Simmering anger at Beijing’s “zero covid” restrictions exploded over the past few days with protests in cities across the country. Chinese citizens have now sacrificed nearly three years of comfort, convenience and freedom to prioritize a single number — zero cases — and, ostensibly, public health. But a deadly fire in Urumqi exposed widespread frustrations with the repeat lockdowns, mandatory testing and ubiquitous surveillance.
With real backlash in the streets, the Chinese government and especially Xi Jinping, with whom zero covid policies are strongly linked, face difficult choices in how to navigate forward. Chinese protests tend to focus on local issues, but strikingly many of these demonstrators have explicitly called for the leader or even the whole of the political system to step down.
The catastrophic success of China’s zero covid approach
After the initial bumbling effort in early 2020 to get a handle on the pandemic, China’s central government followed a tried-and-true playbook. They fixed a simple numeric target for officials to achieve by any means necessary. To hit this goal of zero covid cases, officials implemented draconian policies — including strict border controls, lockdowns, testing and wide-scale quarantines. These measures appeared to pay off and stop the spread of the virus. The Chinese government bragged about their covid controls, claiming that dictatorships did better than democracies to protect their citizens’ lives.
But the incredibly infectious omicron variants raised the costs of China’s zero covid policies. Shanghai and dozens of other cities endured lengthy lockdowns this year, with people stuck in their apartments scrambling to secure food.
Zero covid policies also contributed to China’s slumping economy. People were scared to travel and unable to go out to restaurants and shops. Developers were unable to get loans and businesses unwilling to make investments. Analysts project that China is highly unlikely to meet its annual GDP growth target of 5.5 percent.
Citizens saw dashed expectations, again and again
Many people inside China, as well as outside observers, came to see October’s 20th Party Congress as a likely turning point for the country’s covid policies. Some suggested that once Xi’s third term was settled, he would reduce the intensity of restrictions — or that the new makeup of leading party bodies would include officials less willing to continue Xi’s zero covid line. Either way, many expected loosening in the wake of the Party Congress. Those hopes were dashed by the revelation that Xi’s closest compatriots dominated the party leadership. Chinese stocks slumped, and stories about the rich fleeing China abounded.
Then the government pivoted, suggesting more economic supports for the flagging real estate sector — and, crucially, the easing of some covid restrictions. But when China’s covid cases spiked in the wake of relaxed measures, local officials and mayors returned to the perceived political safety of strict lockdowns in pursuit of zero cases, including literally sealing people in their homes.
A fire ignites
But China’s population has grown increasingly frustrated with the extreme measures put into place to achieve the zero covid target. The Shanghai lockdown produced iconic images, many of officials wearing extensive medical garb given the name “big whites,” which became memes. Workers in industrial facilities chafed under “closed loop” operations that meant they weren’t able to leave their factories. In a major Foxconn facility in Zhengzhou that assembles iPhones, hundreds of workers fearing a covid lockdown fled into the countryside this month.
Similarly, the restrictions produced tragedies as people of all ages succumbed to treatable illnesses when covid protocols cut off access to medical care. Yet it was a fire in Urumqi that ignited the current wave of protests.
At least 10 people, including a 3-year-old, died in an apartment fire in Xinjiang’s capital. Beyond the suffering from the vast detention and forced labor camp infrastructure targeting the Uyghur minority group, Urumqi has had long periods of strict covid lockdown. Many attributed the loss of life in the Nov. 24 fire to people literally being locked in their homes, while barriers blocked fire equipment from getting close enough to quench the flames. These deaths resonated strongly, given the depth of feeling involved in the shared experience of being locked in one’s home — or the omnipresent fear of a sudden lockdown, without warning. That a building lockdown killed people rather than saving lives flipped the script and exposed widespread fury at the total control over people’s lives that the government had been exercising.
Covid remains a threat
China announced a new push this week to boost vaccination rates, especially among the elderly population, who are most at risk of dying from covid-19. Chinese-developed vaccines may be less effective than the mRNA technology that dominates U.S. and European-developed vaccines. But it’s also unclear why Chinese officials didn’t mount a strong booster campaign for the elderly, in particular, after cases spiked earlier this year in Shanghai.
For China, estimated coronavirus cases are chilling, based on the Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korean experiences of opening up after tight restrictions. Some estimates project well over 1 million covid deaths within a few months if China completely removed restrictions — and China’s health system is much more threadbare than those of their East Asian neighbors. Beyond the loss of life, the political challenge of such a wave of devastation would be serious.
Can Xi avoid the fallout?
The research for my new book, “Seeking Truth and Hiding Facts,” suggests Xi’s “neopolitical turn” will leave him particularly vulnerable to the failures of China’s zero covid drive. Xi has centralized and personalized politics in China — especially regarding covid policies — in part to deal with deep problems like corruption, pollution and debt that had festered under his predecessors. But this approach has also removed “insulation” from China’s political system. In Shanghai, for instance, angry crowds chanted, “Xi, step down!”
When China’s protesters complain about harsh covid policies, these complaints don’t focus on the implementation efforts of local officials — those whom the party might blame and toss aside as collateral damage. Instead, the complaints and pleas of the Chinese population increasingly point directly at Xi, as the leader at the head of the system.
Uncertainty dominates in moments like these — but Xi faces a huge challenge. This suggests China’s leadership will continue to “refine” covid restrictions as the hard place of lockdown becomes ever less tenable and the rock of exponential infections remains.
Jeremy Wallace (@jerometenk) is an associate professor of government at Cornell University, where his research focuses on Chinese politics, authoritarianism and ideology. He is the author of “Seeking Truth and Hiding Facts: Ideology, Information, and Authoritarianism in China” (Oxford University Press, 2022) and “Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China” (Oxford University Press, 2014).