The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China won’t be able to maintain its ‘zero covid’ policy forever

People hold white sheets of paper in protest of covid-19 restrictions, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, China, on Nov. 27. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The coronavirus pandemic, which exploded around the world in early 2020, was a boon to authoritarian governments looking to expand their power — and none more so than the Chinese Communist Party. But now, the party’s power grab in reaction to that virus has fostered the most serious threat to its rule in more than 30 years.

From the onset of the virus, first discovered in the central city of Wuhan, China’s rulers censored anyone who dared question the government’s response. They largely locked down the country to foreign visitors and deepened their already pervasive surveillance of citizens through an intrusive health-monitoring app — all in the name of protecting public health.

In Hong Kong, which is increasingly under Beijing’s thumb, local officials quickly followed suit. People’s movements were monitored and controlled through a mandatory phone-tracking app, and large-scale events were banned. Covid rules effectively crushed the widespread popular protests that racked the city through the last half of 2019.

So it’s not surprising that nearly three years later, the Chinese people have come out in force, in nearly a dozen major cities, to protest the continuation of the draconian covid rules — and the government’s expanded control over their lives. Along with demanding an end to “zero covid” restrictions, people are chanting “Xi Jinping, step down!”

The proximate cause of the protests was a fire in a residential block in the western Xinjiang province, where at least 10 people died, reportedly because covid lockdown restrictions prevented firetrucks from reaching the blaze. But the larger issue is the pent-up frustration caused by some of the harshest anti-virus lockdowns and restrictions in the world. The Chinese economy is being battered. Unemployment, especially among young people, is growing.

Moreover, Chinese now see that the rest of the world has moved on to living with a virus that has become endemic. The World Cup tournament, which is being broadcast live in China, has shown thousands of fans packed into stadiums without masks, angering citizens and forcing censors to block out crowd scenes. President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have been seen traveling the world — to the Group of 20 meeting in Bali and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders summit in Bangkok — mixing and mingling with other world leaders without masks or social distancing.

Ironically, Hong Kong’s handpicked chief executive, John Lee, who attended the APEC summit to announce that Hong Kong was once again open for business, returned home and tested positive for covid. He said he exhibited only mild symptoms, took a few days off and returned to work absolutely fine — undercutting the official government argument that covid is a terrifying disease that must be contained and that justifies the draconian restrictions on people’s movements.

Here in Hong Kong, the restrictions have always been less about containing a virus than about controlling the population. The rules limited how many people could walk together on a public street, even while thousands packed together in shopping malls or on public transport. Masks are mandatory even outdoors on an open beach, but earlier this month, high-flying bankers were allowed to fly in and mingle maskless for a financial summit of bank CEOs. At the most ridiculous stage of the rules, a family of four — two parents and two children — were forced to sit at two separate tables in a restaurant, while government officials rubbed shoulders and sang karaoke at a birthday party for a mainland bigwig.

Science left the room a long time ago. Ideology and a penchant for control now prevail.

But the anti-lockdown protests represent the most serious challenge to the Communist Party’s rule since the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989.

China over the years has seen many protests, sometimes hundreds each year — farmers, factory workers, pensioners, migrants laborers, even journalists. I covered many such uprisings during my time as a correspondent in China for The Post. But almost all were localized and quickly defused by local authorities, through a combination of concession and repression.

What is unusual this time is so many protests occurring simultaneously across the country, bringing together disparate groups — workers, students, migrants — around a singular grievance.

This was not how Xi was likely expecting to begin his third five-year term as China’s most powerful leader in decades. Xi is singularly and personally identified with the zero covid policy, which has been held up as an example of the superiority of China’s authoritarian system over the democratic West. Abandoning the restrictions would mean conceding that the narrative was wrong, something autocrats are loath to do.

What’s most likely now is the familiar pattern of concession and repression. Local governments have already begun inching away from the most onerous of the zero covid policies, saying, for example, that residents should no longer be physically barricaded inside their apartments because of a suspected covid case. Meanwhile, the security forces have been out in force since the weekend, trying to tamp down any ongoing demonstrations.

China has reason to stick to its covid containment policy for now. Its homegrown vaccines are not as effective as those used in the West. Its health-care system would crack under a huge influx of cases. Deaths from a huge covid wave would likely number in the millions.

But long term, the zero covid policy is untenable. The only question is when China officially walks it back. And when it does, how does the Communist Party propaganda apparatus try to rhetorically spin retreat into a victory?