Xi Jinping faces rare dissenting voices over China’s zero-COVID policy

China’s leaders face their most unpredictable challenge in recent memory as the country’s zero-COVID policy strains society and threatens to undermine its paramount economic growth.

Two years of success in containing the virus meant that, unlike the West, living without the coronavirus had been the norm for the Chinese public until Omicron arrived. Beijing has met the highly transmissible variant with brute force that tests the limits of the delicate social contract between China’s authoritarian government and its people.

Even after a recent spike in cases, China’s reported death toll of around 5,000 is still dwarfed by mortality data in Europe and North America.

In the United States, nearly a million people have died from COVID, making China’s relatively low death figures a particular point of pride for its leader, Xi Jinping. Xi linked that achievement to his own political legacy in a year in which he expects to be granted an unprecedented third term as head of state, military and Communist Party. Chinese.

A health worker stands outside a COVID-19 testing site in Beijing May 3, 2022. China has doubled down on its zero COVID policy, even as government officials and top economists are wary of its impact on the country. economy.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

But 2022 was expected to see a strong economic recovery, with major industries reaching pre-pandemic levels to meet the increased supply chain demands of a world emerging from the virus.

Instead, the Chinese government has spent the past few weeks silencing gloomy forecasts from some of the country’s top economists, who are watching market activity plummet and investors jitters due to an entirely unpredictable environment. led by China’s zero tolerance approach to COVID.

Among them is Hong Hao, a Hong Kong-based Chinese investment strategist whose widely-followed social media accounts on Weibo and WeChat were suspended for apparently challenging Beijing’s public health policy, which made Shanghai the port busiest shipping center in the world and home to 25 million people. — to a complete stop for more than five weeks.

In late March, Hong tweeted images of the city’s empty streets, writing, “Shanghai: zero movement, zero GDP.”

He held a senior position at Bank of Communications International Holdings, a securities firm owned by one of China’s largest state banks, but a change to his Twitter profile this week suggests he has since quit his job. post. A company spokesperson said The Wall Street Journal that Hong had “resigned for personal reasons”.

Hong was the fourth Chinese economist to give up, or be forced to give up, posting on his social media account in recent weeks.

China’s annual GDP growth target for the year is 5.5%. The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast to 4.4% in April and on Tuesday credit agency Fitch Ratings cut its own forecast by five points to 4.3%, citing the government’s COVID policy, which is technically targeting something. something called “social zero COVID”, or not. infections outside of those already in quarantine.

However, just as Shanghai’s costly lockdown appears to have stemmed the Omicron outbreak, the virus has spread to Beijing. Daily cases remain in the double digits, but officials don’t want the city of 21 million to have a similar experience to Shanghai. Nevertheless, fears abound, triggered not by the government’s rhetoric, but by its actions.

As in Shanghai, large makeshift hospitals that serve as centralized quarantine facilities are being built in the Chinese capital. Residents are undergoing their second week of mass testing while Beijing’s subway is partially shut down in COVID hotspots. People were buying in panic and efforts were being made to restock supermarket shelves to allay concerns about food shortages if deliveries in the city were interrupted.

After hundreds of thousands of infections in Shanghai since March, the eastern port city has reported around 350 deaths. If the trajectory of Beijing’s outbreak resembles that of Shanghai, many might think that the pursuit of zero COVID will not justify the economic costs that are sure to follow, despite lingering concerns about low vaccination rates among the elderly. Chinese diseases and the effectiveness of the vaccine itself.

On Tuesday, an unnamed Chinese government adviser told the FinancialTimes that Xi was struggling to come to terms with the fact that Omicron could burst the dam that is his previously successful zero-COVID policy.

“People tell Xi that lockdowns are a concern, but I don’t think they say how much of a concern it really is,” the adviser said. “He is so proud of China’s achievements in fighting [COVID] that I don’t think he cares about the economy.”

“I don’t think Omicron is going to be contained but that’s what the great leader said, so people are making decisions based on that assumption,” the adviser said.

Dissenting opinions are not welcome in times of heightened political sensitivity, even from Zhong Nanshan, perhaps China’s most revered public health expert, who rose to prominence during the coronavirus outbreak. SARS in the country in 2003.

In an article co-authored in National Science Review published last month, Zhong acknowledged the effectiveness of the zero-COVID approach, but argued, “However, China needs to reopen in order to normalize socio-economic development and adapt to global reopening.

“Prolonged dynamic zeroing cannot be continued in the long term,” he said, recommending a gradual reopening coupled with an mRNA vaccine booster campaign. Translations of the article that appeared in Chinese-language media were later removed.

Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, told the Swiss news site The market in an interview published on April 28, the Omicron clusters were “like a mole game for China”.

In meetings with government officials, his warnings of an inevitable economic crisis fell on deaf ears.

“I meet top politicians who are very knowledgeable and open-minded. They know what [zero COVID] means for the economy,” he said. “It’s just that they can’t use that knowledge to bring about policy change right now.

“Until the 20th Party Congress, which will be held later this year, they will stick to the [zero-COVID] Politics. President Xi wants to be confirmed for a third term, so he cannot change his narrative this close to the finish line,” Wuttke said.

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