For three years, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, fought a remorseless battle against COVID-19. He called it a “people’s war”—a national struggle to defeat an unseen foe and save lives. The contest locked families in their homes for weeks, strangled the economy, and closed the country to the world. Other governments that failed to contain the pandemic may be indifferent to death and suffering, the message was, but not the Chinese Communist Party, which cares about life above all else.
And then, poof! Xi gave up.
“Zero COVID,” the policy that mandated all of the stringent lockdowns and rigid quarantines, is dead. Officially, the Chinese government will never admit that. The party paints itself as infallible and won’t acknowledge that it erred. The government insists that the fight against COVID is not over. But the new approach, announced on Wednesday, is no longer fixated on suppressing infections to nil—and may not be able to contain them at all. The public quickly realized that, reached its own conclusion about the risk of an explosive outbreak, and began panicked purchases of at-home COVID tests and flu medications.
By switching so suddenly from one extreme position to another, Xi may, in fact, be exchanging one crisis for another. The strict controls had become such an onerous burden on society that protests calling for their removal erupted across the country in late November, raising the prospect—terrifying to the Communist Party—of widespread unrest. Now, however, Xi may face the political risks of an epidemic that could claim hundreds of thousands of lives, which is exactly what the party intended to avoid with zero COVID.
Flexibility in policy is a hallmark of good leadership, and, regarding COVID, the acknowledgment of reality was long overdue. Yet the rapid reversal also raises serious questions about how well governed China actually is. The perception of China’s government as a well-oiled machine was always exaggerated, but at the same time, its policy makers usually displayed a certain pragmatism and commitment to known priorities. Today, the fate of the country depends on the calculations of one man: Xi Jinping. The travails of zero COVID show how the centralization of power in Xi has rendered policy making unpredictable. Xi and only Xi could have decided on this sudden change of direction, and the nation will continue to suffer as a result.
[Read: China’s COVID wave is coming]
The puzzle is: Why now? Xi had been insistent that zero COVID was best for China, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. He could just as easily have altered course months ago, or rolled out a new strategy more slowly, to allow the nation to adjust. The timing is not auspicious. Xi has inexplicably left his people unprepared for a surge of infections. The outlook is potentially grim. By one projection, China could suffer more than 600,000 deaths in just the first six months of a major outbreak. The government has refused to import foreign vaccines, almost certainly out of nationalism, but it hasn’t done a great job of promoting its own, less effective jabs. Only about 56 percent of the populace has been boosted; the rate for those most vulnerable—people ages 80 and over—is as low as 40 percent. The government has announced a renewed vaccination drive especially targeted at the elderly, which is good news, but that will take time to implement—time that some may not have as the virus spreads.
Emotionally, too, the population is not ready to contend with COVID. Until now, the government had taken responsibility for measuring the risks and determining how people should be protected. Going forward, the Chinese people will have to make their own decisions about how to manage the perils of a pandemic. For some, this will be a new burden that is disorienting and difficult. If anything, zero COVID bought the leadership time to gird the nation for the inevitable epidemic. Xi squandered it.
We had some indications that Xi’s priorities were beginning to change. For nearly three years, every aspect of domestic policy was subordinated to zero COVID. Officials indicated that they were willing to sacrifice the economy to preserve lives. But in recent weeks, they seemed more concerned about sluggish growth. For instance, the government unveiled a plan to support the faltering property sector last month. The senior leadership also seemed to recognize that zero COVID had gone too far. In mid-November, the national government announced steps to “optimize” the policy by stripping away some of its more excessive measures.
[Read: How many COVID deaths will Chinese protesters accept?]
Still, the lack of transparency in China’s policy-making process leads to speculation about the timing and pace of the new approach. Perhaps the economic pain imposed by the COVID controls became too severe to bear any longer. Maintaining growth and raising incomes remain top priorities for the Communist Party. A case can also be made that the protests caused the demise of zero COVID. The take of the pro-Beijing crowd is that Xi is listening to the will of the people. But just a few months ago, Xi ignored the pleas for relief from Shanghai families confined to their home for two months without sufficient food amid that city’s brutal lockdown. A more likely explanation is that Xi perceived the nationwide protests as a potential threat to both the party and his own standing, and that fear led to an acceleration of zero COVID’s unwinding.
