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Xi Won’t Yield Over Zero-COVID Pressures

The Chinese Communist Party will crack down rather than risk losing control.

By , the director of Indo-Pacific at Greenmantle, and , a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A health worker takes a swab sample from a woman by the entrance of a residential area under COVID-19 lockdown in the Xuhui district of Shanghai on June 8.
A health worker takes a swab sample from a woman by the entrance of a residential area under COVID-19 lockdown in the Xuhui district of Shanghai on June 8.
A health worker takes a swab sample from a woman by the entrance of a residential area under COVID-19 lockdown in the Xuhui district of Shanghai on June 8. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

In long-suffering Shanghai, victory seems to have arrived. The city reopened on June 1, with jubilant locals in the streets—even as tens of thousands remain in COVID-19 quarantine. Beijing seems ready to declare victory over its own outbreak soon.

But all is not well for Chinese President Xi Jinping. Although the Beijing and Shanghai outbreaks have been controlled for now, the rapidly spreading omicron variant keeps breaking through the wall of China’s “dynamic zero-COVID” policy, as officials describe it. With several months left before the 20th Party Congress, the economy is cratering, thanks in large part to the uncertainty of constant lockdowns. And top officials such as Premier Li Keqiang are signaling skepticism about the zero-COVID policy. Members of the business and public health communities are voicing dissent to foreign journalists. Chinese-language overseas media are churning with rumors that Xi may not seek a third term. Though the details are hazy, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might be facing a major internal rift.

Intraparty controversy over a germane policy issue is often not so much about the policy’s merits as about the distribution of political power. As the Beidaihe meeting, the party leadership’s traditional seaside retreat before the formal meetings where changes are announced, approaches, the competition over COVID-19 policy has intensified. (It’s not clear when the retreat will be, since the dates of key meetings are closely guarded until the last moment, but it usually occurs in August.) It has been argued, for instance, that Li is hoping to use the economic fiasco caused by the zero-COVID policy to increase his say in the selection of his successor, a process Xi wants to dominate, or possibly even to hold on to the position itself.

In long-suffering Shanghai, victory seems to have arrived. The city reopened on June 1, with jubilant locals in the streets—even as tens of thousands remain in COVID-19 quarantine. Beijing seems ready to declare victory over its own outbreak soon.

But all is not well for Chinese President Xi Jinping. Although the Beijing and Shanghai outbreaks have been controlled for now, the rapidly spreading omicron variant keeps breaking through the wall of China’s “dynamic zero-COVID” policy, as officials describe it. With several months left before the 20th Party Congress, the economy is cratering, thanks in large part to the uncertainty of constant lockdowns. And top officials such as Premier Li Keqiang are signaling skepticism about the zero-COVID policy. Members of the business and public health communities are voicing dissent to foreign journalists. Chinese-language overseas media are churning with rumors that Xi may not seek a third term. Though the details are hazy, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might be facing a major internal rift.

Intraparty controversy over a germane policy issue is often not so much about the policy’s merits as about the distribution of political power. As the Beidaihe meeting, the party leadership’s traditional seaside retreat before the formal meetings where changes are announced, approaches, the competition over COVID-19 policy has intensified. (It’s not clear when the retreat will be, since the dates of key meetings are closely guarded until the last moment, but it usually occurs in August.) It has been argued, for instance, that Li is hoping to use the economic fiasco caused by the zero-COVID policy to increase his say in the selection of his successor, a process Xi wants to dominate, or possibly even to hold on to the position itself.

Xi can and will reestablish his authority before the Party Congress and get a smooth transition to a third term. But the CCP’s political history suggests that, to do so, he will have to silence the reform-minded officials, intellectuals, and businesspeople who may be currently challenging his policies. Only a few of them, such as James Liang of the travel booking giant Trip.com Group, have had the courage to do so in public. When this effort to “unify thoughts” (tongyi sixiang) happens, the markets should—and likely will—further take fright.

Xi is politically boxed in. He knows that the zero-COVID policy comes at a very high price. Unfortunately, having tied his own legacy, leadership, and even legitimacy to the policy’s success, he believes he cannot abandon it without admitting failure and running an unacceptable reputational risk. On top of that, there are real risks to ending the policy; a study widely distributed within the party talks of the possibility of 1.5 million deaths, especially among people over the age of 80, for whom vaccination remains weak. So, as we anticipated in late April, he has doubled down.

