Damned if you do, damned if you do not.
At this moment, President Xi Jinping’s administration in Beijing is caught in a vicious loop.
If they do away with the Covid-zero restrictions, as the protesters across several cities want, they risk having a major outbreak. Already, a record number of cases have been reported each day for the entire last week.
However, if they continue with the restrictions, they now risk an uprising that could prove to be pivotal in the history of the country, coming close to the events of Tiananmen Square in political impact.
The one riddle that plagues several China observers across the globe is that why would Xi’s administration in Beijing continue to stick with a policy that all nations discarded in 2020, in the initial months of the pandemic itself?
Beyond the first few weeks of national lockdowns, the administrations, even in Europe where the pandemic ushered a gruesome human toll, moved towards balancing Covid controls and economic recovery.
China, however, remains where Wuhan was at the end of February 2020 — all locked up.
For instance, in India, the weeks between March and May 2020 were all about strengthening the health infrastructure, preparing for what at that point appeared to be an imminent outbreak across the country, and so forth.
Beyond May 2020, the agility in policymaking kicked in, and therefore, even in the Delta wave, there were no complete lockdowns, nationally.
During the Omicron wave, when cases peaked at more than 400,000, the economic activities remained largely unhindered. No one-size-fits-all approach!
Xi, however, is willing to risk it all to ensure China remains shut.
This includes losing manufacturing operations of key multinationals, like Apple, that has already moved the production of some its hardware components to India and Vietnam.
More than 60 per cent of the European Companies surveyed (around 350) announced declining revenues for 2022, and a quarter of them were considering moving out of China. Toyota, Tesla, and even Volkswagen had confirmed dented production numbers by May 2022, before the lockdowns intensified.
Four plausible reasons explain Xi’s fright.
One, the weak healthcare infrastructure in China. When Wuhan happened, the inability of the community or local hospitals to contain the outbreak were affirmed.
Reports of outdated equipment, lack of qualified personnel and experienced doctors, and lack of testing and monitoring facilities surfaced. Many citizens, without trust in the community hospitals, visited the city hospitals, futhering the outbreak.
Thus, in Beijing, a large outbreak could spell doom for the medical infrastructure, prompting the decision to instead lock down cities.
Two, the vulnerability even after the vaccine coverage. First, the numbers are dismal. Only 80 per cent of the population above the age of 60 have been given two shots, and only 55 per cent have had a booster dose. In a country of 1.4 billion people, these numbers can have great implications during an outbreak.
Secondly, the lack of mRNA shots and the political call to not import them is intensifying the vulnerability of the citizens to the virus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also remarked against the potency of Chinese vaccines.
Three, the economic slowdown (more about it here, here, here, here, and here).
Even before the pandemic hit China, the music was slowing down. The economic growth projection, against the official 5.5 per cent, stands at around 3 per cent, given the unprecedented lockdowns.
Protests have also been carried out by home owners against delayed infrastructure projects, retail sales have fallen, and the administration in Beijing had to bail out local governments with special financing vehicles.
Could the lockdowns be an excuse to buy time to get the economy in order?
Four, the coronavirus is an excuse for the administration in Beijing to further the surveillance state.
Already, many businesses, including gaming, private tutoring, and online utilities, have fallen prey to the crackdown.
In the garb of solving the demography problem, the government has deployed the pandemic to regulate real estate prices while bailing out developers with assistance worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
However, the bigger loser has been the average citizen, who now depends on the benevolence of the state to live their routine life.
In China, in some cities, people are required to take a Covid test daily, and without a negative result, they cannot access the usual utility services, like groceries, schools, etc.
Thanks to the increased digitisation in the last two years, Beijing now keeps a track of every movement. For instance, every cab ride in China begins with the scanning of a QR code that registers the citizen in a government database.
The biometric details collected in the past months, combined with the data registered daily, now allows Beijing to profile more than a billion people.
Xi secured a third-term, probably one that will last for life, only six weeks ago, and yet, even with all the political leverage, he refuses to open up China. In the early months of the pandemic, this could have been excused as necessary caution, but close to three years later, this has more to do with the ulterior objectives of the administration.
More than the citizens, Xi’s administration is frightened for itself.