Despite the Costs, Xi Has Hitched His Political Fortunes to ‘Zero COVID’

Despite the Costs, Xi Has Hitched His Political Fortunes to ‘Zero COVID’
A woman wearing a face mask rides a bicycle past a large television screen displaying Chinese President Xi Jinping, Hong Kong, July 1, 2022 (AP photo by Mark Schiefelbein).
Chinese President Xi Jinping toured Wuhan last week in what amounted to a victory lap, triumphantly walking through production facilities and industrial sectors in the city that was the coronavirus pandemic’s Ground Zero when it emerged in December 2019. Xi’s visit was significant for two key, if distinct, reasons. One was to inspect “Optics Valley,” a burgeoning technology hub that symbolizes China’s ambitions to develop home-grown innovation and boost self-reliance. As with many of his visits to manufacturing facilities and incubators for critical technology sectors across China, Xi took photos with key personnel at the manufacturing sites and spoke about the importance of Chinese innovation. The other reason for Xi’s visit, which preceded his trip to Hong Kong to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the city’s 1997 handover, was to position himself as Wuhan’s—and China’s—political and public health savior. In a speech he gave in the city, Xi portrayed himself as the champion of China’s technological advancement, and his “Zero COVID” approach as the key to defeating the pandemic. In brandishing these two powerful symbols, Xi could ostensibly claim a broad mandate from the public as he seeks to consolidate his tight control over the Communist Party. But while Xi portrays himself as a savior, throughout the two and a half years of the coronavirus pandemic, his policies have prioritized his as well as the CCP’s political wellbeing over the public’s health. At times, this has come at the cost of Chinese citizens’ access to basic services.

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Xi’s speech—titled, “Firmly grasp the lifeline of technology, and unceasingly promote safe and independent economic development”—was meant to be a signal to party members that he intends to stay the course on his domestic agenda. “Our approach to the pandemic is the most economic, and has yielded the best results,” Xi said. While recognizing the importance of further prioritizing care for children and the elderly, he added that “under the foundational leadership of our Chinese Communist Party, we must strengthen the implementation of dynamic Zero-COVID policy until the very last victory has been achieved.” Xi’s remarks essentially confirmed that Beijing’s elimination strategy, consisting of mass testing and community confinement, is here to stay. The speech in Wuhan effectively removed any lingering doubts over whether there might be a relaxation of the Zero COVID strategy. To the contrary, it indicates that Xi has hitched his political fortunes to the strict approach, despite its shortcomings, to say nothing of its growing unpopularity. But if Zero COVID and the policies that go along with it form a major part of Xi’s roadmap for China, it is because it fills a need for him and the party. The CCP’s public relations campaigns, particularly large-scale ones, have an aesthetic flair to their execution that comes with deeply political purposes, and the various visual components that go into enforcing the Zero COVID approach contribute to this effect. In this sense, the “big white” army, as the ubiquitous PCR-test and quarantine enforcement crews dressed in baggy white hazmat suits are called, can be seen as visual evidence of the efficiency of the government’s response. Similarly, surface disinfections have become ubiquitous in Shanghai as well as other cities and provinces that have been placed under lockdowns, creating a public health version of “security theater.” But these “performances” compete for public attention with other, more critical framings of the government’s pandemic response based on the real experiences of China’s population under the draconian measures of Zero COVID. Care gaps among vulnerable populations and inadequate living conditions for essential workers persist, and delivery drivers regularly receive more financial assistance from mutual aid networks than from government programs. Access to quality hospitals for medical emergencies is far from guaranteed, even as any documentation or discussion of these service gaps are quickly censored. There have been attempts to spread the word about these shortcomings and demand better public services. The viral video titled “Voices of April,” for instance, played stock footage over audio recordings of people lamenting widespread hunger and shortages of food and prescription medicine during the early weeks of Shanghai’s strict lockdown. But it was promptly deleted from social media platforms, as is the case for expressions of discontent over hospital bed availability and treatment of disabled residents. As a result, as time goes on, “positive energy” propaganda focusing on the heroics of volunteers and government cadres will drown out any critical commentary on domestic shortages. It is not enough for Xi to be “correct” in his decision to pursue restrictive Zero COVID measures. The visual evidence must overwhelmingly and definitively bear that out. These campaigns, like Xi’s speech in Wuhan, are intended to affirm a narrative of Zero COVID’s comprehensive success. Though coronavirus-related deaths in China remain lower than in the U.S., party officials remain resistant to any criticism of their approach. Xi’s speech only served to reaffirm their disregard for critics of their policies. At the most basic political level, Zero COVID is informed by the same logic that drove the anti-corruption campaigns Xi implemented early in his leadership, in which he aimed to target corruption amongst both “Tigers” and “Flies” within the CCP’s hierarchy. But what followed was not a simple purge of corrupt officials. Instead, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign coincided with his elevation to the omnipotent status of “chairman of everything,” as political opponents inside the party were carefully eliminated from positions of prominence. A similar dynamic characterizes Xi’s efforts to roll back elements of China’s market economy, even if the picture there is more complicated. In laying out his plan for “common prosperity,” Xi made a point to emphasize that “we must energize entrepreneurs, and promote sound and well-regulated development of all types of capital.” In theory, this sounds like a call for greater equity and an emphasis on market development. In practice, it is impossible to disentangle the policy shift from well-established patterns of cronyism and clientelist politics within China that Xi has leveraged to his political advantage. At the time of his early anti-corruption efforts, Xi emphasized the highly visible aspects of Tiger and Fly campaigns as a public good, while downplaying the tangential correlation with his political fortunes. Zero COVID borrows a page from the playbook of these previous campaigns, in that the difference between theory and practice are of little significance to China’s leader. As long as his political foundation remains sound and he benefits from the policy’s implementation, its other consequences are secondary.

