vaccine, and they decided not to do that. And so what you have is a less than effective Sinovac vaccine. And because the country's been shut off for so long, you have no natural immunity."

No quick fixes

China is now developing its own mRNA vaccine, currently in Stage 3 trials. But "it's going to take at least, probably, another nine to 12 months to get to that level where enough ... of the population is vaccinated," Chamorro said.

And the Communist Party might have to use more unpopular coercive methods to achieve that level of vaccination.

"You could have millions of deaths in China if they open prematurely, before a significant percentage of population has an effective mRNA vaccine," Chamorro said.

That's only one reason why a decision to lift the restrictions completely is unlikely, Ho-fung Hung said.

"For the past two years, the official media and Xi himself continued to insist on the correctness of this 'zero-COVID' policy, so much so that now he cannot separate himself from the policy," he said.

"So any softening or drastic reversal of the policy will be perceived widely as his backing down, as Xi being defeated by popular pressure. So because of this political consideration, I don't see any big chance of a reversal of the policy happening any time soon."

What will happen, Hung said, is a hunt for those who were at the forefront of the past week's protests.

Frustration is rising

The Communist Party is already moving to identify those who have questioned its rule in recent days and to push their protests down the same memory hole where it buried the Tiananmen Square uprising.

"Definitely it will increase the paranoia of the government and of Xi Jinping himself, who has been perceived as very paranoid in the past few years and who sees enemies everywhere," Hung said.

"So definitely he will double down on tightening control on social media, on society, on all walks of life, and the toughening of the authoritarian or even totalitarian rule of the [Chinese Communist Party] is going to escalate in the weeks and months and years to come."

Police officers pin down and arrest a demonstrator during a protest on a street in Shanghai on Nov. 27. (The Associated Press)

In any case, tinkering with the rules on COVID-19 might not defuse the anger that Chinese people have been expressing, Hung said, because the malaise goes beyond pandemic restrictions.

Not unlike their counterparts in Russia, many members of China's educated middle class feel their country is now going backward both politically and economically.

Students are now graduating into a job market far less welcoming than at any time in the past two generations.

"There was a kind of disappointment and frustration that the government no longer prioritized the economic well-being of people even before COVID," Hung said, citing "economic policies that let state enterprise expand at the expense of private enterprise."

"People already have a sense that now the era of reform and opening in China has ended. Particularly after Xi Jinping exceeded his five-year term, many people suppose he's going to be a lifelong leader," he said.

"Frustration about the general direction of China's economy and of China's politics is growing."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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