Image: The revolution will not be televised. Source: Wuhan Art Museum. - Photo: 2022

China: From A Health Crisis to A Political Crisis?

By Jan Servaes*

BRUSSELS  (IDN) — After nearly three years of fighting Covid-19 tooth and nail with a so-called ‘zero-Covid’ policy and denouncing Western countries for choosing to live with the virus at the cost of millions of lives, China’s rhetoric seems to be moving in a more nuanced direction.

The current number of 5,235 Covid-related ‘official’ deaths in China is a small fraction of the population of 1.4 billion and, to global benchmarks, extremely low.

For two years, most Chinese could lead a normal, virus-free existence, and the economy remained buoyant. However, the spread of Omicron meant that more and more people were caught up in government controls. As a result, the economy slowed down.

Everyone was faced with the zero-Covid policy, from migrant workers to middle-class urbanites. Resulting in the rather rare, politically charged protests in cities and on university campuses across the country in late November.

China’s security apparatus is already moving to suppress demonstrations against ‘zero-Covid’, the most widespread protests China has seen since Tiananmen. People protested the excessively harsh Covid-19 measures (such as lockdowns, frequent testing and the need to register their whereabouts with the health code app), and broadened their discontent to ‘away with the CCP and Xi’ slogans.

Although the government did not publicly acknowledge the protests, it tried to quell public outrage by relaxing restrictions. For instance, Deputy Prime Minister Sur Chunlan, during a National Health Commission meeting in early December, that China had entered a new stage and faced “new tasks” in the fight against Covid-19.

As part of the recent easing of Covid-19 control measures, the government announced, for example, that from December 5 onwards, people would no longer need proof of a 48-hour negative Covid-19 test to travel on public transport. Soon, millions will return to their villages and families to celebrate the Spring Festival. Many may bring covid with them as the Omicron spreads asymptomatically in many.

For the Communist Party (CCP), which portrays itself as largely infallible, major policy changes are embarrassing. They cannot cavalierly admit that anything has gone wrong. Scrapping zero-covid is particularly difficult, as it is one of President Xi Jinping’s top priorities. So, the party portrays its shift as building on past victories rather than giving in to public pressure.

In the China Daily, it is phrased as follows: “Authorities in several Chinese regions have slowly and steadily relaxed Covid-19 restrictions and adopted a new approach to dealing with the virus and making people’s lives less regulated.”

We fear that the great helmsman Xi Jinping is heading for a crisis of his own making without a Plan B or a quick, painless way out. Month after month, the state media trumpeted Xi’s zero-covid policy and the party’s competence and humanness. He linked the success of ‘zero-covid’ to his own legitimacy as ruler. By turning the zero-covid policy into a loyalty test, Xi seems to have drifted from a health crisis into a political one.

Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, analyses the protests from a socio-psychological perspective and concludes that mass and collective protest are highly sophisticated and give us insight into the underlying society. Especially of those who normally have no voice. It also shows us that no regime—not even the powerful Chinese state – can afford to be seen as a foreign power. “That is, one that speaks about the people rather than for the people.”

‘Zero-Covid’ eases

China’s zero-Covid policy relies/relied on three mechanisms to contain outbreaks. The first is regular mass testing, which aims to find infected people quickly. The second is centralised quarantine, to keep the infected and their close contacts away from the rest of the public.

The third is lockdowns to eradicate any spread of the disease. All these mechanisms are now being dismantled. However, the government is leaving the initiative to local governments. So ‘exceptions’ can be allowed, for which the central government does not have to be held accountable later. Then only local heads may fall.

According to the official data, the latest Covid-19 outbreak is on the decline in China. The number of new cases recently dropped to less than 30,000 per day, down from the peak of more than 40,000 in late November. But that is probably because fewer people are being tested.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that more Chinese are still contracting the disease, increasing the risk of a larger wave, especially as the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly among the under-vaccinated population in more than 85% of Chinese cities. China is poorly protected against an endemic virus that is increasingly difficult to control.

As recently as March, it was reported that more than 130 million Chinese aged 60 and above had not been vaccinated or had received fewer than three doses. Only 40% of over-80s had received three doses of a local vaccine (especially the less effective Sinovac or Sinopharm), the amount needed to provide reasonable protection against serious illness and death.

But far from locking up again, the government is now relaxing its Covid controls.

The authoritarian state

The Chinese government is caught in a kind of Catch-22: tougher action to bring the virus back under control will increase economic costs and public anger, further fuelling it. But the reverse, i.e. moving from harsh to softer measures so that the virus will spread again, is likely to result in hundreds of thousands if not more deaths.

The Economist modelled the likely progression of the current outbreak in China. If it continues unchecked, the number of infections could peak at 45 million a day. Even assuming all patients needing intensive care get it (which is unlikely), some 680,000 people may die.

In reality, the effectiveness of vaccines is declining, and many would go untreated. The need for intensive care (ICU) beds would reach 410,000, almost seven times China’s capacity. Chinese leaders seem to be looking for a middle ground, but it is not clear if there is one.

At least there are two important challenges.

First, the effort to get more people vaccinated, especially the elderly and those in high-risk groups, has been insufficient. Vaccination coverage among people over 60 has changed little since the summer, according to official figures.

Those who had received two doses rose from 85.6% in August to 86.4% in November, according to the Chinese CDC, while the booster injection rate rose from 67.8% to 68.2%. The US vaccinated 92% of over-60s and 70% received boosters, Germany’s figures are 91% and 85.9%, and Japan’s 92% and 90%, according to the CDC.