In Other News

A massive breach into the Shanghai National Police’s database has been listed on the cybercrime forum Breach Forums by a user named ChinaDan, who was offering to sell the data for $200,000 in cryptocurrency. According to ChinaDan’s claims, the leak contained the criminal records, personal data and contact details of more than 1 billion Chinese citizens. Yi Fuxian, a demographer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, combed through a sample data set made available by the seller. “The data covers almost every county in China, including ones in remote areas in Tibet or along the border with India,” he told Rachel Cheung, the Vice World News reporter who broke the story. “It shows the information is likely authentic and not fabricated.” Other researchers indicated that they could only confirm the data’s authenticity in part. The defensive capabilities of China’s cybersecurity infrastructure warrants scrutiny, from a technological as well as a political angle. In a 2021 analysis of Chinese website encryption, Adam Segal and Lorand Laskai wrote that China’s encryption policy is shaped by two competing interests: political control and commercial development. As such, domestic databases remain readily accessible to central and provincial authorities. Commercial encryption efforts have been a mixed bag as well, as has the adoption of the more secure “https” internet protocol, which provides some privacy for information sent via web browsers. Among Chinese web users, data privacy has been a rising concern since the 2010s. In 2018, the artist Deng Yufeng created a controversial installation with the partially redacted personal information of 346,000 individuals displayed on screens. Deng, who was subsequently arrested by authorities, claimed he illegally purchased the information to demonstrate the ease with which he could obtain personal data from online brokers. But fast forward to 2022, and any anger or concern over the most recent leak has been predictably censored by authorities. Among the content struck from Weibo were posts by cybersecurity bloggers, as well as the keywords “data breach” and “1 billion citizens’ record leak.” As with other politically sensitive topics, government officials are likely to formulate an official communication plan to formally respond to the breach allegations. In the meantime, it’s probably wise for Weibo users to change their passwords.

Rui Zhong is the writer of World Politics Review’s China Note. She works as a program associate at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., where she conducts programming and research on U.S.-China diplomatic and cultural relations. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, WIRED magazine, the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and the MIT Technology Review. She can be found on Twitter at @rzhongnotes.

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