Chinese President Xi Jinping was perhaps till recently the strongest and most unquestioned leader in any major country. Even Russian premier Vladimir Putin has to deal with some anti-war sentiment amongst his people. Xi on the other hand had just started his third term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, becoming the second leader after Mao Zedong to do so. Xi has been President since 2013. In March 2018, the CCP controlled National People’s Congress ensured the passage of a constitutional amendment removing the two-term limit for the post of President. Hence, President Xi now has no constitutional proscription on being in power for as long as he likes.
Xi, a trained chemical engineer, is the first CCP general secretary born after China was refashioned as the People’s Republic of China. Of the many factors that have distinguished Xi’s reign is his anti-corruption campaign that has led to the purge of many senior leaders of the party, an aggressive foreign policy to expand China’s influence on the world, increased censorship and clamping down on activists in China as well as Hongkong, and more recently a zero-Covid approach.
Perhaps Xi’s sole and most prominent defeat on any policy is the recent reversal of his zero-Covid approach. Announced two days ago, China is now reversing many of its Covid-related quarantine and testing requirements. This includes the power of lower-level officials to order the shutting down of entire blocks within cities. These reversals include Covid patients with mild or no symptoms and their contacts being allowed to isolate at home instead of being sent away to government quarantine establishments. Domestic travellers will no longer need a negative test report to visit another province. For now, officials can no longer arbitrarily shut down neighborhoods and businesses, but can continue to do so for buildings and apartment complexes where covid infections have been reported.
Apart from the obvious human misery that such an oppressive policy causes, China’s zero-Covid policy has also resulted in an economic downturn and massive disruptions to its supply-chain systems. The Covid-related disruptions at the world’s biggest iPhone assembly plant reportedly led Apple Inc to reconsider China as its biggest manufacturing site.
What has caused Xi to reverse his zero-Covid policy? The last week of November saw the most extraordinary protests erupting in major Chinese cities including Shanghai and Beijing. The protests were mass demonstrations against President Xi Jingping’s zero-covid policy and more. Slogans were also being raised asking for more general reforms in a country which is tightly controlled, and dissent not tolerated. As a Beijing-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal writes thousands of protestors were on the streets shouting slogans in the city late at night continuing into the early hours of the morning, many days in a row. Such demonstrations drew comparisons with the 1989 Tiananmen protests. While protests are common in China, the scale of the present ones sets them apart. This is the first major challenge to President Xi’s unfettered powers and unquestioned policies.
The immediate trigger for these protests were the deaths of many people in the city of Urumqi, due to a fire that raged in their apartment complex. The inhabitants of the complex had been locked into their building under the zero-Covid policy that allowed officials to seal away any building which reports a Covid case.
Chinese people are likely fatigued from the many long lockdowns and repetitive mandatory testing that they have endured over the past three years of the pandemic. While the rest of the world has since moved on from lockdowns to removing most restrictions, China has continued as if in the early period of the onset of Covid. Its borders are still closed to most foreigners and the infected till recently were being forced to move into quarantine camps, far away from their families. There has been a huge economic cost to these measures.
It’s unclear why the Chinese government hasn’t focused more on vaccination and measures targeting more vulnerable sections of the population like the elderly. This has been the route adopted by most other nations. India, for instance, after two doses and then a recommended third booster dose has lifted virtually all measures. Part of the problem appears to be comparatively lesser efficaciousness of the Chinese vaccine Sinovac, which in small sample studies has been shown to be far less effective than the other vaccines. It is especially ineffective against the Omicron variant which is presently most widely spread. Science.org and Nature Medicine both point to the low vaccination rates in China, especially among the elderly, as being a cause of worry.
For now, with the gradual easing of the zero-Covid measures, the protests are likely to quieten down and people will be eager to resume some semblance of normal life patterns like going to restaurants or sending their children to school. We have over the three years of the pandemic learnt that a zero-Covid world or life is simply impossible. Science teaches us that effective vaccines, open conversations about how to protect each other from infections and better public health infrastructure is the only way to ease our living with Covid. Maybe that’s the real lesson for authoritarians all over – that quality scientific temperament is what helps us counter all natures of pandemics – whether caused by virus or ignorance. Taking people away to camps or quarantining them from each other is simply not a viable long-term solution.
The writer is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court