Why China ended ‘zero covid’ so quickly — and how it didn’t mean to


Up until the last minute before China relaxed three years of severe covid restrictions, officials and state media were hailing the country’s “unswerving” commitment to a strict containment strategy and the “significant advantages of our socialist system.”

That same system then witnessed a chaotic reopening, with the abrupt abandonment of lockdowns, mass testing, quarantines and contact tracing. Sick patients have since overwhelmed hospitals, and funeral homes and crematoriums have been mobbed, while relatives outside China scrambled to send basic medications that were suddenly nowhere to be found.

China’s National Health Commission said that nearly 60,000 people died of covid since the dismantling of the zero-covid policy in early December. (Video: Reuters)

“It came too soon and caused massive infections in a short time,” Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist and adviser to Beijing’s covid response team, told state TV last week, admitting that authorities were caught off guard. It is unclear how many have died; analysts estimate deaths could reach 36,000 a day during the Lunar New Year holiday that begins next week.

China, engulfed in covid chaos, braces for Lunar New Year case spike

The sudden policy reversal in early December and lack of preparation in a country that for years marshaled huge amounts of resources and personnel to enforce covid rules on 1.4 billion people have baffled residents and public health experts.

“There was no plan. No steps. No contingency plans. When Singapore reopened, it was in four stages. We’ve done it in one go,” Wei Jianing, a researcher at the Counselor’s Office, an advisory body of the State Council, said in a speech at an online forum Dec. 24. His comments were later censored on Chinese platforms.

“From hospital beds to medicine, vaccines and medical workers, we are not prepared. For three full years, there was no preparation at all,” he added, accusing Chinese decision-makers of becoming “zombified.”

Facing economic and social pressures, as well as an omicron variant that was already breaching covid defenses, China’s leaders had little choice about relaxing restrictions, but a potent mix of factors, including President Xi Jinping’s highly centralized decision-making, the party’s total mobilization for “zero covid,” and confused messaging, resulted in a rushed and chaotic reopening.

This mismanagement could not only dent public confidence in Xi just as he begins his third term, but also hurt the ruling party’s ability to govern.

“The greatest political cost is the erosion of trust in him and the party,” said Lynette Ong, professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of “Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China.”

“China does not need to use coercive violence against its citizens because people generally believe in the party and its leaders. But if trust is gone and legitimacy lost, everyday policy implementation will become more challenging without the use of force,” she said.

How bad is China’s covid outbreak?

In November, after almost three years of zero covid that paralyzed the economy, authorities moved toward a gradual reopening with a 20-point plan for “improving covid control” aimed at toning down the most extreme measures.

It should have been a good time for the transition. Xi, recently reanointed as leader of the Communist Party and the military at a key party congress, was at the pinnacle of his power.

But local governments were confused. Up until then, upholding zero covid had been their chief political task. Some cities loosened restrictions; others maintained them or tried to do both. As outbreaks of the omicron variant spread in major cities like Beijing and Guangzhou, authorities re-tightened covid measures.

Frustrated by the whiplash return of restrictions, an exhausted public began to protest on street corners, universities and parks across the…

Read More: Why China ended ‘zero covid’ so quickly — and how it didn’t mean to

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