China's Covid policy was once successful, but is now a source of uncertainty. Why?
Beijing did not expect this intense Covid-19 wave. With the virus suppressed by widespread lockdowns, the crisis seemed to be over in 2020. But then Xi Jinping was somewhat surprised to discover China had not solved the problem as the more contagious Omicron variant and low vaccination rates, especially among the elderly, undermined early successes. Xi’s response was a foregone conclusion – the zero-Covid strategy of 2020, even if it doesn't fit today's infection patterns. As a result, about 45 cities were in lockdown by mid-April, one in three citizens and 40 percent of the economy. This has led to great uncertainty in populace and leadership. Xi had construed initial successes in fighting the virus as systemic superiority – order in China, chaos in Europe and North America. He was also always eager for China's economy to grow faster than that of the US – an ambition that also looks set to be thwarted in 2022.
Could this uncertainty call into question Xi's goal of further consolidating power?
For Xi, the top priority is this fall’s big five-yearly Communist Party meeting. The plan is for the Party Congress to elect him general secretary for a third time, the crucial step towards his re-election as head of state by the National People's Congress in spring 2023. Millions of Covid deaths would mar this staging, which is why Xi believes he has no choice but to crack down on the virus in this whack-a-mole manner – even if that upsets the population, paralyzes the economy, and makes foreign countries question China's reliability.
Xi is also doing everything else he can to ensure a smooth party congress. The vetting of delegates has been tightened, proponents of any line critical of Xi will not be given a stage. There are also plenty of propaganda activities underway to help citizens, from young to old, and all officials toe the line. Xi will probably also intensify his anti-corruption and self-criticism campaign – and it will probably claim some prominent victims as a result. In a quite unprecedented way, the bureaucracy is pulling out all the stops to make the staging of the party congress a success.
So, Xi will be able to deal with the uncertainty that has arisen at home and abroad?
The zero-Covid strategy is a real mess – the populace is unhappy, the economy is crippled, and unemployment is rising alarmingly, especially among university graduates. And that's not Xi's only mistake – China is increasingly isolated in foreign policy because of its support for Russia. This is all about major domestic, foreign and economic policy mistakes by a head of state and party leader apparently unable to take advice. But Xi is still in total control, there are no signs of any group or groundswell that could threaten him; the army and police have sworn their allegiance to him.
The Chinese leadership is counting on lifting the lockdowns in Shanghai and other large cities before the end of June – and then on publicly celebrating this step as a great triumph. This is meant to restore the image of China as a bastion of order, much like the initial disaster in Wuhan was celebrated as a national feat of strength when the strict lockdown ended. Under the current circumstances, I expect Xi to be resoundingly re-elected as party leader in the fall and as head of state in the spring. Starting March 2023, he might well initiate much-needed corrections to his recent mistakes, to again spur growth and win back foreign-policy leeway. But for now, the Party and People's Congresses have top priority.