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The Logic and Limitation of China’s Zero-COVID Policy

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The Logic and Limitation of China’s Zero-COVID Policy

China’s strategy of mass mobilization can be astonishingly effective – but only for a short period of time.

The Logic and Limitation of China’s Zero-COVID Policy

Residents get tested for the coronavirus in a district in Guangzhou in southern China’s Guangdong province on Sunday, May 30, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

After the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China implemented a successful national lockdown to contain the spread of the virus in China. China’s government attributed the effective virus containment, represented by the long stretches of zero new COVID-19 cases, to the “phenomenal leadership of the Communist Party” and its “institutional superiority” over Western liberal democratic systems.

The core logic of China’s COVID-19 containment policy is “zero-tolerance”: The Chinese government has shut down its borders to minimize foreign-imported COVID-19 cases and locks down any locality with COVID-19 cases to prevent mass spread. This zero-tolerance policy requires massive efforts from the entire society. For example, thousands of medical workers worked 24-hour shifts to complete COVID-19 tests for every one of the 11-million residents in Wuhan within 72 hours. Numerous medical workers, social workers, and party cadres implement lockdowns through street patrols, regular home visits, and distributing food and other daily necessities to the people. Regular people also endured great sacrifices by supporting the zero-tolerance policy despite losing personal freedom and income.

The key to implement this zero-tolerance policy is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s mass mobilization capability. Mass mobilization is embedded in CCP’s Leninist identity and its own history. Leninism refers to a system that extends hierarchically from top to bottom. The CCP, with over 95 million party members and 4.8 million party units, is the only organization in China that penetrates the grassroots level of the society. Furthermore, many more people work for state-owned enterprises, schools, hospitals, and other CCP-controlled public institutions and social organizations, which also become a source of mobilization.

The CCP has viewed mobilization as a “secret weapon” throughout its history. Mao Zedong developed the Mass Line during the Yan’an Era, and it became a key to the CCP’s victory in 1949. After 1949, the CCP continued to rely heavily on mass mobilization to achieve its goal, whether the goal was social transformation between 1949 and 1956, steel and food production between 1958 and 1961, or combating natural disasters in 1998 and 2008.

After China contained the national COVID-19 outbreak in spring 2020, there were several smaller outbreaks. The Chinese government continued the zero-tolerance policy, which is still in place today. However, it has met with increased resistance from the people who supported the mobilization during the initial national outbreak.

During the 2021 summer outbreak, hundreds of residents in a Yangzhou neighborhood protested the three-week-long neighborhood lockdown. The failure of the government-run supply delivery system sparked the unrest. Many residents complained that they could not receive food, hygiene products, and other daily necessities from the government. When foods were finally available, the residents found that the vegetables were not only above market price but also rotten. Anger over insufficient delivery and the frustration toward the lockdown fueled discontent among people. Some expressed their content through humor, stating that “there are only two cities under lockdown in the world right now: Kabul and Yangzhou.” As people failed to find ways to voice their discontent using peaceful means, they decided to organize a protest. During the unrest, residents shouted “end the lockdown” at the neighborhood entrance; several radicals even tried to break the entrance checkpoint using force.

Why did the zero-tolerance policy start to backfire? What makes a mobilization effort fail?

The key to a successful mobilization effort is to shape a common goal for all mobilization participants. It has been a critical point of emphasis for the CCP from the Mao era to today. The Maoist mobilization centers around using ideological indoctrination to encourage mass participation. From the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, the party propaganda machine convinced people that the mobilization served their interests. The Xi regime appealed to a similar narrative, focused on the message that combating the pandemic serves the interest of everyone. China considered COVID-19 a national emergency and a great enemy.

The government successfully rallied the people with a siege mentality. People understood the seriousness of a pandemic, especially those who have a vivid memory of the 2003 SARS outbreak. Thus, they supported the government policy to contain the pandemic at all costs and believed that the “zero-tolerance” policy serves the interests of the people. Furthermore, the contrast between skyrocketing death tolls in Europe and the United States and the declining case numbers in China further convinced people that a strictly enforced lockdown was the only way to contain the pandemic. Therefore, the people were willing to give up their freedom and income for the greater cause. Many even believed that they contributed to the “people’s war against the pandemic” by staying home. This sense of participation and pride helped the people to conform to the zero-tolerance policy.

However, as the pandemic lingered, the government has found forging a common goal between the officials and the people and winning popular support for the zero-tolerance policy increasingly difficult. People started to place other interests, such as living a normal life, ahead of the common goal and feel that the lockdown hinders their pursuit of other interests.

After the initial national outbreak, the outbreaks in China have been localized and small. Only a few cities saw rising cases, and even within these cities, the number of cases is extremely low. Because people see these smaller outbreaks as a lesser threat, they started to question the necessity for extreme measures such as draconian lockdowns and mass testing at the cost of freedom and income.

Furthermore, people started to question the effectiveness of the zero-tolerance policy after a COVID-19 outbreak started at a COVID-19 mass testing site in Yangzhou. As a Yangzhou resident asked, aren’t mass testing events, a signature component of the zero-tolerance policy, a COVID-19 incubator? As a result, Dr. Zhang Wenhong, China’s most vocal medical expert during the pandemic, openly advocated “coexistence with the virus” and received both support and criticism from Chinese netizens. The public debate on the zero-tolerance policy makes forging unequivocal support of the policy, a key to sustaining mass mobilization, extremely difficult.

Furthermore, suspicions of corruption and rent-seeking further deteriorate the effort of forging a common goal. In the Yangzhou example, there were fresh, cheap vegetables in the nearby market, but people were forced to buy expensive and rotten vegetables from the official deliveries. While complaining about the expensive, rotten foods, some people questioned whether local officials were using the deliveries to line their own pockets. Furthermore, the government lifted the lockdown at Zijin Wenchang neighborhood, a neighborhood for government officials, earlier than other neighborhoods. A widespread rumor among Yangzhou residents held that the government lifted the lockdown to allow the children of officials to leave for study abroad on time. Regardless of the validity these rumors, the narrative of officials enriching themselves and abusing power to advantage their family members at the expense of Yangzhou residents made building a common goal impossible.

As Joseph Fewsmith has said, the United States does not have China’s mobilization capacity in crisis management. The strictly enforced zero-tolerance policy demonstrates the institutional strength of the CCP as a Leninist party. However, the recent developments illustrate that such a mobilization is not sustainable indefinitely. A successful mobilization requires the careful construction of a common goal among all participants. Everyone in society must endure sacrifices and work toward that same goal. However, a protracted mobilization faces the danger of losing this goal as different actors start to place their own interests ahead of the common objective. The perception of government rent-seeking during the crisis further deteriorated popular support. As a result, the mass mobilization started to crumble, and its effectiveness diminished.

The CCP might view mass mobilization as its secret weapon. However, mobilization is never a panacea.