Everyone except essential workers is banned from leaving their neighborhood. Each household can send only one person to buy groceries once every two to three days. Public transportation is suspended. Restaurants are shuttered. COVID-19 testing is mandatory for all residents, with authorities sending some of those who test positive to quarantine centers.
This is life in much of China at the moment. Rather than relying on mass vaccinations to get the country through its Omicron outbreak, the government is sticking with its “zero-COVID” approach. This strategy appears to have resulted in fewer than 5,000 COVID-19 deaths in China, while the United States has seen close to 1 million deaths in a nation one-fourth the size.
It is easy to see why some people would find zero COVID admirable. But keeping the policy going at this point requires steps that seem unsustainably invasive and stifling — both socially and economically — and amount to an admission that China’s vaccines do not work as well as Western ones do.
Omicron has put China between a rock and a hard place. The variant’s high transmissibility ensures that the costs of the zero-COVID approach will grow, because more and more lockdowns will be needed to keep the virus at bay. But despite the economic toll, Chinese President Xi Jinping has shown no indication of backing down from his policy. Having spent two years painting himself as the leader who beat COVID-19, he knows that any relaxation and subsequent spike in cases and deaths would spoil that image. Xi’s paralysis should be expected from a ruler who has replaced China’s top-level collectivism with personalism, creating a regime in which there are few constraints on his authority. These are the predicaments of a strongman.
Beijing is likely, then, to keep going with strict lockdowns not because zero COVID is necessarily the ideal policy but because Xi sees no way out that has risks low enough to be acceptable to him — because he would own the policy in failure just as he did in success.
China is currently facing what is by far its worst COVID-19 surge since the initial Wuhan outbreak, recording thousands of cases per day, even though about 85 percent of Chinese have been fully vaccinated against the virus. In recent weeks, Shenzhen, a hugely important manufacturing city near Hong Kong, has been in full lockdown. So, too, has Jilin Province. Shanghai has already closed its schools and businesses, while numerous compounds across Beijing and Tianjin have shut down as well. Over the last few weeks, some 51 million people have been locked down across China.
Chinese officials are trying more consciously than before to mitigate the negative economic impact of zero COVID. Xi has urged officials to take what Chinese state television called more “effective” measures that minimize “the impact of the epidemic on economic development.”
Therefore, authorities are no longer sending all asymptomatic individuals to hospitals but instead to centralized quarantine facilities, which the government is erecting in hard-hit areas. Officials have also modified their approach toward Shenzhen, which is a particularly important link in the global supply chain, producing key items like semiconductors and circuit boards. Manufacturing is allowed to continue there while the city is locked down, essentially implementing the bubble concept that was used for the Beijing Olympics.
But even though China has shown a bit of flexibility, Beijing will still lean toward a fundamentally hardline approach. Xi said as much on March 17, when state media reported him as declaring that China will “stick with” its zero-COVID strategy.
The truth is that Xi has not yet found an acceptable alternative.
And why does he have no alternative? Because China’s vaccines do not work as well as Western ones do — as the World Health Organization has reported and as even Chinese officials have admitted. China’s vaccines are not made with the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna shots that have largely prevented death and severe illness throughout the Omicron wave in the United States and other countries. So if China opens up, the health care system could be flooded with symptomatic patients. And China’s health care system is so unprepared for epidemic-type spread that any major shift from zero COVID would risk a public health crisis, with hospitalization and fatality numbers in some locations perhaps resembling those of pre-vaccine New York City or Italy or the recent situation in Hong Kong. The result, as many have pointed out, would be to undermine public confidence in the ruling Communist Party, whose official rhetoric has recently leaned heavily on the country’s success in avoiding the chaos COVID-19 has wrought just about everywhere else.
For a personalized regime like that of Xi, experiencing such chaos after holding it off for so long would be hard to swallow. This is a key downside of centralized power: When you appear to control everything, anything that goes wrong is inevitably your fault. Finding a believable scapegoat is difficult when you claim to exercise supreme authority.
And pivoting to what appears like a reasonable solution — procuring and rolling out Western-made vaccines — might be too stark an about-face for a leader who has taken such a nationalistic and anti-Western line and whose state media has declared these vaccines worse than those made in China.
Xi is not at risk of losing power. Beijing’s leadership has banked credibility from decades of economic success and maintains considerable control over society and public discourse. But Xi has backed himself into a corner. He is facing an unrelenting strain of COVID-19, economic headwinds, and now, of course, Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has the West threatening to impose severe sanctions on China at an inopportune moment. His regime may not be flexible enough to find a good way out.
China’s struggle to change direction at this critical moment is a painful reminder of autocracy’s flaws. Indeed, it is hard for the Chinese system to reverse policies once they are well-established precisely because decisions are made in a top-down and unified manner, without feedback loops and the local policy freedoms that can facilitate more incremental change.
Those who believe autocracy produces better governance — as more than a few observers argued when China and other one-party states initially controlled COVID-19 — would do well to remember that China is struggling to develop a long-term plan for handling the pandemic not despite being an autocracy but because of it.
Charles Dunst is an associate at The Asia Group and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.