Anti-lockdown protests tip China’s Xi into zero-COVID climbdown

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Just weeks ago, Chinese leaders vowed to stick to zero-COVID come what may — but nationwide anti-lockdown protests and an economic slowdown have forced President Xi Jinping into a drastic reversal of his signature policy.اضافة اعلان

Xi has promoted zero-COVID as a triumph, proclaiming China has put “the people and their lives first” when it comes to dealing with the pandemic, and brooking no criticism of the hardline measures.

But on Wednesday the country’s top health body announced a wide-ranging loosening of measures to “keep abreast of the changing times”.

Those changing times include the most widespread protests China has seen in decades, which expanded into calls for broader political freedom after frustration at health restrictions boiled over into the streets last week.

“The party is now seeking to take ownership of this change in public opinion, and thereby bolster its legitimacy in the eyes of the masses,” Dan Macklin, a Shanghai-based political risk analyst, told AFP.

“Essentially, it wants to be seen to be pushing the new direction, rather than be pulled along by a wave of discontent.”

Following the rallies, even as China has reported record numbers of COVID-19 cases, the central messaging around the virus has changed dramatically.

Where they once extolled the dangers of COVID-19 and played up scenes of pandemic chaos abroad, authorities now emphasize the relative weakness of the Omicron variant.

“Faced with the new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control, China has made adjustments to epidemic control policies, demonstrated a mentality of ‘seeking truth from facts’ and keeping abreast of the changing times,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning explained Wednesday.

‘Challenge to authority’
Xi has presented himself as deeply involved in the development of the zero-COVID policy.

The risks of that approach were exemplified at the protests in Shanghai, when some demonstrators chanted “Down with Xi Jinping!”

The demonstrations are “likely to have alarmed leaders and led them to conclude that dissatisfaction was rising dangerously”, Jane Duckett, director of the Scottish Centre for China Research at the University of Glasgow, told AFP.

The subsequent lifting of measures was a response “to a changing situation that started to look like it could become a challenge to the authority of Xi and the (Communist Party), which is why they are responding quickly and powerfully”, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.

Analysts emphasized that the damage wrought upon the Chinese economy by the zero-COVID strategy was also crucial to understanding the government’s change of heart.

Economic growth and opportunity are the cornerstone of Xi’s “Chinese Dream”, his popular vision of a powerful and prosperous country from which he derives both his own and the Communist Party’s legitimacy.

But figures on Wednesday showing China’s November imports and exports plunging to levels not seen since early 2020 are just the latest in a series of gloomy financial datasets.

“The economic effects of the previous policies had become increasingly apparent,” Bert Hofman from the National University of Singapore told AFP.
Those changing times include the most widespread protests China has seen in decades, which expanded into calls for broader political freedom after frustration at health restrictions boiled over into the streets last week.
Allen Wu, a professor at Nanjing University’s medical school who has advised the World Health Organization, said he thought long-term economic alarm rather than the shock of the protests was behind the turnaround.

“Traditionally, the Chinese government is always very cautious. ... it tends to be slow in making its decisions or changing its policy,” he said.

Wu noted that the rise in cases over the past four months had not resulted in a similar hike in severe illness.

“I think it has given not only the government, but also ordinary people the confidence that we will be able to deal with the virus,” he said.

But he acknowledged “people’s rising frustration” at the COVID measures was definitely a factor in restrictions being lifted.

Risks for the party?
The reversal of such a signature policy comes with its own dangers.

“I think there is certainly a risk for the party that people view this as a capitulation to public pressure, which could potentially embolden people to protest more in future,” said risk analyst Macklin.

“However, I think the government is genuinely trying to respond to a change in public opinion, and many people will appreciate that.”

Tsang said much would depend on whether the Chinese health system was overwhelmed by the potential increase in virus cases.

“If that happens it will have a major negative impact on the reputation of Xi and the Party,” he said.

Leong Hoe Nam, a Singapore-based infectious disease expert, called the timing “politically expedient” and pointed out concerns over loosening regulations during the winter months.

“I wouldn’t open up the country now. Clearly, this is choosing the worst time to fight the battle of COVID,” he said.

Xi and the CCP “are likely to have calculated that they can manage the shift, control the narrative and probably also control numbers of reported deaths”, said Duckett.

“But it is still a risky moment for the regime.”

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