World·Analysis

The Xi dilemma: China's instability and a zero-COVID trap

China's strict zero-COVID policy is an edict from the top of the country's political leadership, forcing lockdowns, quarantines, tests and travel bans on 1.4 billion people for almost three years. Anger over those measures is now driving protests.

If leaders lift restrictions, cases and deaths may spike, as few have immunity through infection or vaccines

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a TV screen above a street in Hong Kong on Oct. 16, 2022. For nearly three years, China's strict zero-COVID policy has forced lockdowns, quarantines, tests and travel bans on 1.4 billion people. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images)

In Beijing, they took to the streets on a frosty November evening. Young people yelled the loudest, but there were older Chinese as well, sharing a rare moment of protest in a country where acquiescence is not only expected but enforced.

"We want freedom, not unlimited government power," yelled one man, as mobile phones recorded his rant and posted it online. "We want the rule of law, we don't want the next generation to live in this era of horror."

His "horror" is China's strict zero-COVID policy, an edict from the very top of the country's political leadership that has forced lockdowns, quarantines, tests and travel bans on 1.4 billion people for almost three years.

Chinese residents living in Japan hold up white sheets of paper in a solidarity protest against China's COVID-19 lockdowns in Tokyo on Wednesday. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

It has become China's signature mode of countering the pandemic, but Lynette Ong says it is misguided, producing "opposite results."

"More coercive violence means more defiance," said Ong, the author of Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China and a China expert at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

"And already the resistance recently is really unseen since Tiananmen."

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, residents line up for COVID-19 tests at a mobile testing site in Xincheng District of Xi'an, in northwest China on Jan. 2. Last month, China locked down parts of Xi'an, confining some of its 13 millions residents to their homes for at least a week. (Tao Ming/Xinhua/The Associated Press)

Tiananmen Square is just a couple of kilometres from the current Beijing protests, the site and symbol of the last significant anti-government demonstrations in China, ones that shook the political leadership to the core. So sensitive still, the 1989 student protests and subsequent massacre are only mentioned in whispers and never in the media or taught in schools.

Now though, with daily infection rates hitting records day after day last week and no end in sight to zero-COVID restrictions, private horror has turned to public anger. 

And that fury is tearing down barriers and fuelling protests across China.

In this June 5, 1989, file photo, Chinese troops and tanks gather in Beijing, one day after the military crackdown that ended a seven-week pro-democracy demonstration on Tiananmen Square. (Jeff Widener/The Associated Press)

They have hit the industrial south, in cities like Hangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhengzhou, in factories where they make the world's iPhones. There were protests in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first identified and the first lockdowns happened, and in the western region of Xinjiang, which has been under lockdown for the past three months and where 10 deaths in a fire last week were blamed on blocked escape doors. And there have been demonstrations at dozens of universities, including one of China's most prestigious campuses, Tsinghua University and Peking University.

But the disobedience wasn't just about COVID. Many demanded much bigger changes in China's society and its political leadership.

In the southwest city of Chengdu, protestors chanted for "freedom of press, freedom of speech." In Shanghai, a woman identifying herself as Kate told European network ETN, "We are protesting against the Communist Party dictatorship … Xi Jinping." Shanghai spent months under lockdown this spring, with residents angrily complaining of food shortages.

Around Kate and at many of the protests, people held up blank pieces of paper, a symbolic act of defiance that signalled opposition to government policies while trying to avoid arrest for speaking against the regime. 

But police still arrested many. 

Others were stopped and questioned, forced to erase pictures and videos from their phones. A few, including a BBC reporter, were beaten.

People hold up sheets of paper in protest over China's COVID-19 restrictions at the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

As the protests continued, officers fanned out in cities and towns, erecting barricades along popular streets to make further demonstrations difficult. Many university campuses have been closed, with students sent home to towns far away.

News of defiant acts spread quickly on China's internet, where censors scrambled to scrub the images and sentiments away. At first, government spokesperson Zhao Lijian rejected the fact that widespread protests even happened, saying he was "not aware of the situation." Then he blamed "forces with ulterior motives."

