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Has Xi Averted a ‘Winter of Discontent’ in China?

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China Power | Politics | East Asia

Has Xi Averted a ‘Winter of Discontent’ in China?

Ending “zero COVID” is Beijing’s best option, but it comes at the worst possible time.

Has Xi Averted a ‘Winter of Discontent’ in China?
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

At the 20th Party Congress in October, Xi Jinping was supposed to have achieved an unprecedented level of power and control. Yet the weeks since have been some of the most uncertain that Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have faced in many years. Following a rare spate of nationwide protests, including some calls for political change, China’s leader has finally backed down on his signature “zero COVID” policy.

In taking this direction, Xi and his team have chosen what may be the best from a bad set of options. The alternatives of doubling down on zero COVID or pursuing a slower relaxation would likely have only prolonged policy confusion, social unrest, and economic stress. Nevertheless, Beijing’s decision to live with the virus has come at a difficult time – in the middle of the winter flu season and during a major governmental reshuffle.

Rather than seize the chance to relax controls last spring, when the public mood toward zero COVID was already souring, Xi chose to stick with the strategy, locking down Shanghai and other cities. This was supposedly because of concerns over China’s unique demographic conditions. But it likely also reflected a stubborn pride in China’s prior success at managing COVID-19, as well as a need to maintain political and social stability in the lead up to the Party Congress.

Counterfactuals aside, Beijing has now committed to relax its COVID-19 policy and must face up to the challenges that come with this move. The most immediate challenge will be to China’s public health system, which needs to shift from a focus on containment to treatment. But limited intensive care capacity, a lack of mRNA shots, and low vaccination rates among the elderly will not make this easy. Modeling predicts up to a billion COVID-19 infections and around a million deaths.

Politically, a major challenge in relaxing COVID-19 controls is the need to restore public trust in government policy. Up until late November, Chinese state media were still calling for people to “unswervingly adhere” to zero COVID. Local governments ratcheted up COVID-19 controls, even as the CCP’s Politburo signaled that it would to take a more moderate approach. All of this created a highly confusing policy space and damaged public confidence.

Exacerbating this situation has been the fact that China’s government is in the middle of a transition. The State Council still has several more months under a lame duck premier, Li Keqiang, before a fresh team under Li Qiang starts to settle in from mid-March next year. Many national and regional officials are either on their way out or just coming into office, and must immediately make difficult decisions on how to implement an evolving COVID-19 policy. 

On the one hand, China’s ongoing government reshuffle may only engender more of the policy confusion that we’ve seen of late. On the other hand, a time of transition could be a blessing in disguise, allowing for the experimentation that Beijing needs to navigate toward its post-pandemic future. 

The latest directives from China’s National Health Commission have started to suggest the latter trajectory. Its emphatic discontinuation of testing and health pass requirements make clear that Beijing is now fully committed to moving on from zero COVID. But the weeks ahead will likely see more zigzags in policy, as local and national officials deal with the practical consequences of surging infections.

Another political challenge for Xi and the party is that people see its U-turn on COVID as a sign of weakness. According to veteran China journalist James Kynge, a sharp rise in deaths would not only be a personal failure for China’s leader, but also raise broader questions about the drawbacks of a highly concentrated power structure. Xi’s recent focus on foreign affairs, including a state visit to Saudi Arabia, may partly be an attempt to distance himself from the messy COVID-19 situation at home.

But his personalization of power has left little room to deflect responsibility. This made Xi an easy target at some of the recent demonstrations in Shanghai, where shouts of “step down!” and “freedom!” could be heard. It seems plausible that this rare, direct challenge to executive authority has been an important factor behind Beijing’s accelerated retreat from zero COVID. 

Yet the fundamental driver of this policy pivot, which had already begun before November’s unrest, likely lies more in macro-economic pressures. Back in my May article for The Diplomat, I wrote that economic woes might lead to a “politically destabilizing scenario…that could ultimately force Xi to change direction on zero COVID.” It is telling that the new Politburo has now decided to prioritize economic stability over the coming year. 

Whatever the actual calculus behind Beijing’s rapid about-face in COVID-19 policy, it is inevitable that some people will see it as a capitulation to public pressure. Herein lies perhaps the greatest risk for Beijing in changing course at this time. In a scenario that was once unthinkable, many young Chinese people have had their first taste of joining a protest and may now be less hesitant to demonstrate in future. 

While further unrest seems unlikely in the near term, the coming weeks and months will bring new uncertainties. As COVID-19 starts to rip across the country, initial reports tell of chaotic scenes at hospitals from Guangzhou to Shijiazhuang. Xi Jinping might have averted a “winter of discontent,” but this will be a challenging winter for China, nonetheless.