A clear shift in messaging occurred in the protests’ aftermath when a vice premier, Sun Chunlan, who has been the central government’s chief lockdown enforcer, suddenly declared that the Omicron variant was not as dangerous as the virus’s previous iterations and that the country should move to a “new stage” of the COVID fight. The next day, Xi himself not only reiterated Sun’s comment that Omicron was less lethal, but also acknowledged to visiting officials from the European Union that the protests were a reflection of public frustration with pandemic controls.
Six days later, national authorities issued 10 measures to reform COVID policy that reduced testing requirements, limited the use of shutdowns, allowed for more home quarantines (rather than in widely detested state isolation centers), and eliminated the need to scan a QR code at certain locations, which had been a method of tracking the infected. Many restrictions remain, at both the national and local levels. Authorities can still designate “high risk” areas, leaving open the possibility of continued lockdowns. Negative COVID tests are still required to enter some schools or a hospital.
Policy makers seem to believe they have left enough controls in place to at least keep a lid on a COVID outbreak. But the new rules will also allow very large numbers of people to go about their daily life unmonitored. Without perpetual testing, the authorities can’t as easily pinpoint or tally the sick. Without incessant QR scanning, they can no longer automatically track close contacts. The new rules do not mean a full reopening, but they erode the machinery that made zero COVID tick, and the authorities may be overestimating their ability to contain the virus if it begins to run rampant.
There are already indications that the situation is getting out of control. In Beijing, obtaining a timely COVID test has become a challenge. Some businesses, desperate after years of controls, are not enforcing the remaining rules. Many people are gripped by fear and staying off the streets. And where is Xi? So far, no words of reassurance or comfort have come from the top. The effort has been left to the state media, now frantically trying to convince the public that COVID is no longer the deadly plague it has warned about for years.
[Read: China’s mistakes can be America’s gain]
Whether true or not, the sudden changes have left the impression among some in China that Xi caved to public pressure. Posts on social media show photos of dismantled testing stations with notes thanking the protesters. That could have repercussions far beyond COVID. If the message of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989 was “Don’t challenge the party,” the takeaway from the recent protests may be “Resistance works.”
This is dangerous thinking, from the perspective of a Communist Party that insists on total political control. But it’s not the only subversive message from the COVID flip-flop. The other, the one Xi himself is sending, is: The party won’t take care of you. This represents a serious breach of the implicit contract the party has had with the public: Cede us political dominance, and we’ll ensure your well-being. In that context, the COVID reversal leaves the masses to fend for themselves. Why, then, the public could ask, do we put up with the regime’s repressive monopoly on power?
Internationally, too, Xi faces political fallout. Zero COVID was a pillar of his administration’s attempts to promote China’s authoritarian model as a superior form of governance, especially when compared with liberal democracy. Perhaps Xi and his team can devise a new method of managing the pandemic, one that strikes a better balance between control and normalcy and can truly be a model for the world. More likely, China is about to experience the sort of explosive COVID outbreak that the rest of the globe endured in 2020, and Xi will become just another national leader steamrolled by a disastrously unchecked pathogen. In that event, the conclusion people may draw is that China’s autocracy simply wasted three years’ worth of national resources to end up in the same place as the rest of the world.
That assessment may not be entirely fair. China could have emerged as the virus-fighting champion. Zero COVID may have saved lives—especially early in the pandemic, when no vaccines were available. Things went awry when politics and poor planning prevented the course corrections that changing circumstances demanded; instead, the policy was enforced by an unfettered state with a self-defeating severity and arbitrariness. Now China is entering a new stage, with potentially disastrous consequences for the public and the country’s future. In a China where Xi Jinping wants all the power and glory, he’ll also get all the blame.