In China, if something significant happens in Shanghai, it often reverberates across the country. Official media estimate that 70 percent of the city’s 18 million people have been infected in the first major wave of the coronavirus., in a country where the epidemic is almost at its root. This week, hundreds of elderly people were admitted with oxygen in at least two hospitals in the city, occupying all beds in emergency services. They even served on the sidewalk, the AFP agency testified.
It is the same situation in the capital city of Beijing in winter which has just started. Now without health restrictions, millions are flocking to restaurants and shopping malls, some with 80 percent of stores closed due to the pandemic crisis. The subways in Shanghai are packed and the beach ball is thronged with people shopping. There are lines to enter Disneyland and Universal Studios parks.
End of strict policy
The end of the Covid-zero strategy on December 7 was so unexpected that the streets of cities were almost deserted in the first two weeks of the month: many had become accustomed to a semi-hermit life and feared the epidemic. But almost everyone is back to normal, unlike hospitals, which have completely lost it. The media almost does not report, but the situation sneaks up through social networks. The chaos is just beginning, and it will be far from over. The wave of infections was so rapid that in some hospitals most of the staff became sick and continued to work with fever.
In the first three weeks of the independence movement, the government reported 25 deaths, which disagreedImages of queues at crematoriums. In Zhejiang province, one million infections are officially reported daily Out of a population of 64 million, they cared for 408,000 flu patients in a single day. An English company called Airfinity – a consultant with a health profile – reckons that there will be 9,000 daily deaths from Covid in China, and that the total will exceed two million next year.
The biggest risk is in rural areas with poor health infrastructure and it explodes during the Lunar New Year holidays: 415 Between January 21 and 27 millions of people will return to their native places, bringing the virus to their parents.
The weak point is vaccination for the elderly. 66% of people aged 80 or over had been vaccinated once (the rest had not). And less than half received reinforcement. When vaccines appeared, essential workers were prioritized to minimize economic damage. A strategy for the elderly is incarceration. Because it worked, they are in no rush to vaccinate old people who believe in ancient medicine and reject it. The zero infection policy prevented herd immunity. That’s why China is facing the perfect storm, with the dire scenario that its vaccines are not of the messenger RNA variety and are highly effective. Although official statistics show that 90 percent of the Chinese population is vaccinated, the average level of immunization is relatively low.
A pain reliever
No change, disconnected Extreme precautions. This was not what the government wanted, but the protests at the end of November turned the tide. Demonstrations are common in China over specific and regional issues. But these were simultaneous across the country for one reason: fatigue that had brewed for months. Along with calls for an end to the prisons, a chant heard in Beijing and Shanghai was “down with Xi Jinping,” which was very bold. In parallel, the Chinese watched the World Cup with masses in unguarded stadiums.
When a university has a case of Covid, students are sometimes locked up there for 20 days, crammed together with almost no shower. As was the case in 1989, most protests took place in student areas. Shanghai was under quarantine for 6 months until last August. There were cities that made it three days without a positive case: it was a simulated disaster. At Foxconn factories – Apple’s Taiwanese assembly company – there were long lockdowns to keep production at zero risk, which ended in protests and clashes with police.
A weak health system
The drastic measures to contain Covid in China obeyed a certain logic, not the camouflage of political control without threats: if they were removed, everything would overflow. why The health system is not prepared. But the mobilizations raise warning signals, not health, but politics.
When traveling around China and talking to people, one argument is often heard: “Our living conditions have improved greatly in the past decades, and we want that to continue.” A political consensus is emerging in which the majority of people demand economic success, prioritizing stability in exchange for inaction or tacit support. If growth slows down, there will be complaints in various ways: this equation has more or less been present in China since the time of Confucius., who theorized it. Virological results, although a little sketchy, were good. But not the economy: slowest growth in 50 years. And the effects on social mental health made everything worse.
About three grueling years of interminable confinement—sometimes three months—and daily trials were the maximum the Chinese Stoics could endure. Xi Jinping stretched the rope of the social contract to the limit and found it trembling: he released it without warning. He may have paid the cost of what might have happened: at least a million deaths, 0.071% of the population (0.3% of the US died). But the numbers don’t seem to be telling. The Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does it once a month with non-transparent criteria. It prompted a complaint this week from the World Health Organization. And around twenty countries have started requiring Chinese people crossing their borders to undergo a Covid test. Mutations are feared to sprout in China.
Why so harsh?
A possible explanation for Chinese extremism on restrictions and their removal is Xi Jinping’s centrality in the power coup: his numbers consolidated at the last CCP Congress, retiring his internal opposition in the Central Committee, whose votes he needs. He is re-elected every five years. He prided himself on his Covid-zero strategy and weaved it into his geopolitical narrative: Chinese mastery of the virus would demonstrate the superiority of its political system. Knowing that a change would create a current explosion, he maintained the axis of his rule. Until the unthinkable happened: protests like this hadn’t been seen since the Tiananmen Square massacre, certainly little.
The official discourse is “we are saving lives” – this is demonstrable – and the West is “not interested in saving them” (at least Trump and Bolsonaro have proven it). The doctrine of the Chinese model – growth at almost any cost – has been practically replaced by another that reads “Covid-zero”. His American representative did not hesitate: “First, the economy.” And “vaccine nationalism” arose. China chose not to import them out of self-pride: it had to accept its superiority. So he took care of his business. They have developed nine vaccines – more than any other country – but are less effective and not calibrated to the Omicron variant. They focused on mass trials before vaccination, something that could not be sustained in the long term. Xi is caught up in his own politics with little room for maneuver.
Another factor putting pressure on the pressure cooker is the way to climb into the PCCH: the managerial logic of “performance” as a legitimate criterion. If the Beijing directive is “Covid-Zero”, it must be complied with. However: Local governments have some autonomy. That’s why, without a unified criteria, neighborhoods or cities are suddenly closed due to some infections. Party workers are tested in the administration of cities and provinces: they are rotated and the previous step up is to rule in Beijing or Shanghai. They have been evaluated for their fight against covid. In this, every mayoral or gubernatorial race runs the risk of reaching the central committee. This is how they ended up being “more Maoists than Mao” and deterring others: “At the slightest risk, we close everything”. Someone may take a bus into town and not return home for weeks. Because with Chinese population size, when the tide rises, there’s nothing to stop it. But the strictness of the restrictions created the feared public resentment. When that wave arose, the CCP used pure Taoism: it came and rode it. He gave instead of resisting.
Xi Jinping’s Credibility
For sinologist Federico Muller, The profile of the last Chinese presidents brings them closer to the technologist ideal: all three were engineers. Since the Han Dynasty, the head of state has been understood as a disaster manager in the face of famine and the flooding of the Yellow River. If in 2023 China experiences the horror of the pandemic that has hit much of the West, it will mean that the Covid-zero policy has only served to postpone the tragedy. Xi Jinping has stuck to a strategy that may now be proven wrong. And this will affect its credibility, its legitimacy axis based on health performance.
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