At least 44 Chinese cities are under full or partial lockdown as authorities persist in trying to curb the spread of the highly transmissible variant of Omicron, according to a report by investment bank Nomura and CNN’s own reports on Thursday.
“We must overcome paralysis in the face of risk, war-weariness, leave things to chance and become relaxed,” Xi Xi said on Wednesday, calling on the nation to “strictly implement standardized prevention and control measures.”
In China, local authorities rolling out Covid-19 measures, like those in Shanghai, are commonly accused of mismanagement when things go wrong – a more palatable target than the central government and its policies, in the tightly controlled political environment of the country. And a Covid crisis is not expected to jeopardize Xi’s likely third term.
Xi has ordered local officials to do all they can to stop the virus, while minimizing the “impact on economic and social development” – an order which, against all odds, should push local officials to crack down with severe measures at the sign of a few cases, even in a preventive way, in the wake of the crisis in Shanghai.
“Shanghai officials were trying to thread this needle that they were asked to thread, which is ‘let’s maintain zero-Covid, without disrupting anyone’s life’. They focused a little more on the ‘not disrupting people’s lives’ side. And they failed,” said Trey McArver, partner and co-founder of China policy research group Trivium.
“The lesson that everyone is going to learn is that actually you really have to focus on the zero-Covid part,” he said.
On Tuesday, health authorities said more than 320,000 local cases of Covid-19 had been reported in 31 provinces, including those in Shanghai, since March 1.
Already dozens of cities have some form of lockdown, although the vast majority of those total cases have been found in Shanghai and the northeastern province of Jilin. Supply across the country has become a daunting challenge, with some highways closed and truckers trapped in quarantine or at thousands of highway health checkpoints. Some cities have discouraged their residents from leaving, such as the major southern port of Guangzhou, which requires its 18 million residents to show a negative Covid test if they want to go out.
The situation has prompted action from various ministries in Beijing, with an official from the National Development and Reform Commission pledging on Tuesday to “actively coordinate with local governments” and “use big data” to ensure the delivery of the essential.
These health concerns come with a “hidden” political calculation of the costs of a large-scale epidemic, according to Huang.
“(Beijing) considers the perceived impact on social political and economic stability, given the impact on leadership transition before the Party Congress and given the legitimacy of the regime – there is a lot at stake” , Huang said.
But the risks for the Communist Party of continuing the policy, which has sparked growing frustration and anger in Shanghai and threatens further disruption, are also clear – especially as the country is more than 88% vaccinated and the most cases, authorities say, remain mild.
“The economic downturn is a pretty big concern,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
“The central government always uses the so-called economic performance to boost its legitimacy. So how will they (explain) the poor economic performance? I don’t know. But one thing is for sure, people will suffer.”
With Xi’s name so closely associated with politicians, the leader has tied himself to their success.
“When you’ve so clearly centralized power in the hands of one person, then I think you can plausibly lay all the problems at that person’s feet — so it obviously reflects badly on him,” McArver said.
But as to whether it would jeopardize the leader’s third term, “the answer is no,” he said, pointing to what observers of China’s opaque elite politics largely see as the lack of any real competition for the leadership position.
Meanwhile, it’s possible that even from the depths of the current challenge — if they can find a way to largely contain the outbreaks — the central government could score a political victory, similar to what it did in Wuhan in 2020, according to analysts say.
There has been clear frustration with the government this time around, spilling onto social media this week as users embraced pro-China, tending hashtags in droves to make veiled or sarcastic comments against the government – before being censored.
But there are also ready scapegoats across the country in the form of local government officials, who are under tremendous pressure and can be blamed for failures in implementing zero-Covid policy, deflecting blame from central government policy itself, experts say. Scores of executives have been fired or demoted throughout the pandemic, including recently in Shanghai, with details usually reported by state media.
“The Chinese central government is very, very careful and also very, very smart in turning the anger onto local governments instead of themselves,” Wu said.
And in a political environment where all dissent is suppressed, Xi’s Party narrative will dominate.
However, some say China has painted itself into a corner where it must now maintain its tough policy, after reveling for two years in the success of ‘zero-Covid’, while scaring the virus and generating a broad support for the policy.
Huang puts it this way: “We must never underestimate the government’s ability to redefine its narrative to maintain public support. And we must never underestimate the tolerance of the people, even for policies that harm their interests.
CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.