Xi Jinping's zero-Covid U-turn shows how much he fears his own people - SOAS China Institute

//Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid U-turn shows how much he fears his own people

Xi Jinping's zero-Covid U-turn shows how much he fears his own people

Photo credit: thierry ehrmann (Flickr) / CC BY 2.0

By Steve Tsang | 13 December 2022

As Xi Jinping stays in power beyond the customary ten years, he has not only made himself the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong but also a dictator-like figure.


But the de facto U-turn on the zero-Covid policy and the management of the funeral for former leader Jiang Zemin reveal that he still feels insecure.


For all the pretence that China is perfecting the management of Covid restrictions as Omicron is less lethal than earlier variants, few will fail to see the reality.


What has changed is not the virus, but the outburst of public anger against a policy which Mr Xi proclaimed as showcasing the superiority of China’s Leninist system.


Protests against Covid restrictions that included calls for Mr Xi to step down clearly caught him by surprise. 


They triggered a three-dimensional response: suppress the protests, use digital technologies to intimidate against further protests, and remove the most egregious Covid restrictions that caused protests. They will keep Mr Xi in power but will not make Chinese people safer.


The people’s leader who fears the people


Mr Xi’s insecurity was such that he could not risk holding a state funeral for Jiang Zemin, who died just after the protests were suppressed. Unwilling to risk a physical event being hijacked by people to articulate their anger, Mr Xi is “the people’s leader” who fears the people.


Both events raise a basic question: Will Mr Xi’s massing of power make China a better place for its citizens and a better member of the international community?


By insisting on the zero-Covid approach long after others learned to live with Covid, and using enormous resources to quarantine people rather than vaccinate the old and build up the health service, he has put China in the worst possible situation.


He imposed tighter restrictions on people for longer and still exposes the most vulnerable to the ravaging virus.


This reflects a pattern of policy mistakes that contrast sharply with the Chinese Communist Party’s rule before him.


Whatever one thinks of the CCP, under collective leadership, it avoided policy mistakes that triggered a challenge to its right to rule after the unrest of 1989. Such a challenge has now emerged, after Mr Xi substituted collective wisdom with his own.


The zero-Covid policy, which also sets the economy back, is an extreme case – there are other examples. Mr Xi has also sapped the vitality of China’s entrepreneurial and dynamic private sector.


By unleashing “wolf-warrior diplomats”, he has turned a world supportive of China’s modernisation into one deeply worried about its resurgence.


By insisting on supporting Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he has squandered a golden opportunity for China to play global leader by brokering peace. The list goes on.


By making himself a dictator and forcing China to take a Sino-centric turn, Mr Xi has removed scope for technocrats to counsel against persistence in misguided policies, such as zero-Covid.


His turn to nationalism has made China a greater threat to global peace, particularly with his obsession to take Taiwan.


The best interests of the Chinese people and the world require the former to ensure Xi does not become a Putin figure with substantially greater destructive power at hand.

Professor Steve Tsang is Director of the SOAS China Institute.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.


Originally published by The Telegraph on 10 December 2022.