By Junhua Zhang
President Xi Jinping is pursuing another type of rationalism when it comes to combatting the pandemic. His zero-COVID policy is very much connected with his image. He is thus ready to protect his credibility at the expense of the economy. Unpredictable disruptions related to the global supply chain are unavoidable.
The closure of Shanghai in the spring of this year has seemingly come to an end; yet the reality is that China’s zero-COVID policy is still continuing. Why does the Chinese government stick to this policy? What kind of impact will it have on China’s own economy and the global supply chain? When will there be a change in this policy? In order to answer the above questions, it is necessary to take a serious look at the trajectory of China’s zero-COVID policy.
Another type of rational choice
In judging the CCP’s current zero-COVID policy, the rational choice theory commonly used in social sciences can be applied. The theory asserts that human actions are inherently rational, and that human beings weigh the benefits and harms in order to ultimately come to a decision before acting. The rationality in rational choice is the ability to analyse and compare the benefits and utilities of various options, and then show a preference for the higher utility and benefit, which is used as the basis for action.1
Each government faces four areas of concern when it comes to developing a strategy to combat COVID: citizens’ lives, economic interests, public health response conditions, and citizens’ freedom and dignity. The rational choice is to strike a balance among these four aspects and to rank the preferences. The ideal situation would be one that protects human life without depleting public healthcare resources; one that responds to the pandemic properly without excessively compromising economic interests.
But the situation in China is different from the average country, because another “rational choice” is dominant. Citizens’ freedom and dignity have not been a concern for China’s policymakers. Instead, political loyalty counts for the fourth factor.
The dimensions of the political factor
The political factor started with Xi Jinping’s personal cult. Since coming to power, Xi has always tried his best to present himself as an omniscient and omnipotent leader. The most obvious case is the Wuhan city lockdown in 2020, through which Xi believes that his zero-COVID policy has been proven to be very successful. Xi Jinping declared at the National Commendation Conference on 8 September 2020 that “the fight against COVID has achieved significant strategic results, fully demonstrating the remarkable advantages of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and China’s socialist system”.2 Since then, Xi has tried to emphasise his greatness in combatting the pandemic many times. Accordingly, government officials attributed the achievement to Xi’s skilful “personal command and deployment”, as he ensured the success of implementing the strict zero policy.
After the lockdown in Wuhan, the coronavirus gradually spread to Western countries and the world, which led to billions of confirmed cases and millions of deaths. Chinese officials then depicted the Western approach of coexistence with COVID as capitalist irresponsibility, while China’s zero-COVID strategy represented a socialist one that respects human life. Against such a backdrop, even the Western-made vaccines did not get a good reputation. The Chinese media have been actively reporting on the unsafe vaccines of Western countries, while purposely circumventing the problems such as the lock of transparency of data or the quality of Chinese vaccines. It should be said that the period after the end of the closure of Wuhan until the Winter Olympics earlier this year was a time of complacency for the Chinese Communist Party’s top brass.
Today’s zero-COVID policy is actually all based on the so-called “Wuhan model”. Chinese officials have never undertaken an objective evaluation of the pros and cons of its zero-COVID policy. Instead, the Wuhan model has been regarded as the only remedy for combatting coronavirus. The awareness of different types of corona has been non-existent. The authorities did not inform the public that the Omicron variant is milder, although the infection is more rapid. One of the characteristics of the Omicron infection is that more than half of the people infected are “asymptomatic”. Based on the experience of many countries, those diagnosed asymptomatically can usually be treated at home. Nevertheless, in China, it is taboo to talk about the nature of Omicron or the option of treatment at home.
