The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Shanghai, covid is revealing cracks in the authoritarian system

A resident and a child look out through gaps in the barriers at a closed residential area during lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic in Shanghai on May 10. (Aly Song/Reuters)

China’s draconian approach to the coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai is moving beyond just a public health emergency. It is also becoming a challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Communist Party’s long-standing claim that its authoritarian system is the key to stability and prosperity.

After the 2019 outbreak in Wuhan, China adopted a policy of “zero-covid,” rigidly confining those who tested positive, often not at home but in separate quarantine facilities. Locking up the virus seemed to work for nearly two years. Residents chafed, but the approach kept infections low, at least by China’s untrustworthy data. Also helping: closed borders and protection provided by China’s vaccines. However, this year the highly transmissible omicron variant overpowered the strategy. The virus raced through Jilin City, Hong Kong and elsewhere, then hit Shanghai, China’s most prosperous and largest metropolis, and parts of Beijing, too. China’s population was vulnerable because of a relatively low vaccination rate among the elderly, the diminished effectiveness of the Chinese vaccine against omicron, and omicron’s greater transmissibility, which made it harder to bottle up.

Initially, the plan in Shanghai was to smother the virus fast with a two-part city lockdown. That failed and was abandoned. The authorities then shut tight the entire metropolis of 25 million, saying it would be for just a few days. Six weeks later, it remains in place — and thousands of daily new cases are still being reported. Although the totals are declining, it is still not zero. What’s more, the lockdown has created a severe disruption to global supply chains. Public patience is exhausted, and faith in the party’s ability to govern has eroded. There have been scenes of food rotting in piles while people nearby were hungry, a person stuffed into a body bag while still alive and nightly protests, with people banging pots from balconies.

China’s leaders have boasted for the past two years that their authoritarian methods were capable of ensuring stability and prosperity far better than the chaotic pandemic response in the United States. The party’s basic claim to legitimacy — since it does not rest on democratic choice — is that it knows best and is effective and competent. The Shanghai mess has fueled doubts. On the defensive, Mr. Xi chaired a meeting of the Politburo’s Standing Committee on May 5, after which he vowed to stick with the zero-covid approach and also demanded that no one question or dissent. New Shanghai lockdowns were imposed Monday.

Will the outbreak shake the Chinese leadership? A test will be whether Mr. Xi can promote Li Qiang, Shanghai’s Community Party chief and a close ally of his for decades, to the Standing Committee. Mr. Xi is expected to secure a third five-year term at a party congress in November, and to elevate his pal Mr. Li at the same time. That might be jeopardized if the Shanghai crisis is not resolved soon. Yet China does not have easy alternatives. It would be wise to import mRNA vaccines and vaccinate the elderly. But a study just released in the journal Nature, based on modeling, suggests that if the lockdowns are dropped and omicron runs wild, it could lead to 1.55 million deaths.

The virus is a wily foe — even for the heavy-handed Communist Party of China.