The protests may be unusual, but the official reaction has been predictable.

A police officer asks a woman to leave as she holds up a white sheet of paper in Hong Kong on Monday over COVID-19 restrictions in mainland China. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Indeed, police and lower level officials have little choice but to defend zero-COVID, a policy championed by Leader Xi Jinping from the start. He has repeatedly attacked "doubters" for their "contempt, indifference and self-righteousness" in questioning measures he calls "scientific and effective." The regime has built much of its propaganda around a pandemic death rate that is 0.1 per cent that of the United States.

As far back as 2020, China's leadership declared victory over COVID. Xi did so again at the Communist Party's national congress in October, where no one dared question his absolute authority.

"Xi Jinping has consolidated power in a way that nobody can come up and say, 'Wait a minute, the people are suffering,'" said Yves Tiberghien, a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of The East Asian COVID-19 Paradox.

As a result, Tiberghien says, China is caught in a zero-COVID trap.

WATCH | Explaining the dilemma of China's zero-COVID policy:

The dilemma of China’s zero-COVID policy

2 months ago
Duration 2:58
For China’s leadership, there’s no clear way forward, and no easy way back, when it comes to its highly-restrictive COVID-zero policy. Its population hasn't been vaccinated enough to face the latest COVID-19 variants, but the virus is spreading despite China's stringent measures.

The problem is, easing back could leave much of the country vulnerable. Some studies suggest up to two million people could die in China within a year if the country returns to normal population mobility.

"The exit is difficult because if they give in to the public to save the legitimacy of the regime, they're going to have a big number of cases and of deaths," Tiberghien said.

While many other countries pulled back from restrictive measures like lockdowns once a significant part of their population had protection from the virus — either through vaccination or because they had lived through an infection — China doesn't have protection from either.

A woman in her wheelchair has her throat swabbed for a COVID-19 test at a coronavirus testing site in Beijing on Sunday. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

Very few Chinese have acquired any immunity by living through COVID. It's so rare, few in the country even know anyone who's had the disease.

As for vaccines, China has been slow to roll out its program. Its homegrown versions are considered weaker than the Western-developed mRNA vaccines and studies have suggested they don't last as long. Soon after the vaccines were introduced, the country's top disease control official complained they "don't have very high protection rates."

With no requirement to be vaccinated, older Chinese have been especially slow to get the shots. This week, Beijing said one out of three seniors over the age of 80 still does not have the booster needed for protection against COVID-19. China's national health commission promised to make higher vaccination rates a priority by "optimizing vaccination services."

On the other hand, if China maintains its harsh zero-COVID controls, it risks continued economic hardship and social unrest. That's the other part of the zero-COVID trap.

Children prepare to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Wuhan, China, on Nov. 12, 2021. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

China's economic growth is already slowing, projected at 3.2 per cent this year by the International Monetary Fund, down from the six per cent rise in GDP in 2019, the last year before the pandemic hit. But many analysts expect the economy to do even worse — that it will actually shrink in 2022.

China may not recover until 2024, said Mark Williams, the chief Asia economist at Capital Economics in a web presentation to investors this week. 

"More than half the country in terms of economic output right now is having a COVID outbreak," he said. "That's far higher than ever before." 

Bankruptcies are up, people have lost jobs and youth unemployment is near 20 per cent, increasing frustration among a population that's used to growing prosperity, especially the middle class.

Workers wearing face masks ride tricycle carts loaded with goods in Beijing on Sept. 21. The Asian Development Bank recently downgraded its forecasts for growth in the region, citing the war in Ukraine, rising interest rates aimed at fighting decades-high inflation and China's slowing economy. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

All of that means China is facing a level of instability it hasn't seen in decades, said Ong.

"For Xi Jinping, in a third term and beyond, it will be so much harder to govern because China is really now in a disequilibrium," she said. 

People are ready to protest, driven to the streets not only by anger over zero-COVID but by despair over their own prospects.

"China is not stable anymore," said Ong.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.

now