Also, the situation in Wuhan is very different from that in Shanghai. From the perspective of an ageing society, Shanghai has a much larger component of older people than Wuhan. One-third of Shanghai’s household registration is made up of people over 60 years old.3 From the point of view of the degree of freedom of economic and societal governance, Shanghai’s liberal spirit differs from Wuhan. A city with a large middle class certainly places more emphasis on basic human dignity and freedom. Moreover, there are currently 215,000 expats working in Shanghai, accounting for 23.7 per cent of the country, while Wuhan’s foreign population in 2021 had just reached 10,000.4 Finally, Wuhan’s economic size reached 15,616.1 billion yuan in 2020. Shanghai’s economic output in 2021 was more than three times that of Wuhan.5
In addition, as is well known, the small efficacy of Chinese vaccines has long been clearly confirmed in two comparative studies in Hong Kong in March and other researches.6 Yet the Chinese authorities ignore this merely for the sake of maintaining Xi Jinping’s “East is rising, West is declining” theory.
In short, authoritarianism has created a slackness in China’s leadership that has led to a rigid adherence to the Wuhan model.
Three aspects of the political factor
The political factor which dominantly determines the country’s zero-COVID policy consists of three aspects. One is Xi Jinping’s personal cult, as mentioned above. Unlike his predecessor, Xi likes to be hailed as the supreme leader who always makes “great and right” decisions. This, of course, has something to do with his 20th National Congress this October, which will be an important moment for him as he breaks precedent and enters his third term. Until then, he must preserve a “glorious” image of perfectness. As mentioned above, the zero-COVID policy was designed by Xi himself and supported by the alleged success of the Wuhan model. As a result, higher-ups have been using the implementation of the policy as a single criterion for their loyalty to Xi and the Party.
The second aspect of the political factor is that authoritarianism itself has constructed a bureaucratic class whose performance is determined not by how well they treat citizens, but primarily by how well they obey the will of their superiors. As for the Xi Jinping era, this style has been intensified to the extent that government officials not only actively try to figure out and carry out the will of their superiors, but also double down on carrying out the instructions from above. That is the case in implementing the zero-COVID policy. Local government officials deliberately ignored the economy and the interests of citizens by introducing draconian measures, because excessive pandemic prevention is, at least for the officials, safe regarding their political career.
The third aspect of the political factor manifests itself in the top-down, one-dimensional approach of authoritarian bureaucratic rule. That is, on key issues, local governments have no room to regulate and design their own policies autonomously. It is noticeable that Shanghai vowed at the beginning of the pandemic in March that it would implement a complete lockdown, which was viable because the municipal government was well aware that the situation in Shanghai was different from that of Wuhan. However, the pressure from the central government later left the Shanghai government with no room for manoeuvre on its own.
In short, the political factor is dominated by the cult of the leader. Yet the authoritarian governance style also contributes to its formation.
An economy trapped in political circles
In the first three weeks of April, freight volumes in the Shanghai metropolitan area plummeted 81 per cent year-over-year. Freight volumes in Jiangsu province recorded a 30 per cent decline. Nationwide, freight volumes fell 15 per cent year-over-year in April. In Guangdong province, China’s economic powerhouse, freight volumes plummeted 17 per cent despite the absence of a blockade. In response, investors began to lose confidence in China’s financial markets, with the Shanghai Stock Exchange Index down 15 per cent since the beginning of the year. Shanghai lost 27.7 billion RMB during the month-long blockade just to combat the pandemic. No wonder that Beijing’s GDP for the first time in the history has surpassed that of Shanghai now, after two months of lockdown.7
In response to China’s lockdown, both the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China and the US Chamber of Commerce in China expressed their concerns about the Shanghai closure to Chinese officials in May this year. But apparently these approaches did not work. Liang Wannian, head of the expert group of the National Health Commission’s Leading Group for Epidemic Response and Disposal, emphasised that it is not the zero-COVID policy but COVID itself that is the culprit dragging down the economy, indicating that China is doing the right thing.
Nevertheless, the Chinese Communist Party is not unconcerned about the economy, as Xi Jinping demanded that this year’s GDP growth rate exceed that of the US. The 29 April meeting of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee pointed out that China’s “economic development environment has increased in complexity, severity and uncertainty, and new challenges are facing stable growth, stable employment and stable prices.”8 It is crucial to do a good job in the economy and effectively protect and improve people’s livelihood. However, for reasons that everyone understands, Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy is still more important than the economy. Or rather, the CCP is still convinced that the Wuhan model effectively protects the people from COVID infection, as well as the economy.