On May 5, just as leading indicators began to show dramatic declines in investment and consumption nationwide, Xi arranged for the entire Politburo Standing Committee to recommit itself to the zero-COVID policy. The readout of the meeting was unambiguous: The party shall “unswervingly adhere to the general policy of ‘dynamic zero-COVID’ and resolutely struggle against all words and deeds that distort, doubt, and deny our epidemic prevention policies.”

Xi’s hope was that this unambiguous declaration would unify the party. Instead, the tempo of “distortions, doubts, and denials” has increased, albeit in the subtle and plausibly deniable language of China’s officialdom. First, sources affiliated with the once powerful Communist Youth League faction, badly diminished under Xi due to its associations with his predecessor, told the Wall Street Journal that Li has emerged as a voice of reason and counterbalance to Xi. Then, at a conference in May, Xi and Li gave strikingly discordant speeches. Xi heavily emphasized the need to defeat the virus, while Li focused exclusively on the economy and did not mention COVID-19 at all. As one participant told us, Li was making the case for a “starkly different approach.”

Meanwhile, some Chinese public health officials are running great personal risks to speak out against Xi’s handling of the pandemic. In May, two officials from China’s provincial-level health commissions spoke anonymously with the Lancet medical journal. “Any voice advocating for the deviation from the current zero-COVID path will be punished. … No one from the top really listens to expert opinions anymore, and it’s honestly humiliating,” one official said. “This is not cost-effective, and we all know it,” another said.

Chinese political history provides a clue of what might happen next, potentially at the leadership retreat this summer.

In July 1959, as the disastrous consequences of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, a policy of failed industrialization that resulted in mass starvation, were becoming clear, Defense Minister Peng Dehuai wrote a private letter to the Chinese leader urging him to reconsider. Peng first carefully kissed the ring, referring to the Great Leap as Mao’s “great achievement.” But he cautioned that Mao’s mass mobilization had unleashed a “wind of exaggeration” from local officials that would impose “rather large losses” on the economy.

Instead of constructive criticism, Mao saw a threat. The next time the CCP leadership assembled, at the Lushan Conference that year, Mao passed Peng’s letter around and asked each party leader in turn to offer his opinion. When the condemnation was less than unanimous, Mao slammed Peng as a “rightist” and arrested the leading cadres who had supported him, sending the most suspect ones to labor camps.

Like Mao in 1959, Xi’s control over the military and security institutions seems secure, which gives him a big advantage over any potential rival. If any rival wants to undermine him before the Party Congress, Beidaihe will likely represent their last opportunity. Such an effort could theoretically succeed, but Xi would surely absorb Mao’s lesson and strike back hard and early, targeting dissenting voices within the bureaucracy and allies of Li.

Alternatively, Xi might wait until the economic situation stabilizes—which could be several months, at least. The later history of the Great Leap offers an instructive analogy for this, too. After Peng and his sympathizers were silenced, Mao intensified his efforts, resulting in even more economic dislocation and death. This ultimately empowered a group of more pragmatic leaders, such as Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and Peng Zhen, who privately opposed the Great Leap’s excesses, once again putting Mao’s control of the party at risk.

Mao waited until the nadir of the economic crisis had passed and then moved rapidly to reassert control. He accused Liu of trying to set up an “independent kingdom” and Deng of holding meetings without him. This factional squabble culminated in the launch of the Cultural Revolution. If the same pattern holds today, Xi might let Li and other reform-minded leaders drive economic policymaking through the current economic crisis later this year—and then sideline them as soon as the slowing economy finds a floor.

Chinese officials who oppose the zero-COVID policy are gambling that public pressure and economic reality will induce Xi to change his mind. It is understandable that foreign investors and businesses might root for their success. Yet Chinese political history suggests that their approach is likely to backfire. As Xi once put it: “The greater the pressure, the more strong-willed I become.”

Eyck Freymann is the author of One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World and the director of Indo-Pacific at Greenmantle, a macroeconomic advisory firm.

Yanzhong Huang is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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