Second, officials have repeatedly said that China’s health system cannot cope with a new wave of Covid cases as medical resources are unevenly distributed across the country. Although they have had years to expand the ICU capacity of Chinese hospitals to expand, it remains inadequate.

According to a report published by the Fudan School of Public Health in Shanghai, China had only 4.37 ICU beds per 100,000 people in 2021, compared to 34.2 in the United States in 2015. An influx of emergency patients following a dramatic escalation of Covid cases would again test the healthcare system.

For this reason, the aim will be to move forward incrementally and ensure that hospitals do not become overwhelmed. If so, unpopular restrictions such as lockdowns can always be reimposed.

The implications go beyond Covid. By imposing a strict control apparatus of detection and enforcement in every neighbourhood and residential block, Xi has broken the idea that his Covid policy is “people-centred”.

Instead, he has brought an intransigent authoritarian state into every home. By sticking to zero-covid despite its impact on the economy, he has cast doubt on one of the party’s main claims to power—that it alone can guarantee stability and prosperity.

A more responsible government would acknowledge its mistakes, and take life-saving steps to gradually move out of zero-covid, as in Korea, Singapore or Taiwan. All signs indicate that Xi Jinping and the Communist Party are not ready for this. The country has too few ICU beds to cope with a major outbreak. It has neither trained enough medical staff, nor adopted protocols on which patients to treat and where.

Sputtering propaganda

In a country where government and state media have long stoked fears of the virus as a public health threat, they are now beginning to tell people that Omicron is fairly harmless. Although Omicron is milder than previous variants, it can still be deadly, especially in a population that has not acquired immunity through infection, as Hong Kong discovered when many elderly people died during an outbreak in the spring. This raises the worrying prospect that the CCP will manipulate the actual number of covid deaths.

The popular outrage was a powerful illustration of how thoroughly the world’s toughest pandemic restrictions have turned life in China upside down. Xi Jinping, newly re-elected as “leader for life”, is extending the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on its people beyond what even Mao Zedong achieved.

Economic downturn

Strict zero-Covid measures have dampened domestic economic activity, factories and supply chains have been disrupted by lockdowns and other restrictions. The disruptions in just-in-time delivery have made themselves felt in other countries as well.

In May, the European Chamber of Commerce China announced that almost a quarter of respondents to a survey were considering taking current or planned investments out of China. Some 92% of respondents said they were negatively affected by China’s port closures, decreased road freight and rising sea freight costs.

The Caixin/S&P Global manufacturing purchasing managers’ index shows that factory activity contracted in November for the fourth consecutive month.

Brokerage Nomura cut its forecast for China’s fourth-quarter GDP to 2.4% year-on-year from 2.8% and lowered its full-year growth forecast to 2.8% from 2.9%, well below China’s official target of around 5.5%. Nomura estimates that more than a fifth of China’s GDP is in lockdown, a larger share than, say, the UK economy.

Youth unemployment stood at 19.9% in China in July, which combined with unaffordable housing makes the thought of an active working life unattainable.

‘Zero-Covid’ caused even China’s internet giants headaches. The e-commerce giant Alibaba reported a net loss of nearly $3 billion, partly due to weak consumer demand. Tencent, China’s most valuable company, laid off thousands of employees this year, the first time in nearly a decade that its workforce has shrunk.


The frustrations of Chinese which now boiled over after three years of living under strict Covid restrictions may run deeper. After violently quashing pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Beijing made an implicit social deal under Zang: in exchange for restrictions on political freedoms, people would receive stability and comfort. With the opening, growth and inclusion of China in the global economy, material prosperity for the average Chinese increased.

For a long time, the Chinese youths described as materialistic and consumption-mad, all wanting the latest Louis Vuitton bag or showing off the latest Versace scarf. This trend has seen changes in recent years. Many young people in urbane China feel they are unable to fight forces that make social expectations unattainable.

“Lying flat” (平躺 or bailan 摆烂) as a social protest movement even became mainstream in China last year, referring to the idea of doing just enough to make ends meet. So instead of wasting energy trying to solve an impossible situation, many people decide to “letting it rot” (让它腐烂), essentially abandoning the pursuit of high achievement in Chinese society. It is now a common phrase that worries the Chinese government at all levels, from local executives to the highest authorities.

While the “let it rot” mentality is not necessarily already universal among all Chinese, it is widespread enough to indicate a real sense of pessimism and disillusionment among China’s urban youth. It is a remarkable phenomenon that could have a negative impact on an already slowing economy.

For people in their mid-20s and 30s, the expectation of taking care of their elderly parents while raising young children is now a huge burden amid the rising cost of living. Housing prices are unreasonably high in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

The rural story may be very different, but their voices are hardly heard by the international community. Nevertheless, the hope that you will have a better life if you work hard has diminished among urban youth.

But on the other hand, this also indicates that urban youth and their families have accumulated some resources to avoid hunger. These two are challenges for the Chinese development model, for which the state has probably not yet found a solution.

< People wave national flags to mark the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2022. (ZHU XINGXIN / CHINA DAILY)

Is the rot in there?

Even if Xi Jinping can drive discontent underground among broad sections of the population, the disillusionment revealed by the protests will remain. ‘Zero-Covid’ highlighted the ease and apparent arbitrariness with which the party could impose its will on people. For many Chinese, such domination has shaken their expectation of constant progress and sensitively undermined their ambition and willingness to take risks. Wait and see how many want to “let it all rot”.

*Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is the editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change. [IDN-InDepthNews — 12 December 2022]

Image: The revolution will not be televised. Source: Wuhan Art Museum.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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