What was happening during the lockdown in Shanghai is contrary to the Chinese Communist Party’s own original intentions: the exodus of foreign experts, the outflow of capital, and the loss of foreign investment to the tune of $17.5 billion in March.9 The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China released a report recently saying that 23 per cent of the companies surveyed are considering shifting their existing or planned investments in China to other markets, which is the highest level for the last 10 years.10 While China was suffering from its rigorous zero-COVID policy, neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia have benefited from it. Vietnam’s exports, for example, are on the fast track, with data showing a 14.8 per cent year-over-year increase in March.11
Despite Beijing’s efforts with its stimulus projects, it is conceivable that if the zero-COVID policy continues not only in Shanghai, but also in other cities, GDP will thus be below 4 per cent this year.
In fact, even in China, many experts have already raised objections to the zero-COVID policy. However, all these publications are banned by the authorities. All this is because the zero-COVID policy has been too elevated so high that the CCP, particularly Mr Xi Jinping, has been imprisoned by such a narrative. However, the CCP is also well aware that a course correction must take place, yet only in an incremental way. It is conceivable that the importation of quality vaccines from abroad will no longer be hindered after the 20th Congress.
There is no doubt that the current course will be revised sooner or later, but only if Xi’s image is not tarnished and if his succession to a third term is ensured. Just as Putin would never admit the mistake of starting the war in Ukraine, Xi Jinping would never publicly admit the failure of his current zero-COVID policy.
About the Author
Dr. Junhua Zhang is currently a senior associate of the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) in Brussels. At the same time, he is a guest professor of the PAU-BAYONNE Ecole Universitaire de Management. He has been a senior consultant for Gerson Lehrman Group Councils (since 2007) and expert on China Affairs in the Geopolitical Intelligence Service since 2017.
- Andreou, Chrisoula (2022). Commitment and resoluteness in rational choice, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
- Hua Shen (2020). “Is China’s success against the epidemic an institutional advantage? Scholars: It Costs too Much on Human Rights”, in: https://www.rfa.org/mandarin/yataibaodao/huanjing/bx-10212020141206.html
- Xinhuanet (2020). “Shanghai’s household senior population exceeds 35% of the aging population”, in: http://www.xinhuanet.com/local/2020-05/24/c_1126025478.htm
- Xinhuanet (2022). “Foreigners in Shanghai: China’s pandemic prevention policy effectively serves public welfare”, in: https://www.toutiao.com/article/7086087137451475463/
- Xinhuanet (2021). “Wuhan City’s economic output reaches 156.1610 billion yuan in 2020”, in: http://m.xinhuanet.com/2021-01/29/c_1127041276.htm
- Yu, Bin (2022). “The truth about Chile’s real world research exposed, who became the ’silent majority’”, in: https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/507250552
- See: 1) https://udn.com/news/story/122650/6271483; 2) https://www.chinapress.com.my/20220717/%E5%8C%97%E4%BA%ACgdp%E9%A6%96%E8%B6%85%E4%B8%8A%E6%B5%B7-%E8%B7%83%E7%BB%8F%E6%B5%8E%E7%AC%AC%E4%B8%80%E5%9F%8E%EF%BC%81/
- Xinhua News Agency (2022). “The Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee held a meeting, Xi Jinping presided over the meeting”, in: http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2022-04/29/content_5688016.htm
- Chen, Zhenglu (2020). “The People’s Bank of China’s signal to curb the devaluation of the yuan: stop the exodus of capital”, in: https://udn.com/news/story/7333/6267073
- BBC (2020). https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/chinese-news-61346580
- Qian, Xiaoyan (2020). “Vietnam exports ‘more and more courageous’”, https://m.yicai.com/news/101394271.html