In his 2021 New Year’s address, Xi Jinping boasted of the success of China’s zero-Covid policy. While millions had died in the outside world, China had “put people and their lives first . . . With solidarity and resilience, we wrote the epic of our fight against the pandemic.”
Almost two years later, Xi’s campaign to portray China’s handling of the pandemic as a personal and systemic triumph is collapsing. Mounting demonstrations against his zero-Covid policies represent a massive loss of face for the Chinese leader. They look like the most serious challenge to his leadership since he took power a decade ago.
Some of the protests against China’s unending lockdowns have taken aim at Xi personally. In the city of Chengdu, demonstrators have chanted: “We don’t want a leader for life political system. We don’t want an emperor.”
These chants highlight the most sensitive political issue in modern China — Xi’s efforts to create a personality cult. Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the Communist party has avoided creating a new Mao, a single all-powerful leader, who dominates the political system and the country and who never leaves power.
But Xi is taking China back to the days of quasi-imperial rule. A turning point was reached last month, when the Communist party congress appointed him to an unprecedented third term as the leader of the party. Xi’s predecessor as Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was forcibly removed from the stage in front of the television cameras. The message was clear. Xi’s power is now unassailable and he is set to rule for life.
Like Mao, Xi has justified his power grab by encouraging the creation of a personality cult. “Xi Jinping thought” has been written into the constitution of the Chinese Communist party. The Chinese leader’s supposedly successful handling of Covid-19 has become a crucial part of his myth. A recent paper from China’s State Council lauded Xi’s leadership on Covid, proclaiming that “General Secretary Xi Jinping has taken personal command, planned the response, overseen the general situation and acted decisively.”
It is true that China has recorded far fewer deaths per capita from Covid-19 than the US. But the costs of pursuing a zero-Covid policy are more and more evident. As the economy has stalled, youth unemployment in China has neared 20 per cent.
The social strain of prolonged and repeated lockdowns has also been immense. Two months of severe restrictions in Shanghai earlier this year made headlines all over the world. Some believed this would be a tipping point, forcing Xi to rethink the zero-Covid policy. Instead, at the party congress, Xi promoted the Shanghai party boss responsible for the lockdown, Li Qiang, to the second most senior position in the Communist party. It was a signal that there was no end in sight to the zero-Covid policy.
As part of the official myth-making around Covid-19, the Chinese leadership has contrasted the patience and collective spirit of the Chinese people with the impatience and individualism of Americans. But the patience, even of the Chinese people, is running out.
Pictures of unmasked crowds, from all over the world, watching the World Cup football in Qatar have demonstrated to Chinese people that citizens of other countries have escaped from the trap of endless lockdowns. By contrast, China faces the prospect of a fourth year of draconian restrictions on freedom.
Having claimed credit for China’s handling of the early stages of the pandemic, Xi cannot avoid the blame for the current crisis. Above all, the failure to import more effective foreign vaccines makes it much more perilous for China to relax its lockdowns. That failure is linked to the nationalism of Xi — who initiated a “Made in In China” policy for key technologies in 2015. A leader who claims to have boundless compassion for the Chinese people turns out to be too proud to import the effective vaccines that might save their lives.
The zero-Covid lockdowns are also a reflection of Xi’s headstrong personality and innate authoritarianism. It has not escaped the notice of Chinese protesters that the technologies developed to track people’s movements — in the name of battling Covid — could well outlast the pandemic and become a permanent and sinister method of political and social control.
More broadly, Xi’s failures on Covid-19 are the characteristic failures of strongman rule, which invests too much power and authority in a single leader. Once that strongman makes a disastrous decision — as Vladimir Putin did when he invaded Ukraine — the system is unable to change course because the leader’s judgment cannot be called into question. That same pattern is now playing out in China.
The moment when demonstrators hit the streets is always a moment of maximum peril for a strongman leader. Unfortunately, it seems likely that Xi’s every instinct will be to respond with force and repression. That is how he dealt with the Hong Kong protests of 2019 — and it is how the Communist party crushed the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Repression may well work in China — as it has, so far, in crushing protests in Russia, Iran and Belarus. But the carefully constructed myth of Xi’s wisdom and power cannot survive the collapse of his zero-Covid policies.