China is reeling from a massive resurgence of the coronavirus, affecting around 400 million people and their livelihoods. People are seething with anger and China’s growth rate, currency and stock markets are all down. Major cities are witnessing “hard lockdowns,” forced mass testing, border controls, travel restrictions, excessive quarantines, massive surveillance measures, food hoarding, and millions of migrant workers are suffering, just like Indian migrant workers did during the lockdown here.
Even as the pandemic situation has worsened in the commercial capital of 25 million people, Shanghai, the outbreak threatens the political capital of 20 million people, Beijing, with its quarantined Chaoyang district. After spreading the virtues of its ‘Zero Covid’ policy since the Wuhan lockdown, China’s leaders are struggling to explain to their people, and the world, why infections have risen and why they are being forced to bear the disproportionate overall costs. .
As the pandemic spread across the world, killing six million people and infecting half a billion people, China reported only 120,000 infections and some 4,000 deaths – suspicious figures due to the complete lack of transparency. Today, infections are believed to have jumped to 900,000, according to the same non-transparent official figures, affecting nearly 50 cities.
In June 2020, China released a white paper acknowledging President Xi Jinping’s “personal command” and “decisive” leadership in his “victory” over the spread of the virus. He also mentioned the “swift, efficient and comprehensive” response to contain the virus across the country, although the then mayor of Wuhan said more than five million people left the city before it was locked down on 23 January 2020.
Thereafter, China waged one of the holiest propaganda campaigns in the world, criticizing democracies as ineffective and downright callous in the face of the pandemic. At the same time, China was proud of its “Zero Covid” policies of total containment, intensive and intrusive app-based surveillance methods, mass testing, construction of temporary hospital beds, vaccination and oppressive quarantine procedures. Communist Party organs even ridiculed India for our death toll in April/May last year.
With the current resurgence of the epidemic across the country, China is insisting on following its draconian Covid policy as it sees the Communist Party’s political legitimacy increasingly in question. When the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square broke out, the Communist Party attached its legitimacy to ensuring economic growth rates which, of course, fell from around 14% in 1994 to 10% in 2010 and 2.2 % in 2020. Managing the virus has now become the new goal post for the Communist Party – at the cost of people’s livelihoods and aspirations.
Of course, the internal blame game is also evolving. Politburo member and deputy premier Sun Chunlan, who has led the Covid-related campaign since late 2019, said Shanghai lacked a “solid foundation” in anti-epidemic work. With the 20th Communist Party Congress scheduled for November, the fighting between political factions is intensifying. While Xi Jinping may evade demands for political responsibility over the spread of the pandemic across the country, Shanghai party leader Li Qiang and others may be “disciplined”.
The virus has spread despite 85% of the population having been vaccinated – suggesting its ineffectiveness, although the death rate from Covid may be low. Indeed, Brazil found that vaccines supplied by China were only 54% effective. It has also been criticized that the vaccination campaign in China has been uneven, with the elderly and those in remote areas excluded. China also refuses to allow vaccines from overseas, given its negative propaganda about them earlier.
The economy is one of the main victims of the “Zero Covid” policy. China’s growth rate fell to 2.2% in 2020 but regained 8% in 2021. The IMF forecast 4% for this year, well below China’s target of more than 5%. The Politburo announced a stimulus package on April 29.
The Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges plunged. The China Securities Index 300 has fallen from over 5,211 points in 2020 to just over 4,016 points today. Supply chain disruptions continue with production at Tesla, Foxconn and others due to ‘Zero Covid’ lockdowns. The real estate and technology sectors were unable to rebound, thanks to the demands of Xi’s “common prosperity” campaign. Investors pull out.
So while many countries have successfully experimented with mass vaccination, herd immunity and relative, non-lethal spread of the virus, China’s strict lockdowns are testing the patience of hundreds of millions of its citizens. .
Srikanth Kondapalli, the JNU professor, has been in Beijing behind the bamboo curtain for 30 years