By Jan Servaes*
BRUSSELS, 19 Feb 2023 (IDN) — “China has created a miracle in human history, in which a highly populous nation has successfully pulled through a pandemic.”
The above quote can be read in the report published by the state news agency Xinhua of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that met on Thursday, 16 Feb 2023, in the presence of President Xi Jinping: “China has taken an extraordinary journey in its COVID-19 prevention and control work”.
There was hardly any mention of the sudden change of course from a zero-covid to a ‘no-control’ policy, with all its disastrous consequences. Rather, “China’s COVID-19 response has made a smooth transition in a relatively short time, with more than 200 million people accessing medical services, nearly 800,000 severe cases receiving proper treatment, and the country’s COVID-19 fatality rate remaining the world’s lowest,” the report said.
“It has been proven through practice that the CPC Central Committee has been right in its judgment of the pandemic situation, major response decisions and major strategy adjustments”, the meeting said.
The report concluded: “The measures have been robust, have received approval from the people, and have shown great effect.”
On 14 Jan 2023, the government claimed that the viral surge had reached its peak and announced that China is open for business again. Certainly, the latter can be doubted because by the end of 2022 economic growth—for a long time a mainstay of the communist regime—had fallen to 3 percent, the lowest growth rate since 1974.
Murmur in the streets
Not everyone seems willing to blindly close ranks. Some cannot forget the years of large-scale lockdowns, the closures, quarantines and near-constant mass testing. In November 2022, for instance, approximately 530 million Chinese people were subject to lockdowns—more than the entire population of the European Union!
There is no public record of how much China invested in what became a signature policy of leader Xi Jinping. But according to a Reuters estimate last year, Beijing was on track to spend more than 350 billion yuan ($52bn) on Covid testing, new medical facilities, monitoring equipment and other anti-Covid measures in 2022.
According to data collected by Hua Chuang Securities and Goldman Sachs, in the three years that zero-COVID was in effect, the government is estimated to have spent a whopping 200 billion yuan ( $29.2bn) to PCR testing. alone.
In late November, Chinese citizens took to the streets and questioned President Xi Jinping’s leadership for the first time.
The BBC reports that many of those who took part in the so-called White Paper protests went missing, taken by authorities in a quietly deepening crackdown on dissenters. “Now, months on, scores of those protesters are in police custody, say Chinese activists, with one group estimating there have been more than 100 arrests”.
Many of those arrested are well-educated women—some attended universities in the UK and the US—and they include writers, journalists, a musician, a teacher and a financial industry professional.
Since these mass demonstrations, several small-scale protests have also erupted over issues ranging from fireworks bans and unpaid wages to frozen bank deposits. Such local protests are not uncommon. But according to some commentators, this way the pent-up frustrations of three years of zero-COVID measures find a way out for ordinary Chinese.
Despite pervasive government surveillance and online censorship, they dare to speak out. After all, China’s underfunded health system is under immense pressure, from a rapidly aging population to local government budgets decimated by three years of enforcement of COVID restrictions, such as centralized quarantines and mass testing.
In January, hundreds of retirees in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou protested after their personal medical benefits were cut from about 482 yuan ($70) to 160 yuan ($23) in December.
As of 1 Feb 2023, personal health insurance for Wuhan retirees was reduced from about 5% of the average basic pension to 2.5%, or 83 yuan ($12) per month, according to the Wuhan Healthcare Security Administration.
Under the reforms, mandatory personal accounts will be used to pay for medicines, while doctor visits and hospital stays will be subsidized by a common public account made up of employer contributions.
Since January, similar insurance reforms have been implemented in provinces and regions including Jiangxi, Gansu, Shanxi, Qinghai, Sichuan and Guangxi. While it is unclear if there are further protests elsewhere, the popular outcry of senior citizens in Wuhan and Dalian has raised awareness of the issue on social media.
There is a widely held belief that Chinese officials are trying to recoup the huge sums spent on mandatory Covid testing and other pandemic measures.
On Weibo (the Chinese Twitter), the hashtag #healthinsurance was very popular for criticizing the regime until it was removed from the site’s “hot topics” section by censors.
The link corresponding to the site of the most recent protests in Wuhan—Zhongshan Park—was also censored and photos of the demonstration removed. However, they can still be seen on the site of Radio Free Asia (RFA), sponsored by the US Congress.
But even as China’s massive censorship apparatus kicks in, there is still a lot of support for the protesting pensioners on social media. “Beijing will have to find a way to solve the problem if it wants to avoid further public unrest,” notes BBC correspondent Stephen McDonell.
This new round of protests has put pressure on Xi Jinping’s government, just weeks before the expected announcement of a new leadership team in March. It looks more and more like a political crisis is possible.
