January 2023

Xi’s wise volte-face

Beijing’s dramatic U-turn on its Zero Covid policy lays down a historic marker in the current rivalry between authoritarianism and democracy.

Together with China, resource-rich Russia and Islamic Iran lead the authoritarian debate, and how each deals with its single issue current challenge may prove pivotal to its future.

China’s big test is Covid, Russia has Ukraine, while Iran is stalled by protests against repressive Islam.

And Beijing’s intelligent reversal on Zero Covid may well have placed it a clever step ahead of its lacklustre counterparts.

The Covid trigger came in late November when a fire in the city of Urumqi killed at least ten people because lockdown barricades prevented residents from leaving their homes.

‘If it’s not me this time, it could be me next time,’ ran one social media post that went viral.

In key cities, people broke restrictions to step out of their homes and demand an end to a policy whereby a single test result could halt the lives of millions, condemning them to be cooped up indefinitely in their apartments.

Lines of police and Covid teams in galactic white suits fuelled wider thoughts about whether the unaccountable Chinese Communist Party was still the right mechanism to govern their lives.

Many held up pieces of blank white paper, protesting wordlessly against censorship. Some went further with slogans such as, ‘We don’t want COVID tests! We want freedom!’ They understood that, with its surveillance cameras and tracking technology, the government could mark their troublesome identities for life. Yet for them, the risk was worth it.

We may never know the discussions within President Xi Jinping’s inner circle that led to the sudden lifting of restrictions.

Xi himself had only recently won an unprecedented third term and is described by many as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. China’s current leader would be all too aware of the phrase associated both with Mao and his reforming successor Deng Xiao-ping: ‘If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.’

Mao wanted to stop the flies, hence the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. 

Deng, however, saw them as an inevitability to be tolerated or exploited, hence the wealth and super-power status that China enjoys today.

Flies surrounding the Covid policy included an awareness of a weakening economy, 460,000 businesses closed in the first quarter of 2022, and youth unemployment at nearly 20 percent.

On the plus side, China’s Covid deaths of four per million of the population was laudable against America’s more than 3,300 per million.

Yet, sealed inside their apartments, citizens could log onto websites and see the outside world with its bustling streets, packed restaurants, beaches and people out enjoying themselves.

They began asking why Chinese scientists had failed to produce a vaccine as effective as those in the West. And why was the government imprisoning its people?

Local protests in China are not uncommon. But this is the first time since the 1989 democracy uprising that citizens have rallied against a national policy and persuaded the government to change course.

Zero Covid had appeared to be written in stone because, as recently as October, Xi had told the 20th Party Congress, ‘We must resolutely stick to dynamic Zero Covid without wavering.’

The official U-turn line was that the government ended lockdown because the latest Covid strain was less lethal than earlier ones. As a result, protests dampened. People went out. Stability returned.

Xi’s U-turn was not without risks, including overwhelming China’s creaking health infrastructure.  Covid rates immediately soared with estimates of deaths over the next year going from less than 6,000 to a million.

There is also a reputational risk because strong rulers are meant to chart their own course, irrespective of confrontational opposition. They certainly are not meant to flip-flop. That is the point of authoritarianism.

In contrast, Xi’s fellow Russian and Iranian authoritarians have shown little flexibility in dealing with dissent. Their iron fists remain rigid while more and more citizens question the legitimacy of their corrupt regimes, which is precisely what Xi needed to avoid. 

Whatever their long-term national vision, the more hard line Chinese protestors would now be wise to hunker down and wait. Having conceded on this single issue, any continuing challenges to the government will almost certainly be quelled by unstoppable force.

At the same time, Xi should begin to accept that citizens of an affluent, educated society want a formal, trusted pact with their government. As China modernises, more people will seek mechanisms through which their views can be aired. 

Grass roots frustration can spread out of control like a prairie fire. A more reliable way to govern is to channel those voices with debate and the ballot box.

Through uprisings and war, the West has learned the same over the centuries and now call sits system of governance democracy.

The reversal of Zero Covid may mark the start of China charting the same course. It, too, may take centuries but, hopefully, without the levels of violence experienced by the West.