By Yew Lun Tian and Tony Munroe
BEIJING (Reuters) – For many leaders, mounting public anger and a rapidly worsening economic outlook would be cause for worry and a policy rethink.
But Chinese President Xi Jinping, who doubtless would prefer smoother sailing in the run-up to a third leadership term, is doubling down on a signature “dynamic zero” COVID-19 policy that has been increasingly tested by the more infectious Omicron variant.
Xi’s high-profile reiteration of the policy, made last week during a visit to the southern island of Hainan that capped days of state-media support for it, reflects a political imperative not to reverse course and look weak in a year in which he needs to appear strong, analysts said.
It also points to the absence of attractive alternatives, beyond tweaks and refinements, given the lack of herd immunity and a shaky healthcare system in China, which until recently kept COVID at bay after fumbling the outbreak when it first emerged in late 2019 in Wuhan city.
China has also made much of the dangers of COVID and how it has ravaged populations elsewhere, and changing course would require an awkward reversal of messaging to a public conditioned to view the coronavirus with horror.
“Persevering in China’s own answers to shocks, rather than import answers found by the West, seems to be his thinking,” said Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis.
“This includes ‘dynamic zero COVID’ policy versus the Western approach of pursuing herd immunity,” she said.
Xi’s loyalty to the policy, despite widespread public anger with it, also reflects the security of his position in the absence of internal opposition as he strides towards a precedent-breaking third term at this autumn’s once-in-five-years Communist Party conclave.
“Looking at the number of people from across different backgrounds who spoke up and the intensity of their expression, this has been the most massive public display of anger since Xi came to power in 2012,” said Yang Chaohui, a political science lecturer at the prestigious Peking University.
“But the public discontent is fragmented and doesn’t amount to a momentum that can impact Xi,” he said.
CURE WORSE THAN DISEASE?
China’s COVID policy, under which every infected person, symptomatic or not, has to go into quarantine, long had public support but now faces pushback from fed-up residents and businesses in Shanghai and elsewhere who argue that the costs are starting to outweigh the benefits, especially as most cases are without symptoms.
While Shanghai had until this week not reported any deaths from COVID-19 during its recent outbreak, numerous social media users have posted stories of people who perished from other causes during the city’s lockdown. Consumption, supply chains and employment have been battered.
Many people, including the well-off who are accustomed to international travel but have been grounded by two years of nearly closed borders, have grown increasingly exasperated with zero-COVID as other countries try to live with the virus.
But while Shanghai residents have vented frustration online and scuffled with officials, curbs on movement, state control of media, censorship and the speed with which China quashes protests means such outcry is unable to gain traction.
“The CCP leadership has decided for a long time to keep Xi as number one,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan at Hong Kong Baptist University, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
“Xi and his faction will find any kind of reasons or excuses to protect him and put the blame of any weakness or mistake on lower-level officials,” he said.
Unlike in democracies, where public discontent manifests itself in opinion polls and votes, it poses a danger to leaders in authoritarian regimes only when leveraged by an opponent, said Chen Daoyin, a former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law and now a commentator based in Chile.
“Since Xi has already removed all viable opponents, the public anger now can’t do much to him,” he said.
The original COVID outbreak in Wuhan, which sparked fear and online protest, ended up doing little political damage to Xi, with the government ultimately spinning its response as a win.
Many lower-level officials fared less well, which partly explains the speed with which cities now impose COVID restrictions.
Before Shanghai’s outbreak, its party chief, Li Qiang, was widely expected to be promoted to the highest power echelon, the Politburo Standing Committee, where he would be a key ally for Xi in his third term.
“If Li gets punished for the Shanghai outbreak, it could mess up Xi’s planned lineup for the party’s next generation leadership,” said Chen.
While city-level officials elsewhere have been fired or censured after outbreaks, only very low-level officials in Shanghai have been punished.
“If the Shanghai situation clears up within a month, both Xi and Li could still get what they want,” Chen said.
(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Tony Munroe; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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