The Debate

The CCP’s Zero COVID Campaign Left a Lasting Mark on Chinese Politics

Recent Features

The Debate | Opinion

The CCP’s Zero COVID Campaign Left a Lasting Mark on Chinese Politics

Zero COVID artificially and unnecessarily created the perfect condition for a political thunderstorm that could shake the ruling legitimacy and control mechanism of the party-state.

The CCP’s Zero COVID Campaign Left a Lasting Mark on Chinese Politics

Protesters hold up blank pieces of paper and chant slogans as they march to protest strict anti-virus measures in Beijing, Nov. 27, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

While China’s zero COVID campaign has become part of the unmentioned past for many people both inside and outside China, we shouldn’t downplay its significance. The zero COVID effort marked the first political campaign that involved the participation of practically every Chinese citizen since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Therefore, understanding the implications of the zero COVID campaign is of critical significance in unearthing the governance style and social control mechanism in contemporary China. While the worst political ramifications for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seem to have concluded with the disappearance of the “A4 Revolution” and the overnight reversal of zero COVID policies, the lasting impact of the zero COVID campaign is here to stay.

Like any mass political campaign in the history of the CCP, mass participation and propaganda were two indispensable ingredients to the execution of the zero COVID campaign. However, unlike any of the political campaigns under Mao Zedong, where social chaos was encouraged, current leader Xi Jinping prioritizes carefully designed and closely controlled mass participation. With a nationwide expansion of surveillance technology, such as the use of health codes, travel codes, and surveillance drones, the party-state expanded to an unprecedented extent and practically realized the concept of “grid-style social management,” which was proposed in 2004 and nationally launched in 2015, through the community organization and local law enforcement apparatus. The party-state delegated its administrative power through provincial, municipal, county, and village governments down to each individual community organization, which is, in turn, responsible for information collection and activity monitoring.

As Professor Taisu Zhang argued, “Compared to its pre-Covid self, the current Chinese Party-state apparatus can now track and govern individual activity with unprecedented precision and regularity.” Such a tightened social control mechanism, coupled with advanced surveillance technology, was described by former Central Party School Professor Cai Xia as “exquisite totalitarianism.” Therefore, there is little doubt that mass participation in the zero COVID campaign was thoroughly controlled by the party-state.

However, the obsession with social stability during a communist-style political campaign tends to backfire and jeopardize the success of the campaign itself. For any communist mass movement, in addition to the power of propaganda, the secret recipe of success is heated enthusiasm among the majority of the common people, who feel a sense of self-worth through answering the CCP’s patriotic calls. When the critical administrative power that determines individual mobility was delegated to each community organization, the primary force of active participants in the zero COVID campaign became leading members within each community organization. The vast majority of the common people were merely passive recipients of the political campaign. The ordinary citizens of China could personally feel the presence of the party-state through mandatory COVID-19 testing, draconian lockdowns, travel tracing, and forced quarantine without any say in any of these regular activities.

Therefore, the majority of the public had neither heated enthusiasm in the zero COVID campaign, nor any active patriotic duties to fulfill. As internal and external factors started to shift, such as economic stagnation, man-made tragedies due to irrational quarantine, forced property requisition for quarantine purposes, and the gradual resumption of normalcy in the outside world, the magical power of propaganda would inevitably fail. The stark contrast between the harsh living conditions and the noble ideal of “People First; Life First” subverted the party-state’s initial design.

Had the paralleled universe created between China and the outside world been the only political ramification of the zero COVID campaign, the problem would have been solved with the overnight reversal of the campaign. However, when this stark contrast was accompanied by economic hardship and the struggle for basic survival under lockdown and quarantine, it broke the fundamental political bargain made between the party-state and the Chinese people since the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, hence compromising the fundamental political legitimacy of the CCP.

The success of the party-state heavily relies on a trade-off between the political rights and the economic interests of the Chinese people. After China’s reform and opening up, top leader Deng Xiaoping sent a clear message to the Chinese public: As long as they relinquish their political rights, their economic interests would be protected by the party. Indeed, thanks to rising incomes over the past decades, the younger generation in China’s urban areas had never before experienced first-hand the practice of food rationing. However, under draconian lockdowns and criminal punishment for violating COVID-related policies, the party-state created the modern version of famine in multiple major cities, including Xi’an and Shanghai, by restricting food supply and delivery. Uncertainty over the duration of the lockdown and difficulties in buying groceries and life necessities directly threatened the basic survival of the Chinese public.

In addition, the zero COVID campaign also affected people’s access to medical care. Pregnant women were denied admission to hospitals because of various COVID-19 testing requirements, for example. Even in life-threatening situations, there were frequent reports of people being unable to obtain professional medical help due to COVID-19 restrictions, resulting in tragic loss of life.

Concerns for basic survival under lockdown were further intensified by the negative economic consequences that quickly followed. Citywide lockdowns caused frequent shutdowns of small businesses in urban areas and supply chain disruptions for large factories. Workers often had to work in a “closed loop” where they were not allowed to leave their workplace for weeks if not months. Due to China’s dual-track household registration system, rural residents working in cities are practically second-class urban citizens without corresponding housing rights, medical insurance, social security, education, and other benefits. When large-scale lockdowns were imposed, migrant workers often had to choose between returning to their hometown, hence losing their livelihood, and staying in cities without stable income to support their families and themselves. From the perspective of social stability, nothing is scarier than a destabilized rural population pushed to the line of basic survival.

The eruption of the nationwide protest, popularly known as the “A4 Revolution,” sparked by the tragic fire incident at a high-rise apartment building in Xinjiang, was a direct reflection of the tipping point of the Chinese public. The profound sense of insecurity under zero COVID was exhibited by hundreds of thousands of young people who confronted the campaign in mass gatherings not seen in decades. Under China’s formidable internal security apparatus, coupled with the near absence of civil society, it’s nearly impossible for nationwide protests to occur or last. That zero COVID managed to force people onto the streets despite the personal danger that entails highlights that the protesters felt the basic right to life had been credibly threatened.

Therefore, despite the relatively quick disappearance of the civil unrest in China, the mere occurrence of the nationwide protest with direct reference to the CCP is evidence of the disruptive, if not destructive, impact of the zero COVID campaign on the political legitimacy of the party-state.

Additionally, while one may argue that the “A4 Revolution” was not the only reason for the ending of zero COVID, it undeniably played a critical role in the Party-state’s decision to reverse the campaign overnight. No matter how the party-state may sugarcoat its decision to end zero COVID, the decision opened up a terrible precedent for the CCP as a political concession to the Chinese public as a result of public dissent. While issue-specific civil unrest is nothing uncommon in China, nationwide protest with direct reference to the political governance of the party-state is extremely rare. And the swift reversal of zero COVID further intensified all the existing contrasts that were already prohibitively stark. Hence, despite the surge in COVID-19 cases immediately after the end of the policy, the Chinese people secured a limited victory in pressing the party-state to change course.

Therefore, the long-term political ramification of the zero COVID campaign cannot be ignored. While most Chinese people have decided to move on from zero COVID, the campaign has left a mark on the political bargain between the party-state and the Chinese public. As a mass political movement, the zero COVID campaign artificially and unnecessarily created the perfect condition for a political thunderstorm that could shake the ruling legitimacy and control mechanism of the party-state. While China’s zero COVID campaign may already feel like a bygone era, the enduring impact is yet to surface.