From the ‘official’ 82,238 to 1.5 million ‘estimated’ COVID-19 deaths
Since the lifting of the ‘no-COVID’ policy on December 7, 2022, ‘only’ 82,238 COVID-19 deaths have been recorded between December 8 and February 2, 2023, according to the government’s official count.
Many academics and epidemiologists believe the number is a huge underestimate because it counts only those who died in hospitals, not those who died at home. While it’s impossible to know exactly how many people died at home between 2018 and 2020, only about a fifth of all deaths in China occurred in hospitals.
Another major reason is that China has a very different and narrow definition of what counts as a COVID-19 death. Chinese bureaucrats only count those deaths as Covid-19 deaths involving respiratory failure, excluding all other infected people who died of liver, kidney or heart failure.
This exemption from other COVID-19-related deaths has sparked widespread skepticism, prompting the Chinese government to release separate data on other deaths in January. But even these data were incomplete according to the WHO.
More than 80 per cent of the population, or 1.13 billion people, were infected with COVID-19 as of January 21, according to Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China’s CDC).
Wu’s data is supported by other models, including The Economist’s projection of 1.0 to 1.5 million deaths, based on assumptions about the unfettered spread of COVID-19 after reopening; UK Airfinity’s estimate of 1.3 million COVID deaths between December 1 and February 6; and a New York Times analysis, published on Feb. 15, also estimating between 1.0 and 1.5 million deaths since reopening.
Four teams of researchers worked on different estimates and converged them into broadly similar estimates.
All these estimates show that China’s official COVID-19 data is flawed and that it is probably the only country in the world to deal with its first major wave of infections without any attempt to slow it down, resulting in the fastest spread of a respiratory pandemic virus in modern history.
Also, anecdotal evidence from clinics, hospitals, crematoriums and obituaries that have been published suggest that the true death toll may be closer to the high end of these estimates.
“Of course, the viral wave played out over a much larger population, but it is very likely that there were more COVID-19 deaths in China in two months than in the United States in three years,” said Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, and director of the school’s Center for Global Health Studies, South Orange, NJ, in the authoritative Foreign Affairs.
Consequences for Xi and the CPC?
In fact, Beijing’s response to the pandemic — both before and after zero-COVID — could have significant long-term consequences for the one-party state, Yanzhong Huang argues.
China’s COVID policy has exposed some fundamental truths about Xi Jinping’s regime:
(1) – “For one thing, they have demonstrated that contrary to his predecessors from Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao, who sought to make decision-making more technocratic and collective, Xi has strengthened the nonscientific and nondemocratic features of Chinese governance.
Rather than providing the most effective and efficient solutions to the pandemic, many of the zero-COVID strategies served to extend the reach of the state. With the onset of the pandemic, Beijing saw an opportunity to pursue almost unchecked surveillance and control of the population.”
(2) – Instead of taking a step-by-step approach and preparing for the shift, for example by vaccinating the elderly or investing in peak capacity in hospitals and health clinics, Beijing simply announced that the policy would end on 7 December. “In instead of trying to ‘flatten the curve’—the strategy epidemiologists around the world have generally advocated—implicitly encouraged local governments across China what was known as “yingyang jinyang”, “those who should be infected are all infected”-, and “kuaisu guofeng”,—“bring the population to the viral peak quickly.”
That strategy, coupled with the shortage of medical supplies, hospital beds and intensive care (ICU) equipment, led to an explosion in COVID-19 infections and deaths in December and January. And as the virus swept through the country, the government quickly shifted its policy agenda to economic growth.
“In addition to exposing Xi’s policymaking as fundamentally autocratic, the shift from one extreme to the other also undercut people’s trust in government. After all, Beijing had spent nearly three years highlighting the grave danger of the disease and vowing to avoid the approach taken by other countries of living with the deadly virus, or tangping—“lying flat” as Chinese officials derisively called it. Yet in December, the government was suddenly saying the exact opposite: it justified the pivot away from zero COVID by downplaying the severity of the virus, and it adopted precisely the accommodationist approach it had once ridiculed.”
(3) – Part of Beijing’s ‘resilience’ is due to its control over information and communication media. “Through obfuscation, stonewalling, and misinformation, the government managed to deflect the frustration of ordinary people away from itself. Instead, popular anger was directed at public health experts, who were accused of misleading people on the severity of the virus, and those who favored living with COVID-19, who were blamed for pressuring the government to reopen without any preparation.”
And Huang concludes: “The highly centralized and personalized rule under Xi is no guarantee that similar catastrophes will not be repeated in the future with even greater consequences.”
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 editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change.
*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 editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change.
Image: Chinese with masks in Beijing. Source: Tagesschau
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